The umbrella topic to start the year in my classes has been “What Does it Mean to be Educated?” but after re-reading and playing the audio to my honors seminar, I’m wondering now if the entire theme and the subsequent class periods spent discussing and writing about it wasn’t subconsciously chosen so that I could spend more time with David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech from Kenyon College.
Posthumously published as This is Water, the speech is a marvel. And not a little unsettling, due to the onslaught of suicide references within it. In it, Wallace urges us to live more aware lives, believing that the essence of being educated lies not in having information, but in being able to choose what information, and what emotions, you’ll give your time to. He talks about the challenges of being alive and enjoying life in a world as fractured and busy as ours. As usual, it sounds trite when I talk about the same idea, but in Wallace’s hands, cliches become nuanced and remarkably interesting things. They become birds. It’s especially powerful to listen to Wallace give the speech, which can be done here:
I won’t re-hash the sadness of Wallace’s suicide and the giant crater it left in American letters. Suffice to say, it’s massive. But I will take a small stand here and say that, though I’ve read quite a bit of Wallace’s fiction, it’s his non-fiction that I go back to, that I would choose if pressed to grab only a handful of books from my shelf while the house burnt around me.