On Criticism and Commencement

As tends to happen near the end of every Spring semester, I find myself returning to my favorite commencement speech, offered to Kenyon College’s 2005 graduating class by the late great David Foster Wallace. I refer it to students for whom thoughts of graduation and of what their next professional or academic move(s) will be loom large. I even play it for my classes sometimes.

It’s still useful outside the context of graduation, though, so I thought I’d share it here at Culture on the Edge. Wallace talks about how we make meaning in quotidian contexts and about the utility of some critical self-awareness in the process. Thinking through what we assume to be obvious and what we so often take for granted, he suggests, makes up the hard work of cognitive creativity — the work for which a liberal arts education provides some useful tools.

So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about ‘teaching you how to think’. If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

Give it a listen. Among other things, it will help you take a second look at this afternoon’s grocery run.