This is Water

I picked up a copy of David Foster Wallace's address to the 2005 graduates of Kenyon College (This is Water, Little Brown, $14.99). Its publication is a bit of a gimmick. Wallace just died a year ago and they've stretched out his brief remarks to 137 pages by printing only a sentence or two on each page.

The title of the book comes from a parable he told during his address. Two young fish are swimming upstream and an older fish is swimming downstream. The older fish asks the youngsters "How's the water?" They don't answer, but after a bit one young fish says to his companion, "What's water?"

Wallace was quick to say he was not speaking to the graduates as an older, wiser fish. He was not giving them the benefit of his hard-won experience. Rather, he suggested that a good liberal arts education ought to prepare you for the life to follow, a life that will be taken up with a lot of daily choices. He writes,

In the 20 years since my own graduation, I have come to understand... that the liberal arts cliche about "teaching you how to think" was actually shorthand for a very deep important truth. "Learning how to think" really means learning how to exercise some control over what and how you think...
Wallace suggests that most graduates have yet to fully comprehend the sheer banality of day-to-day existence. Indeed, adults don't spend a lot time discussing the soul-numbing aspects of life. I certainly thought as a kid that being a grown up was going to be a lot more interesting than it's turned out to be. . So much of life is made up of things you just have to do. It's hard to stay awake to the fact that your own little life isn't the only one in the universe.

Maybe you are just trying to get home after a long day. You are tired, you are hungry and maybe there's no food in the refrigerator. So you drive to the store and on the way some guy cuts you off in traffic. And once you are there you have to stand behind a tiresome woman talking on a cellphone. But seeing the guy as a jerk or the woman as irksome is a choice, although one most of us make unconsciously. Our default setting is to ascribe our own lapses to external or environmental factors (I'm tired, I had an awful day, my boss is an idiot) while ascribing the lapses of others to some innate fault in their nature.

In psychology this known as an "attribution error." We see a behavior we don't like and attribute it to a person's essential character. We don't start with the assumption that the guy who cut us off may be rushing his sick child to the hospital or the woman who's yakking on a cellphone is checking in with her lonely shut-in father. Odds are neither of these possibilities is true, but they could be and that's the point. The choice to rule them out is no less a choice for their improbability. Wallace argues that a good liberal arts education ought to make it really clear to us that how we construct meaning is a choice. He writes, "if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed."

That's what a liberal arts education ought to be. It's not the content, the degree, the uptick in prestige or wages. It's just making you more keenly aware that you get to decide how the meaning of your life will be constructed. You get to decide what water is, what the poem means. Or I might have put it this way: we are all English majors (whether we know it or not).

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