This is Water: A Response to Wallace’s Commencement Address

If you’ve never read David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech to the graduates of Kenyon College, I would highly suggest doing so. It’s a beautiful and raw reminder that we get to choose what we think and believe and feel. Powerful, to say the least.

I was asked to read this speech for my senior seminar class and relate it to literary topoi, which I’ll do, but there’s something in this that reaches so far beyond the scope of this class–as it should. Wallace takes a few ideas–liberal arts education, the genre of the commencement speech, and adult life–and strips them down to the bare components we were never taught to see. (This is what the topoi of literary criticism does–to take the implicitly known and make it explicit and easy-to-follow.) This is a powerful idea because so many of us fall into the erroneous thinking that change is some overwhelming, almost impossible feat of human determination. It’s not. Each moment we can choose to see things in a different light. These are small shifts in perspective, but they are shifts that add up to an overall drastically different worldview.

That is the value of a liberal arts education, suggests Wallace. During the undergraduate years (and beyond), we are taught how to think. On the surface, he admits, this is a cliched statement at best, but underneath it alludes to this idea that perspectives can always be changed–that a new awareness is always possible–through our education. To me, that’s beautiful and hopeful and pure. We all have bad days (Wallace warns the grads that adult life is full of them), but the thought that those days can be limited through determined, focused thinking is a huge comfort.

The anecdote Wallace uses (and the reason for this post’s title) is that of two young fish encountering an older fish. The older fish asks them, “How’s the water today?”

The young ones reply, “What’s water?”

We are so unaware of the world around us that we forget it can be changed. We need to step outside of “our tiny skull-sized kingdoms” and experience the world outside of us–feel the water, acknowledge it, change it. And the best part? We all can.

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