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Commenting on commencement speeches

August 11, 2010

David Foster Wallace gave the commencement speech at Kenyon in 2005. A recent high school valedictorian's controversial remarks reminded me of that speech.

In a story out of New York state, a valedictorian decided to take a stand against the very system that enabled her success. Coxsackie-Athens High School graduate Erica Goldson used her opportunity on the pulpit to speak about an intermediate-level education system that focuses more on creating worker drones than on nurturing the learner inside students.

Goldson, however, seems to be reflecting more on her own unfulfilling educational experience than on that of others and, in the process, seems to have inadvertently paid homage to David Foster Wallace’s masterful “This is Water” 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon.

Wallace’s speech emphasizes that adulthood is too difficult to go through life miserable, and that it is vital to give others the benefit of the doubt and choose to view them not through the misery-tinted glasses that we all experience several times a day, but instead with optimism.

At one point in his 24-minute speech, Wallace, who was notorious for wearing bandanas during live readings because he would get extremely nervous and start sweating profusely, said:

The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Goldson admits that while other kids pursued their own versions of education, she strived harder and harder for the sterilized version offered by her high school, going so far as doing extra credit when she didn’t need to instead of doing what she actually wanted to do with her time. She would have been just fine if she’d taken a little more time for herself and stopped to smell the proverbial roses a little bit. That would, however, have put her spot as valedictorian in jeopardy, and in modern society, we all too often reward and even demand overachievement in place of fulfillment.

Goldson’s speech is actually kind of tragic, as it seems to reflect a panicked sense that she is beginning to realize she may have wasted her high school years. Wallace’s speech, on the other hand, seems a little more relaxed, as he is telling a large group of recent college graduates that time is theirs to waste, if that’s how they choose to approach it.

Ultimately, education isn’t in the classroom and life isn’t lived in the office. In both instances, the message is pretty clearly “it is what you make of it.” So make the most.

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