Commencement speeches are something every graduate is familiar with. Depending on what level you’re graduating from, the speakers could range from your best friend from Kindergarten, to a Politician or Celebrity. Commencement speeches are supposed to give us a taste of real life, while still inspiring us to be the best we can be. It seems rare that you’ll have a speaker who will break things down to you, and be completely and unabashedly honest, but David Foster Wallace does just that in his informal speech to the graduating class of Kenyon College.
Wallace starts with a story about two fish meeting an older fish in passing, who asks them how the water is. Neither of the younger fish question his meaning, until later in the story when one fish turns to the other and asks “’…What the hell is water? ’”(653). I think by starting off with that story, Wallace is setting the tone for the rest of his speech as someone who is going to be honest and truthful about the future that awaits the graduates in the real world. Wallace goes on further to critique what an actual liberal arts education means.
Liberal arts are defined as “college or university studies (as language, philosophy, literature, abstract science) intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop general intellectual capacities (as reason and judgment) as opposed to professional or vocational skills. ” (Merriam-Webster). Wallace however argues that a liberal arts education means being conscious about your thoughts, and having some sense of control over them and the experience you’ll gain from them. That could mean exercising control over what you think, and changing it to benefit more people than just yourself.
I think that as human beings, we are all narcissistic to a point. We’re all convinced that the world revolves completely around us, and sometimes we fail to embrace the fact that the world will continue to turn and people’s lives will continue to go on even after we’re no longer here. Our default setting, as mentioned by Wallace, is that we are the center of the universe. We make choices to benefit ourselves, and not always to benefit the people around us. The idea is that by becoming more aware of our surroundings, and putting forth the effort to change our default settings to better ourselves, the world could probably be a better place.
To make it a better place however, doesn’t mean you need to have a belief in a higher being, it just means you have to have a belief in something. No matter how much you deny the existence of something, or refuse to participate in the worship of something/someone, you unconsciously worship something. Money, fame, your own body, it’s always something. Atheism is usually rejecting the idea of a God, but in reality, you can make anything into a God or higher power if you put enough importance on a specific aspect of your life.
By having the belief system of worshipping even the smallest things, it effectively points out that as an adult, there really isn’t such a thing as Atheism, a point Wallace makes sure to drive home before finishing his speech. Wallace presents a compelling speech to graduates who will sooner rather than later, be getting their first taste of real life on their own. They’ll realize what it truly means to be an adult, and how their youthful ideas may fall by the wayside, and while their belief systems may alter, there will always be something to fall back on.