“To doubt everything, or, to believe everything, are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection.” -Henri Poincare, Science and Hypothesis (1901)
We are now at that time of the year when so many students are getting ready to take that next giant step into the “real world”. I’d like to think that most are prepared to meet the challenges. High schools and universities have long used the commencement speech as a way of conveying final tidbits of wisdom before students are thrown into the pool of life and told “SWIM!”
Years ago I was in an English class. We’ll say it was taught by a Professor K. Though it was an English class most of the discussions were on anything but, with topics ranging from quantum physics to the myths and mysteries of religion.
It was by far one of the better educational experiences I have ever had. Much was said in that class about the classes students were forced to take to meet graduation requirements versus the classes students should be required to take to lead a more meaningful existence. If Professor K had his way, when students walked up to the stage to accept their diploma, at the last moment the document would be withheld, at which point the student would be asked a single question: What is the Allegory of the Cave? If answered sufficiently, the student would receive their diploma. The general consensus was that too many students do not do enough real thinking. Zygotes, quadratic equations, and igneous rocks are all and good but in regards to post-academic life and the shaping of core belief systems the average student might do well with a little enlightenment via Plato’s Republic.
I don’t remember if there was a commencement speech at my high school or undergraduate graduation. Vito Acconci gave one of my post-graduate addresses. I appreciate his work but don’t remember what he had to say.
If I had my way I would arrange for a reading at every single graduation ceremony nationwide of This is Water, the 2005 Kenyon College address by David Foster Wallace. This wouldn’t quite have the audacity of one last and final question a la Professor K but the basic ideas put forth by Wallace and Professor K. were the same: the importance of thought in leading a compassionate life.
This is Water is moving and intimate. Like most of Wallace’s work it strikes a perfect balance between matter-of-fact precociousness and thoughtful insight. In hindsight it is also profoundly poignant. It will enlighten you the way an excellent teacher does. Thank you Professor K. It will inspire you the way good art can. And this is good. It is art. Though it was only just released in book form the address had been floating around on the Internet for the past few years and it also appeared in the 2006 edition of The Best American Nonrequired Reading. The title of that collection aside, This is Water should be required reading for all.