Wallace and Education

I found this recording of the famous post-modern novelist, cultural critic, essayist, and educator David Foster Wallace delivering a commencement speech at Kenyon College. The words are all the more haunting knowing that Wallace hanged himself Sept. 12, 2008 after a lifelong struggle with depression. The main focus of the speech is the “human value” of a liberal arts education. For Wallace, an ideal education provides “awareness” of our world and our way of processing the world.

David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), image courtesy of Salon.com
David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), image courtesy of Salon.com

With this in mind, two passages in particular struck me. The first deals with the potential dangers of the mind. As Wallace says:

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.’

As someone who suffered from depression, Wallace clearly understood the tyranny of a mind mastering reality, the way it warps and weaves impressions into a gloomy, self-destructive haze, leaving one alone in a world of friends.

But equally destructive is the closed-minded comfort that creates destructive prejudices or what Wallace calls our “default setting”: the self-focused way we narrate, judge, and arrange our life. In itself, this is innocuous, but when we start to think our reality is the norm or the “right” way of doing things, a process called “normative hubris,” we can become destructive.

As the blog and book You Are Not So Smart argues, our “rational” or “informed” opinions are often biased rationalizations. Some of these biases may be cultural or biological, but many are self-created, or at the very least, they can be self-controlled.

This, argues Wallace, is the goal of the liberal arts education: the ability to recognize this hubris and ignorance and do our best, if possible, to keep it in check. It grants us the ability to recognize the most basic thing, the way we explain reality.

Wallace is not the only person to say this. It rings with the self-conscious ignorance of Socrates and echoes Albert Camus’ dictum from his notebooks: “An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.” Its view of education also mirrors what astronomer Carl Sagan said in his final interview about science: “Science is more than a body of knowledge: It’s a way of thinking.”

Wallace’s unique addition is the painful awareness he has over his own limitations and the poignant, almost Zen-like awareness that the simplest, most pervasive things are the most hidden. Wallace opens the speech with a didactic story about two young fish swimming. Coming the opposite direction, an older fish swims by them saying, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” The two younger fish keep going, and eventually one of the fish turns to the other and asks, “What the hell is water?” The very fabric of their existence is far from obvious.

This parable returns toward the speech’s conclusion in a pointed restatement of the theme:

[T]he real value of a real education [has] almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

‘This is water.’

‘This is water.’

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime.

As someone who works as a T.A. for a freshman composition class and in a writing center that aids students with the composition process, I’ve come to reach a similar point of view–I hesitate to call it a conclusion. Now on the other side of the desk, where I’m supposed to provide “knowledge” or “guidance” to new students, I painfully recognize the subjectivity of it all, the hubris of trying to “teach” someone how I see the world.

Instead, I just want to make them aware–aware of the world around them, with its conversations and conventions, and how they fit into it. What their own voice has to say. Or what their own voice has misidentified, misunderstood, or overgeneralized. But I often feel torn between the immediate goals of polishing up their arguments, correcting their grammar, or getting them a good grade and this much more idealistic, long-term longing. Moreover, I often struggle with normative hubris or unaware auto pilot in myself.

Most of the time, I’m not the older fish who sees the water. Most of the time, I’m simply the younger one, asking, “What the hell?”

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Some brief thoughts on “bad faith”

A quick post for today. I’ve been working on a longer one, but I wanted to do some edits, and I have to run some errands this morning. Expect it later in the week. I hope the holidays have been good to everyone and that the new year is shaping up as it nears.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Existentialism, researching for a paper I hope to write examining the existential elements in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, especially as they connect to Jean-Paul Sartre’s unique brand of it.

One particular tension that has always struck me, which Sartre stresses, is the limited nature of “facticity” and the perceived limitless horizon of the “transcendent.” Facticity captures the “in-itself” nature of something, and is connected with objects. So a particular table could be wooden in itself, three feet tall, made by Stickley Furniture, etc. These are largely fixed properties and therefore limiting.

Transcendence covers the “for-itself” nature of the subjective: the comprehensive range of possibilities, hopes, plans, dreams, and perceptions individual people have. These do change. Constantly. They push and prod us into action, then shift as the action shapes us.

Sartre always stressed the tension between these two ideas as “bad faith.” Sometimes people try to be objects, limiting their transcendence. Sartre gives the example of the waiter who wants to be known only as a waiter, but he has a whole life beyond this. Other times we try to escape our facticity–like our past actions. These are fixed qualities that affect who we are and how others see us. I am a white male.

To me, this tension is a really interesting thing to puzzle over. How am I limited? How am I limiting myself?

Cheers.

Bits ‘n’ pieces: the odds and ends of the world

For a while now I’ve been wanting to write an essay about end tables, coat Archaeologistpockets, bag bottoms, and storage cabinets. We often forget these clutter-gathering crevices of our individual lives, until we fish through an old coat and pull out receipts, candy bar wrappers, and a dollar or two tangled with some coins. These seemingly random articles, disused and long-forgotten, once played a role. We bought something, earning that receipt. We ate that candy bar and couldn’t find a trash can. We pocketed that loose change.

Such odds and ends reveal our former lives, providing a time stamp for our days and habits, whether they are the books and jewelry on our end tables, the unused casserole dishes in our cabinets, or the grit and at the bottom of our bags. Our past selves leave traces. And just as archaeologists dig through the rubbish of past cities, we can dig through our own lives.

But unlike archaeologists, we don’t normally care about these random bits of rubbish. We crave the big picture–the narrative that collects the pieces, not the pieces themselves. Perhaps a few things transcend this bias, like a stone from our childhood house, a ticket stub from a memorable movie, or that framed first dollar a business might display. We infuse these random pieces of existence with meaning and display them, like a museum of our lives.

But in themselves, they are mere physical objects. That dollar passed trough hundreds of indifferent hands before it fell behind that frame. Its “it-narrative” probably included stints buried in coat pockets or lost in the wrappers and rubbish on the bottom of a bag. Maybe it fell behind a bed. Maybe it went from a lemonade stand to a store clerk to a strip club. That dollar connects us to hundreds of other lives–including our past selves–but its average everydayness camouflages it.

Continue reading “Bits ‘n’ pieces: the odds and ends of the world”

“Polis is This”: Charles Olson

Hey all,

Sorry for the absence, it’s been the final weeks here at school, so I have been grading, tutoring, and working on final papers like crazy. Expect a post this Sunday, but in the meantime here is a link to the first part of a documentary about a poet I wrote on this semester named Charles Olson. The rest of the documentary is online as well.

Olson, considered the foundational figure for the “projective verse” movement and a key figure for New American Poetry, was a well-read and fascinating character. Born Dec. 27, 1910 in Worcester, MA, to a postman, Olson spent most of his life in the small fishing town of Gloucester, MA, where he wrote his most famous work, The Maximus Poems.

He read voraciously, and through his own work as a postman in and around Gloucester, he developed an intimate eye for detail. This latent curiosity and a love of history spurred his studies at Wesleyan and Harvard, where he became a critical expert on Herman Melville, prompting his 1947 book Call me Ishmael.

Besides his poetry and 1950 critical essay “Projective Verse” Olson’s most well-known accomplishment was his time teaching  at and directing Black Mountain College, a small liberal arts school near Asheville, NC, that acted as a gathering point of avant-garde teachers and students from its founding in 1933 until it closed in ’57. Some of its faculty and students included Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, John Cage, Josef Albers, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, William de Kooning, and more.

One of his most original idea is the notion of “polis.” Drawn from the Greek word for city state, “polis” for Olson constituted the ability of a certain local area to connect to and mirror the world. Olson, a historian and observer by trade, studied the records, geography, and people of his local Gloucester, and by doing so, he laced his personal memories and existence into the geography and history. Synthesizing the personal connection and history, he was able to create an overlap, where the personal bled into the historical and geographical. This was polis: seeing the “totality of the system” by “inverting” it, the macrocosm through the microcosm.

Olson, however, was a controversial figure. He was opposed to the capitalism that now directs our everyday way of life, seeing it as a “mu-sick” that flooded out and leveled down polis. And his larger-than-life personality, at 6-foot-seven, was as well known as his womanizing and dismissive attitude toward most women poets. Some also think his writing and presence at Black Mountain and elsewhere assumed the role of a high prophet or Zen master, didactic and needlessly cryptic.

While some of these criticisms may be more accurate than others, one has a hard time doubting Olson’s influence or intelligence. And taking a leaf from his own book, I encourage anyone interested in him to do their own research, this documentary providing an engaging start. Enjoy.

-Brett