Is Education Alone Enough? A reflection on David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon University

David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon University compels us to reevaluate the significance of the Liberal Arts education model. He encourages us to see it as an essential element that has the power to make us into empathetic, global citizens. This is meaningful to me because by addressing students at Kenyon University he also addresses me; a Liberal Arts student who will graduate in nine months. Thus, I am automatically challenged to examine my education and realize that it goes beyond simply fulfilling my desire to earn a living. I am confronted by the possibility that I too, am learning how to readjust my “default settings” by expanding my perspective.

Wallace’s worldview is admirable. It is evident that he cares about how people treat people, and most human beings would agree that this is something important to think about. This is because most people would agree with humanist ideals. Humanism espouses that material struggles and unenlightened practices limit human potential; and that education, caring and relief efforts are the solution to this common problem.  Wallace reiterates this by saying, “Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.” His solution “involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

Though I find his worldview inspiring, it is not one that I can fully take on in its entirety. I agree that one should generally rewire themselves to empathize more with other individuals. For example, the checkout lady “who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.” However, I disagree that an education, even if it is a Liberal Arts education, is the solution to our conceited “default settings”. This is because if one uses only a Liberal Arts education to try to be less self-centered moral boundaries become blurred. The way I see it, we live in a broken world which causes all human beings (Liberal Art educated or not) to carry selfish “default settings”. The only solution is downloading a Christian worldview and discovering a billion ways of being “well adjusted” and having the ability to think beyond oneself. This ought to set the ground work for morality to be established. Though Wallace’s speech is admirable, I think it is impossible for all Liberal Arts students to be selfless. This is because without morality what is good and bad? How does one decide this? Who sets the standard and how do we ensure that the definition of morality does not eventually change to fit our self centered desires? In this case, the Liberal Art education system can help us to be better people. However, on its own, it cannot make us live up to our greatest potential.

I image that, Wallace might respond to me by saying that I am one of those, “ religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations.” That is one way of seeing it. Or perhaps, he might say, that is not the point because a Liberal Arts education does not focus on good and bad. Rather, why I think the way I do and how other’s can empathize.  Either way,  I am glad that Wallace reminded me to focus less on myself, appreciate the privilege that I have. This way I can be a better person.


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