Understanding How to Think

“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.” – David Foster Wallace, This is Water

Watching the Pixar movie Soul yesterday, there was a reference to fish in water not knowing what water is. An hour later I was reading Admiral James Stidiris’s book Sailing True North and he also dropped in a reference to the speech, mentioning he reads it at least once a year. So, not one to ignore two disparate neon arrows pointing towards one specific source, I put the book down and re-read Wallace’s commencement speech. And just to be sure of his inflection I then listened to it again this morning (link above). Stidiris is right to read it every year. It should be required reading/listening for every person as part of their education, for if you look around at the highly-polarized America of 2020 it’s striking how on the mark Wallace was.

I tend to absorb things through repetition and diversity, and maybe you do too. So watching the speech was one method of understanding, but reading the transcript at my own pace is where I fully absorbed what Wallace was trying to say. And in re-reading it at the end of 2020, when so much of what he said in 2005 reverberates differently, was striking. Wallace covers the peril of blind certainty, the contrasting importance of critical awareness and the “basic self-centredness” embedded in all of our operating systems. Critical awareness leads to freedom:

“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.”

The really important kind of freedom 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… That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”

And there it is: the real, and really important, freedom of learning how to think for yourself. Of listening to the vile poison coming out of a politician’s mouth or written in upper case Twitter ramblings and taking a step back from it and saying “no, that’s bullshit”. And, importantly, listening to a counter argument by another talking head and seeing the bias in their words too.

Perhaps this is the elitism that the zealots describe independent thinkers as having. I once had a conversation over lunch with a customer in Rochester, New York who was incredulous that I might have a different point of view about Donald Trump. I quickly steered to common ground, pointing out that it would be better if he didn’t tweet quite so much (never debate politics, or anything really, with your customers). I saw right away that there was no helping him understand the underlying issues with Trump. Debating him would have positioned me as a smug liberal (I’m a centrist, thank you).

The thing is, I’m not sure I’m right about Trump, but the body of evidence and his consistent tendency to do just the opposite of what I would have done in just about everything he’s done surely suggests my assessment is correct for me. And that freedom to consider what is known, assess and reach my own conclusion about a matter, independent of what others say and with full awareness of my own biases, well, that I think is what Wallace was trying to get at with this speech about the value of a Liberal Arts education.

Wallace committed suicide three years after delivering this Commencement speech at Kenyan College. He was born in Ithaca, New York and got his undergraduate degree from Amherst College. These are two places I’ve immersed myself in during my tenure on this planet, so I feel a small connection to him. Infinite Jest is the book that got the world to take notice of him. But his Commencement speech might just be his most enduring work.

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