David Foster Wallace on the meaning of education

Original link: https://weichen.blog/wallace-on-education/

There is a saying that “Education is what remains after everything you have learned in school has been forgotten”. 1

In addition to using it to comfort yourself, how should it be understood?

One understanding is that the point of education is to teach people how to think. But American writer David Foster Wallace, in his eloquent ” This is Water ” commencement speech, said he disagreed with such clichés.

He believes that the real meaning of education is to teach you a choice – you choose what you think.

We tend to underestimate the power of our own brains. We tacitly assume that facts determine our thoughts, and we are more likely to complain when things don’t go our way. But for the same thing, you can have two different interpretations, and how you explain determines what you do and think later.

He gives an example of a theist talking to an atheist:

There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer . And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.’” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”

Another example is that people often say “You only live once”, so you have to take risks. But this statement can also be read in reverse – you only live once, so you want to avoid being out.

I have the tendency to think that everything should be scientific, and God and science are relative, so people who believe in God lack scientific knowledge. But this is an act of taking for granted, because I don’t know what people who believe in God think.

Part of education is to realize that we don’t know anything, so that we can be less arrogant and more open.

[…] this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less aggressive. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

To put it bluntly, this is a skeptical spirit. It is relatively easy to doubt what others say, but it is difficult to doubt what you think. 2

We all have “default thoughts”—from indoctrination, sociocultural influence, past experience, even genes—but if we are at the mercy of our default thoughts, we are not exercising the freedom to choose what to think.

And choosing what to think means choosing where to focus our attention.

One thing that goes wrong is overthinking—so much in your head that you don’t notice what reality really is. This is often a misunderstanding of education.

Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education–least in my own case–is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

People who think they are well-educated may laugh at those who worship gods, and they will cite many so-called scientific facts-such as Darwin’s theory of evolution, the theory of the big bang-but in fact, we all worship. Everyone is an admirer. The crux of the matter is, who do you choose to worship? In other words, what do you believe in?

In a sense, worshiping money, beauty, power, and even knowledge is much, much more dangerous than gods or spiritual pursuits.

And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Because of worshiping those, we are never satisfied .

Of course, you and I both know these truths, but the key is to always remind yourself to bring this truth into your consciousness and put it in your attention.

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.

You can read the full text or listen to the recording of the speech here .

  1. This sentence was mentioned by Einstein, but he did not propose it . ↩

  2. It is easy to be suspicious of strangers, but it is also difficult to be suspicious of authority. ↩

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