In his commencement speech to the Kenyon College class of 2005, David Foster Wallace defines the true purpose of a liberal arts education. He argues that the overall purpose of higher education is having the ability to mindfully choose how to perceive others and to appropriately think about meaning. Wallace outlines his arguments through detailed anecdotes of the average day to day routine college graduates will soon experience.
First, Wallace explains that graduates should consciously decide how to perceive others rather than just make an opinion on what he calls the “default setting”. In his speech, Wallace addresses how adults naturally put themselves at the center of any vexing situation. Whether stuck in a traffic jam or in the midst of grocery store chaos, adults typically do not assess how the situation affects other people. He states, “…my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me…and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way”. No one knows the hardships of strangers. Therefore, Wallace encourages the Kenyon College graduates to go out in the world and deal with such infuriating situations with a more open mind.
Also, the speaker urges new adults to be more considerate of other’s opinions. In other words, having conflicting views does not always mean one person or the other has the wrong opinion. He explains, “…the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience”. Therefore, Wallace suggests that people think thoroughly about the actual meaning of such situations, rather than base new opinions on what they already believe to be true.
Throughout my summer, I spent most of my days working at a hotel pool dealing with a variety of infuriated, impatient, and overall just unpleasant guests. All day, I constantly dealt with a ranging mixture of people wanting to complain about anything such as: “Why can’t I bring my drink in? I just bought it,” “Why are there so many kids here?” “You’re a b**** and your rules are stupid,” etcetera. By the end of my shifts, I would always be in the worst of moods. However, these guests could have applied Wallace’s advice and perceived me differently. Instead of making the situation about themselves, they could have understood that the rules were only for me to enforce.
In conclusion, a real college education is not defined by any amount of knowledge. However, having an education is only useful if used appropriately in real life situations.