"Transcription of the 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address – May 21, 2005"
Written and Delivered by David Foster Wallace
The 2014 reading is the 2005 Kenyon University Commencement address given by the late David Foster Wallace.
Directions on how to focus your reading (through a study and reading guide) are given here but students will also hear from their First-Year Seminar professors who may provide specific directions about how and when to read the piece.
Study and Reading Guide
Before You Read
You are about to read a text that was originally delivered as a speech. More specifically, the title tells us that David Foster Wallace delivered this text as a “commencement address” at Kenyon College.
Active reading for college requires you to do some work before you actually begin reading. To prepare to read this article, please respond, in writing, to the following:
- Was there a commencement address or graduation speech at your high school graduation? What do you remember from it?
- What are some of your expectations about this genre more generally?
- Find out something about Kenyon College. Where is it located? How prestigious is it? Does it have a faith-based affiliation?
- Who is David Foster Wallace? Find out something about him. (A simple Google search will do.) What is his job? What else has he written about? Why might he have been chosen as a speaker?
While You Read
In college, it is important to read with a pen or pencil in your hand so you can mark passages that seem important (even if you can’t quite articulate why they’re important), confusing, or strange, and so that you can write down definitions of words you don’t know as you read. You could also write down reactions to what you read, or a note about what something reminds you of from another context.
First, print a copy of the essay. Your professor likely sent you a link to the essay, or forwarded it as a PDF. After you have printed it, please number the pages. This will make it easier for you to take notes and to participate in a discussion of it during Orientation.
Next, read the list of questions that follows. It is important to read them all before you begin reading the essay so that you know what kind of information to be looking for.
As you read, make notes about the following questions and anything else that you want to.
- After telling the fish “parable” (1), Wallace says, “The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” Do you agree that this is the “point” of the fish story? Why or why not? Can you derive any other meaning from it?
- Wallace develops a thesis – or an argument – in the rest of this speech. His claim, stated at the top of the second page, is that “the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get [in college] isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about” (emphasis added). Then he gives another “didactic little story.” How is the story about the guys in the Alaskan bar a story about “choosing” what we think about?
- What are some elements of your own “basic orientation toward the world” (2)? Do you agree with Wallace that your orientation toward the world is “a matter of personal, intentional choice” (2)? Why or why not?
- How do you respond to Wallace’s assertion that religious dogmatists and unbelievers tend to have the same problem: “blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up” (3)?
- Think about the way Wallace characterizes the people in the grocery store. Do these people seem authentic? Do you connect with the “you” standing in the grocery line or sitting in traffic who is taking it all in? Why or why not?
- What do you think Wallace means by “capital-T Truth” (8)?
After you finish reading
Now that you have finished reading the essay, spend some time reflecting on it. Respond to the following questions, in writing.
- To what extent does this speech align with or diverge from your expectations of the commencement address genre?
- Why do you think Wallace wrote this commencement address? What did you learn from reading it? What might the members of the Kenyon College Class of 2005 taken away from it?
- Toward the end of the essay, Wallace writes, “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” Do you believe you have a choice over what to worship? Why or why not.
- Wallace gives examples of worshiping “some sort of god or spiritual-type thing” but also suggests that people commonly worship money and things, the body, and power. What else do contemporary Americans worship?
- Unlike the members of Wallace’s intended audience, who heard this address at the end of their college careers, you are reading it at the beginningof yours. He says that being educated really amounts to “being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day” (9).
- Is Wallace’s understanding of being educated what you imagined your college education would teach you?
- Wallace implores his audience members, “don’t think I am giving you moral advice” (7) and later says, “none of this stuff is really about morality” (9), and yet he is outlining a purpose for becoming educated that seems to have a very “moral” component. Why do you think Wallace resists having his audience think he is giving “moral” advice?
- You have chosen to attend a college that “draws strength from Judeo-Christian values” (Catawba College Mission Statement). To what extent do you believe that your “higher education” should have a moral component?
- What questions or ideas do you have about this text that you would like to raise during your seminar’s discussion of the article?