"This is Water": David Foster Wallace on Education, Freedom, and Paying Attention

April 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

One of the ways I’m working to grow professionally is in my ability to model and support effective digital storytelling.   The combination of engaging story-craft and compelling digital media transforms a traditional mode of discourse into something even richer and multi-layered for the audience, multiplying meaning and impact.

When I roll out projects of this kind in the future, I plan to use a video remix of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Commencement Speech, “This is Water.”  On its own, the speech conveys powerful and simple truths about the nature of consciousness and experience, opening out to consider the ways in which education sharpens our ability to pay attention, and thus to transform the way we think about the“boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life.” Ordinarily considered interstitial filler, these humdrum slogs become powerful moments of revelation, and surprisingly apt subjects for the august occasion of the commencement speech.

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.”

This, Wallace submits, is the true power of an education — the sharpening of attention and awareness.  Put another way, education– with storytelling at its core– is the critical equipment that allows a student to make a wise choice about the narratives unfolding in his or her environment, and,  as a matter of considered practice, to configure meaning where others may fail to grasp it.  


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