David Foster Wallace teaches us to value education — and tolerate traffic

Written by

Katie Gray

**UPDATE: The video originally posted to go along with this post has been deleted by the film’s creator. We’ve replaced it with audio and an image of Wallace’s speech at Kenyon College. Our apologies for any confusion!

Eight years ago David Foster Wallace spoke to the graduating class of Kenyon College about the value of a liberal arts education. The speech continues to resonate with adults of all ages today. We recently came across this video that puts Wallace’s words to images, visualized text, actors and scenes in a very effective and memorable way. For those who aren’t at the graduation ceremony where a powerful speech is given, visual renderings like this one engage our senses in a way that makes the ideas memorable and sharable.

Part of what makes the speech remarkable is that Wallace pokes fun at graduation speech clichés but then explicates their value to prove the overall point of his speech. With his typical Wallace-tongue-in-cheek attitude, he opens with one “didactic little parable-ish” story, as he calls it, where a goldfish reveals that he is clueless about the water he’s swimming around in. He gives disclaimers several times in the speech that he is not moralizing or attempting to seem wiser than his audience. Rather, he means to illuminate the value of simple, clichéd truths, because, he says, “in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.” Thus Wallace embraces the cliches’ banality and demonstrates that choosing how to see everyday events, however annoying or challenging, determines how well we can empathize with other human beings.

One of the most entertaining parts of the speech is when he’s describing a typical evening of grocery shopping after a long workday and the hundreds of hassles that can make someone cantankerous. He gives an alternative way to see people and situations that annoy us:

There are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that…the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way. Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

His point isn’t that these alternative interpretations are necessarily true, but they are just as possible as the negative view, and that if we want to change our “default settings” and become better at living life aware of and connected to others, we can choose to think differently.

We here at Duarte love this speech because Wallace spoke humbly and at the audience’s level. He used the elephant in the room at every graduate speech – that the speaker will say what’s always been said at such occasions – to buttress his new and interesting arguments. And he alternated between incredible humor and emotional depth to carry the audience’s attention. We’ll never get tired of reading it, listening to it, and watching this reenactment of it. Seeing artists use media to articulate wisdom like this gives us hope that Wallace’s voice and ideas will live on even though he’s no longer here to share them with us.

We hope you’ll share this with the graduates in your life, to help start their journey into the water of the working world.

Link to Video: http://vimeo.com/65576562

Transcript: http://web.archive.org/web/20080213082423/http://www.marginalia.org/dfw_kenyon_commencement.html