We Are Humans

Education is the realization of pain. To see life through the lens of a rhetorically informed citizen, is to bring into focus the struggles of the world. David Foster Wallace believed that a liberal arts education gives the ability to see the world beyond the self centered needs held inside an individual. Education is in fact the key to unlocking the “default setting” of living “day in and day out”. In 2005, a year after marrying and three years before his suicide, Wallace gave a commencement speech to the graduating class of Kenyon University. This speech segments a deep look into the philosophical ideas of what Wallace believed leads to a fulfilling and “good life”. The core ideas he presented reflect the struggle he may have been experiencing in himself. Indeed, his awareness of the world and inability to fix it may have led him to suicide. These core ideas included the development of awareness through education giving the ability to reveal emotions and all things good and bad in everyday life. Wallace struggled with the amount of overwhelming pain in the world through empathizing with others in a deep awareness causing him to have an unstable state of well-being. Diving into the beginning of his speech, Wallace shares a short story that includes two guys sitting in a bar in Alaska contemplating the existence of God and worshiping as a whole. In his speech, he initiates a claim that the power a real education sprouts is the ability to decide what to worship and how to see the world. Essentially, rhetoric gives an educated individual a piece of meat to chew on, a slice of ideology to agree with, argue, or ball up into something entirely new. Education allows for the option to explore the idea of empathy without submitting to the lackadaisical actions of sympathy.

In conjunction with what Wallace shares in his speech, Fredrick Douglas held many beliefs in regards to education. Douglas, born a slave, fought to educate himself and advocate for freedoms of those discriminated against. His ideas of education coincide with Wallace in that he pushed for the development of a moral citizen and taught them how to see the world. Where Wallace believed in the power of a private, liberal arts education, Douglas thought the same change in a person’s view of perspectives in everyday life could be achieved by the rhetoric of a state-backed, top down public education.

Wallace believed a liberal arts education freed the mind from being stuck in a post reactive reality. This is a reality of observing action and reactions to a situation after they occur and thinking about how the situation could have been handled in another way. Instead, education gives the ability to interpret situations as they happen. This means being able to see multiple perspectives of a situation while it is unfolding in addition to realizing the related emotional experiences that may occur. Here is where empathy begins to be seen in conjunction with a liberal arts education.

In his speech, Wallace shares an example of taking two perspectives of a situation by using a metaphoric story about checking out at a super market. Throughout his speech, Wallace uses several stories to relate to his audience in order to support his claims of what an education is meant to be used for. As the super market story begins, Wallace puts the audience in the shoes a person living “day in and day out” whom is annoyed with the mundane task of going to the shopping market during rush hour to purchase dinner while stuck on their “default setting”. The story progresses as the person in line gets angry after being held up by a “fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid” (Wallace). Wallace produces the idea that “maybe [the lady is] not usually like this” but she is today because “she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer” (Wallace). He even plants the seed that this lady could be the same lady from the DMV who “helped [their] spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness”. Wallace ends the story with a realization that, “Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down” (Wallace).

Bestowed with the ability to decide how to react to a situation as it occurs, a person with a liberal arts education can progress further by nurturing the skill of true empathy. A liberal arts education exposes students to a plethora of experiences across a multiplex of disciplines in several colleges within a university. This exposure allows students to develop a deeper understanding of the human condition and the emotions related to it. Mark Fagiano shares from Amy Coplan in “Pluralistic Conceptualization of Empathy” that “empathy is ‘a complex imaginative process through which an observer simulates another person’s situated psychological state while maintaining clear self-other differentiation’” (Fagiano 30). Fagiano brings up a key idea from Coplan with the concept of being able to simulate another person’s state and feel the emotions the other is experiencing while still recognizing the differentiating reality of being a bystander. This skill is a byproduct of a liberal arts education.  Wallace sees empathy as the ability to digest the interactions of the world around and relate to those specific situations through immense schooling and begin educated enough to distinguish a multitude of perspectives in a single moment. He shares another metaphoric story in his speech where the conjunction of interactive realization and the condition of empathy are both present. The story discusses “all these vehicles stopped and idling in [his] way” again during rush hour preventing him from getting home sooner after a long day of work. Wallace perpetuates the concept of empathetic thinking by revealing a perceptive that the people inside the SUVs could have been in “horrible auto accidents” leading to the understanding that they may have been “ordered” by “their therapist” to purchase a “heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive” (Wallace). Compounded in what Wallace is sharing in his story, is the thought of feeling the suffering with an individual instead of aside from them, as such is sympathy, yet also the adjacent thought of feeling joy and happiness with the individual.

Cue Fredrick Douglas. Douglas is largely known for his courageous efforts against slavery, but he additionally held the role as an advocate for what has been called “Top-Down Moral Education” which fits parallel to the notions of Wallace. Connecting to Wallace, Douglas conveyed that “whatever may be the cause of [empathy], or however it may have excited, nothing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow-feeling with all the emotions of our own breast: nor are we ever so much shocked as by the appearance of the contrary” (Douglas 55). Douglas agrees with Wallace in regards to the concept of education playing a role in how an interpretation of a situation is influenced. In the model “Top-Down Moral Education”, Douglas sets forth a perception of how he believes public education should be taught. What Douglas articulates is quite similar to what someone receives after experiencing a liberal arts education as described by Wallace. Douglas thought “individuals could be taught to behave in responsible ways by… the rhetoric of statesmen and…through a robust system of…education” (Buccola 128). He felt this could be achieved through the encouragement of state action. “Douglas contended that ‘men are improvable’” (Buccola 128). Wallace during his speech, and through other works, continuously hinted that awareness, secured through an education, allows improvement of an individual similarly to the improvement Douglas thought an education could bring to the morality of mankind. Additionally, Wallace and Douglas both confirm that the awareness and improvement of man through an education lead to a stronger ability to empathize with the world around. Nathan Ballanryne expands on why awareness and empathy are so important in his analysis on Wallace called, “David Foster Wallace on the Good Life”.

“David Foster Wallace thought that the point of writing fiction was to explore what it is to be a human being…his writings suggest a view about what philosophers would call the good life. Wallace’s perspective is subtle and worthy of attention…with some popular positions from moral philosophy and contemporary culture” (Ballanryne 124). Wallace’s writings about the “good life” help to recognize that an educated individual who empathizes with situations around them on a “day in and day out” basis can develop a deeper awareness of themselves and their emotions ultimately allowing them to discover a profound sense of well-being. Ballanryne further divulges that “Wallace regards sincere commitment to a set of values as a necessary condition for a good human life” (Ballanryne 129). These values are established through a “real education” (Wallace).

Beyond empathy, Wallace considered awareness from education as a tool that gives an individual the capacity of deciding what in their life they will give value to. He held “in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship” (Wallace). This prolific power of deciding what to worship factors into the appreciation of constructing a commitment to a set of values chosen by someone for themselves with the goal of developing a good, moralistic human life. Each value that is chosen builds the foundation of that person’s ideology and influences the rhetoric in their life. Douglas suggests that state rhetoric can influence positive moral values, but through the educational branch just as Wallace believed. Education is the core establishment to materializing a thought provoking, aware society that is not overpoweringly consumed in a self-centered reality. Wallace wrote about Dostoevsky’s fiction as evaluating “what it is to be human” and not a “shred kind of self-preserving animal” with an ultimatum that empathy learned through a liberal arts education is the catalyst separating human from animal (Ballanryne 124). It is awareness of emotion that defines a human being. “It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: "This is water." "This is water."” (Wallace).

Education is the realization of pain and happiness and sorrow and love. Education ignites an awareness of the world through rhetorical lenses that see other humans as human and not animalistic, repulsive obstacles in the way of daily “default setting” life. Education is the remote control menu that allows the ability to change settings, change worship, and change values during “day in and day out” society. Wallace recognized this. Wallace understood that the good life is nearly impossible to achieve without awareness and empathy. It is holistic, liberal arts education that opens the mind to the opportunity beyond the self and ripens the realization of profound well-being that inaugurates the good life. Wallace expresses throughout his entire speech to never stop learning from or preparing for the changes around us everyday no matter how small and mundane they may be, because the worst thing that could happen is forgetting that “This is water”.


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