You’re Swimming In It

29 Apr

As you know, we’re out to answer questions of employment and the value of a liberal arts degree. For all the thinking we do on the subject, sometimes it helps to bring in the big guns to help us with these questions. Here’s David Foster Wallace with some prime lines pulled from the “This Is Water” speech he gave at the Kenyon 2005 commencement:

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration.

…And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving… The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

Here’s the condensed version of this speech. It’s good, read the whole thing to understand the title of this post and the title of his speech.

I posit that liberal arts students are good at giving a damn, but I’m not so sure many of us won’t fall into the trap of “comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life” in which we are “dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting.” What do you think? Comments appreciated.

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4 Responses to “You’re Swimming In It”

  1. Casey April 30, 2010 at 5:16 am #

    Wow. I read the condensed speech, was ready to take it to heart, and then stopped dead in my thought tracks when I saw the line under the headline that Foster killed himself a few years after giving the speech.

    Talk about a change of heart.

    I agree with you, Ryan, that you nor I can’t be “sure” about whether or not “The” liberal arts grad will not become stuck in the rut. The fact that the person who gave such an elegant warning not to get stuck like that — the fact that this same person committed suicide speaks volumes about the basic factor: what we choose. Not just choosing to accept a job or not, or choosing to kill yourself or not, but choosing how you’ll make each day something besides a blissful swim through the water.

    College doesn’t eliminate that choice, but it definitely makes it easier more often than not. So I guess the question becomes, WHAT is it going to be that daily motivates you in the work world to make it something else than just “the work world”? I’d imagine that in the perfect world, it would be your job. But when/if it’s not, then what…?

    Glad I’ve got an extra year at Middlebury to figure it out!

  2. Jennifer Porter, NavigatingWork May 3, 2010 at 6:10 am #

    I understand the questions and frustration, AND continue to believe that a liberal arts education teaches so many critical skills. Yes, finding that first job is hard. And yes, knowing what that first job should be can be really tough. But the foundation you have all built is really solid and will serve you well over time in your careers. I’m an ’88 liberal arts grad (Bates) and have used what I’ve learned to do a lot of interesting, fun, exciting, and yes even lucrative things. I’ve chosen to give back through my volunteer work, not my paid work.

    My advice? Talk to folks with your degree who have been out 5-10 years. They are likely to tell you a very different story than the one you are experiencing right now.

  3. just_uraverage May 3, 2010 at 5:27 pm #

    I really believe that line between making money and doing good is starting to blur, in terms of the advent of corporate social responsibility and social entrepreneurship. I know I’m getting ahead of myself, but I really believe we can have the “comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life” and do good – either way we can’t be starving liberal artists.

  4. PHILOSOPHERKIM May 5, 2010 at 3:37 am #

    I can emphatize with you Sarah. I graduated in college with a degree in philosophy. I was also jobless for a year then because there was not much big market for that field. When I checked newspaper ads, only jobs in accounting,teaching,engineering,math and sciences were abundant. Liberal Arts clout was not profitable.Until I was advised by a superior to take up Masteral units so I could teach in college. I did the right choice. Because eventually midway my masters, I got several job offers in several universties and colleges.Why not enroll yourself in a post graduate degree to add up on your skills? If it worked for me, it could do wonders for you too.

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