David Foster Wallace on Freedom and The Value of a Real Education

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship. — David Foster Wallace

It’s graduation season, and all across America graduates are listening to commencement speeches delivered by special invitees. Generally speaking, the task of a commencement speaker is to inspire graduates to go forth and make a difference in the world. This isn’t an easy task. It’s hard to strike a deep chord with a group of young graduates itching to get moving. “Attention” and “awareness” are in short supply. I suspect most graduates after, say, 10 years out of college probably couldn’t tell you who their commencement speaker was. Sure, if they attended an elite school that attracted a big celebrity maybe they’d remember that person’s name 10 years on. But even if that’s the case, how many would still remember the message? Because the “message” is what the commencement speech is really all about. The reason, I think, these speeches are so unmemorable is because the message simply didn’t resonate below the surface; it didn’t ripple the deep, still waters.

And then there are those rare speeches that, like high art, speak across time and across generations. They send wakes deep below the surface. 13 years ago today, on May 21, 2005, David Foster Wallace delivered what is considered by many one of the greatest commencement speeches recorded. With all the reports of commencement speeches in the news during this time of year, I usually revisit Wallaces’s speech. It’s good for the soul. It always repays me to hear his talk, because, like superior art, it always has something to tell me about myself each time I listen to it.

I invite you to take the 22 minutes involved and listen to this speech. I suspect you’ll be very thankful you did. It may not help you change the world, but it may help you change yourself.

If you prefer:

Youtube audio of speech.

Read the full transcript.

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