what has meaning

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 — Commencement Speech at Kenyon College

I’ve had a hard time being a fan of David Foster Wallace. I mean, I’m supposed to, right? He’s the intellectual’s intellectual. But I have a hard time with his writing, much in the same way I have trouble with theorists in my field. They go on and on and on, never quite reaching their point. They talk in circles about their ideas, and we are to bow down before the alter of this philosophy. Why? Well, because–these are brilliant philosophers (dead white men, most of them).

I can’t. I keep trying to believe that what I read is important, that maybe if I understood it more it would make more sense. It doesn’t. Not only do I not find so much of the theory incomprehensible, but I also find it steeped in a belief system that I don’t hold, don’t follow, and won’t be converted to.

Perhaps this is the real meaning of my college education. It’s to give me the voice to say I don’t like this person’s theories, or that I don’t believe in what this person has to say, and to stick to my guns.

It’s hard sometimes, especially when it seems that everyone around you worships this philosopher or that, and you haven’t bought in. Or maybe, just maybe, I trust my own instincts more than I do people who write to an audience that didn’t include me in the first place.


  1. Erik Hare

    If you have a point to make, and can make it with great clarity, I will be happy to quote you ahead of people who are presumed to be intelligent but waste it by reffing back on themselves constantly.

    “I trust my own instincts more than I do people who write to an audience that didn’t include me in the first place.” is a line far more insightful than the quote you opened with. It’s good. Thanks!

  2. ashley

    i think DFW had a difficult time following his own advice, as he’s not around anymore.

    “an audience that didn’t include me in the first place.” Toni Morrison is not my favorite author, but i believe it was she who said something along with “you write the things you want to read.” — the implication that the things she wanted to read had not been there.

    i talk about the “dead white men” — and call them that — in my lit classes. i explain why i don’t like teaching them, and avoid it as much as possible.

    i truly never expected to see a lit class’s (and at the place i’m teaching, no less) eyes literally light up and get into urban fairytale stuff discussing China Mieville and King Rat. they love it, for the most part, which consistently amazes me — but i guess it shouldn’t, because i do, too.

    i think the kind of thing you’re saying here is exactly what makes you as good a teacher and researcher as you are. you refuse to color in everyone else’s lines, just because it’s what they think should happen.

    you’re creating your own lines with what you’re doing, and in the end, i think that’s what true intellectuals do.

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