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David Foster Wallace On What It Means To Think

by Terry Heick

In the well-known commencement speech David Foster Wallace delivered to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College, Wallace touched on the topic of thinking. In fact, in just a couple of sentences he touched on several key ideas of thinking, from metacognition, self-monitoring, self-direction, focus, constructivism, transfer, experiential learning, and more.

And because Wallace was a genius but (mostly) free of the fishbowl professional educators can sometimes get stuck it, it also ends up being a pretty good example of a jargon-free definition of what ‘thinking’ is. Put another way, this is how an intelligent person thinks of thinking when he doesn’t have to contextualize it in a million different edu-focused circumstances.

“Probably the most dangerous thing about college education, at least in my own case, is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract arguments inside my head instead of simply paying attention to what’s going on right in front of me. Paying attention to what’s going on inside me.

As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head. Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliche about “teaching you how to think” is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: “Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.

Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliche about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”…and I submit that this is what the real, no-bull- 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.”

David Foster Wallace On What It Means To Think