Saturday, January 6, 2007

Core Beliefs: 3

Having just complete an entry yesterday on Dangerous Certainties , I found myself re-reading a text this morning that covers some of the same territory in a rather more stylish manner. The 2006 edition of Best American Nonrequired Reading closes with the commencement speech that David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon University in 2005. In his characteristic offhandedly conversational but conceptually sophisticated way, he poses, early in the essay, a provocative question:
So let's talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement-speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about, quote, "teaching you how to think." If you're like me as a college student, you've never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a little insulted by the claim that you've needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I'm going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out to be not insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we're supposed to get in a place like this isn't really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.
Over a number of pages he offers examples of ways of thinking which are easy to fall into and seem commonsensical, but are really traps, the most common of which is "the matter of arrogance":

I think this is one part of what the liberal arts mantra of "teaching me how to think" is really supposed to mean: to be just a little less arrogant, to have some "critical awareness" about myself and my certainties ... because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will too.

Here's one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of. Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it's so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever.
He goes on to walk us through an average day in The Real World, one in which just about everything goes wrong (and for that large generality he substitutes about two thousand words worth of thoroughly David-Foster-Wallaceian cinemegraphically detailed instances, which are way fun to read but which I'm leaving out here in the hopes of eventually getting to the point:

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who the fuck are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I've worked really hard all day and I'm starved and tired and I can't even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid goddamn people...
But, and here is the payoff, it doesn't have to be this way. Even though this vision of the world is darkly humorous and perhaps painfully familiar to all of us, we don't have to live there.

...most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyes, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line—maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicles department who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. 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 who and what is really important—if you want to operate on your default setting—then you, like me, probably will not consider possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying. But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars—compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: the only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of 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 you worship.
This is pretty much the argument I was trying to make yesterday, and it's one that recurs regularly in my life because, as Wallace points out, we're more or less hard-wired NOT to be reflective, NOT to consider to alternatives, NOT to extend the benefit of the doubt to those who are not cooperating with us or not seeing things our way or not pissing us off in some other thoroughly predictabl and therefore doubly maddening way.

Although I was raised as a Catholic, I have been as a matter of choice for nearly forty years a Buddhist. David Foster Wallace might not recognize it as such, but the argument he is making here is essentially a Buddhist argument. There are many different kinds of Buddhism, but they all subscribe to this simple idea: your Buddha-nature lies within. You are ultimately in charge of your own happiness. The happiness you create, or do not create, arises from within you, or doesn't, and it does so by virtue of the choices you make. The law of karma isn't complicated. It's the law of cause and effect. A Buddhist teacher once told me, "If you want to know why you are where you are today, look at the causes you made yesterday. If you want to know where you will be tomorrow, look at the causes you are making today." That's what I take to be the central point that David Foster Wallace makes to his audience: it's your life. Being a good thinker involves considering the alternatives, and then making the choices that will define what sort of person you turn out to be.

To me, this is what is at the core of my sense of what I am trying to do as a teacher. The subject matter that we study together in class, the books we read, the structural and mechanical issues of writing or grammar, the historical principles and political ideals, the formulas and the rubrics: yes, they all matter, they all have value, and I try to teach them as best I can. But that's not my primary goal as an educator. My goal as an educator is to help students learn to be well-adjusted in the sense that David Foster Wallace uses that term in this essay: aware of the choices they have, attentive to the implications of those choices, considerate of and compassionate towards those around them. It's a full time job, for my students, and for me.

1 comment:

Graham Wegner said...

Bruce, thank you very much for this post and the other related one, Dangerous Certainties. I had an interesting comment exchange on another blog recently about this concept of absolute truth where I proposed the idea that absolute truth was totally dependent on your own worldview. And because there are a multitude of possible worldviews, then that would make the concept of "absolute truth" an impossibility. Well, that's the amateur philosopher in me coming out! So dangerous beliefs are ones that don't allow for any change, any alternative, any need for further thought. This is important territory to cover as the digital flood of conflicting and multiple view-pointed information continues unabated - we need to ensure that the students we teach can think for themselves and evaluate information against their own worldview, whilst being aware and deliberately conscious of others' worldviews.