This is water: focusing on what matters


David Foster Wallace. photo by Claudia Sherman

It’s unsatisfying to be told that college students are learning “how to think.”

You don’t need to go to college for that. While the lack of teaching critical thinking in the curriculum is problematic, that’s not what the primary outcome of college should be.

You go to college not to learn to think, but instead to discover what to think about, said David Foster Wallace.

David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005, including this 687-karat sized gem of wisdom, was reprinted in the Best Nonrequired Reading series. Since then, it’s been abridged and put into a cute book that you can give to a graduating student, if you don’t want to gift Dr. Seuss’s Oh the places you’ll go. I think it’s better to hear his talk than to read it. (He’s such a good writer, that you can tell that he wrote his address to be heard and not to be read.)

We need to think about the right things. For the past several years, when I get annoyed with minutia, I’ve told myself to focus on what matters. I don’t leave notes for myself, though that’s a great idea. I non-verbally tell myself, “This is water.” If you haven’t yet taken the 23 minutes out of your life to listen to this, I heartily recommend it.

When you’re done, if you’re still excited about the E.O. Wilson v, Math kerfuffle, then you could listen to David Foster Wallace with this perspective: how do you think about ecology? Are you thinking about their organisms and their interactions with the environment, or thinking about how math describes the interactions of organisms with the environment? Both are great. I lean towards the former, but to each their own.

11 thoughts on “This is water: focusing on what matters

  1. Terrific. I have read Wallace’s book more than once. Worth it? Indeed.

    (thanks also for the link to my post. I’m still working on ‘slowing down’ – lunch time walks with binoculars are becoming a regular part of my work day)

    • I agree, mostly. I think Jim Hunt delineates a difference in a comment on the post about my favorite paper:

      If you’re working on thinking about the functional (a math function, that is) relationship between different parameters, then you’ll get better at identifying and understanding and testing for these kinds of things. There are also other kinds of relationships that are not, at least in their first development, described with equations and matrices.

      Here’s an idea that I think I want to flesh out more later, which I think is at the root of this debate: do we use math to identify our questions, or do we use math to test our questions? Wilson is on the latter end, while theoreticians conceive questions as equations. I guess.

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