The Meaning of Education

What is the purpose of education? In his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace presents this question. From an early age and through my eleven years of going to school, I’ve always accepted that education is a necessary stepping stone to success in life, to learn new facts and new information. Work hard, study hard,get good grades, go to college-encouraged by parents and teachers, that is the basic outline for many youth to follow.  However, in his speech, Wallace explores a different definition of  the purpose of education, that an “education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about quote teaching you how to think.” He delves a little deeper into this definition and concludes that education not only teaches how to think, it also teaches us that we have a choice of what to think.  At the beginning of the speech, Wallace sets a cynical tone by including and almost mocking clichés and society standards; however, as the speech progresses, Wallace portrays himself as an insightful thinker, presenting thought-provoking ideas.

Wallace admits that sometimes he tends “to be automatically sure of everything” and believe “that [he] is the complete center of the universe.” While many would rather not admit to this kind of thinking or even consciously think this way, all humans are guilty of it, including myself. As the speaker points out, we experience every occurrence from our individual point of view, and we are always the center of every experience because of this. He includes a lesson about everyday choices we have through an easily relatable short story about taking an agonizingly long trip to the supermarket and dealing with hoards of annoying people after an exhausting day. He states that he could fall into his natural way of thinking and criticize and make assumptions of everyone else, or he could remember the most important lesson of education-simple awareness and the freedom to choose how and what to think. Through this example, he shows the great impact simple awareness can have. By viewing situations from different points of view, we can transition from unconsciously making rash and unjust assumptions about others to consciously thinking from different points of views and forcing ourselves to consider that that someone else who we are making assumptions about might have more difficult and more painful lives than we do.

Introducing this idea of simple awareness, Wallace presents a type of challenge to the audience to try to become more aware of choices and to think of others before automatically falling into a natural default setting of self-centered thought. Taking a look around the world, some people apply their education to help create successful professions and monetary gain for themselves. But through his speech, Wallace reveals that education is not just for this type of success; education is about realizing simple awareness.  Applying the main lesson of education and actively choosing to be more aware and realizing we have choices on how to think will help us view life differently, from a less self-absorbed, more aware standpoint that can lead to a more successful, selfless life. Sometimes I unconsciously think I am the center of the universe, but now, inspired by this speech, I have to make an effort to consciously think about situations from different points of view before making any assumptions.

Wallace addressed this speech to liberal arts graduates, but in reality, the message of this speech is universal. People with all types of backgrounds can benefit from his message about the power of simple awareness. By choosing to apply this idea of simple awareness to our lives, we can set an example for others to follow. The purpose of education is genuine, one that can benefit the world as a whole. 

Here is the link to his speech:


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