David Foster Wallace brings a completely different approach to commencement speeches in his “Kenyon Commencement Speech.” He strays away from the typical commencement speech topics on “extraordinary wealth,” “comfort,” or “personal freedom” (208). Instead Wallace emphasizes the real value of a liberal arts education, which is learning “how to think” (199). When Wallace mentions “how to think” he is taking a different stance to the idea of education. He doesn’t feel education should revolve around the capacity to think, but rather “what to think about”(199).
He is trying to influence his audience to think on a completely different level. He wants people not to see a glass half empty or half full but both. Wallace asks of his audience to think in more ways than one. These other levels of thinking go so much further than wealth, freedom, or comfort. Although these things are nice, they can simply be given to people. For instance, there are many wealthy, free, and comfortable citizens in countries like the United States where some people never think on the level they could. A true education is one that creates a level of thinking and understanding apart from oneself.
Wallace emphasizes how people should choose to be conscientious of others, rather than oneself. He wants the audience, who is about to go out into the world and be the change, to stop and think, not of wealth or power, but rather of others. A number of people go though life and choose only to think selfishly of themselves. In the end, what good does this do? There is a default setting that exists within every human’s mind.
Wallace chooses to address the unspoken parts of life including “boredom, routine, and petty frustration” in order to point out the default settings that occur within the mind (203). These less positive attitudes only exist within the mind, which can be altered. People have the power to control what they choose to think about. People can consciously choose to look at situations from other points of view that stray away from this default setting. In Wallace’s commencement speech, his goal is to influence people to not comfortably go through “life dead” or unconscious to the many marvelous people and things that surround them because those are the things that truly stretch a human being’s worth and meaning in life (203)