Pencils, Backpacks, and Perspective: This is Water

It was recently brought to my attention that I should watch a particular video on YouTube. Now, this is something I’m told often, but this particular video happened to be an illustration of a condensed version of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005. In the video, titled This is Water, Wallace points out the failure of education to instill in its students a larger awareness of the world around them. It may be addressed to graduating college seniors, but I think the main ideas are relevant for all levels of education.

The most important thing I think I took out of this is that despite my many years of schooling and continuing education, I have never actually been prepared to go out into the world. I was taught to think of grades above all else – and thus myself before all else. To memorize dates, formulas, events, rules, and to promptly forget them after being tested on them. I was taught that my intrinsic worth as a person was based solely on the little letters printed on my report card. Personally, that freaked me out and made me a bit of a neurotic student, but luckily – and I say luckily with the utmost sincerity – I retained my curiosity and passion for learning.

A lot of students that I talk to don’t really see the point in anything anymore. They say that they have sat through years of stress and boredom to attain a life which only promises more stress and boredom. And I think this is really the biggest struggle in education today. How do we reconcile standards and standardized testing with producing intellectually curious students? How do we take the focus away from tests and grades and move it toward building open, full, and aware young minds?

Teaching awareness is – well, at least seems to me – like one of those large, looming tasks that looks vaguely insurmountable. But isn’t knowledge awareness? When children are taught, say, earth science, isn’t it to give them and understanding of the world around them, and to make them aware of it? The core concept is there! It’s just the methodology that gets in the way sometimes. Which is why I wholeheartedly believe in allowing a child to enjoy their education. To laugh and smile and be touched the entire way through it so that the come out the other side as whole, educated, and aware young people. What is most important, in my mind, is that teachers, administrators, bureaucrats, anyone who has anything to do with education, remember that they are educating individuals. Not numbers or letter grades – young individuals who will eventually go on to become part of an interdependent society. And from there we can only build up.