We often tend to think that commencement speeches ought to be exciting and motivational. I must admit that is what I was expecting when I began reading David Foster Wallace's speech delivered at the commencement ceremony of the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon University. The greatness of this speech in my opinion is not its cheering moments, but it's "aha" moments. David Foster Wallace brings his audience through well-reasoned, well-illustrated and stepwise arguments, to seemingly obvious conclusions. These moments in his speech are what I call the "aha" moments. I plan on discussing these "aha" moments in this write-up. They are scattered throughout the commencement speech. I believe that this speech motivates not by creating cheering moments, but by the use of "aha" moments.
Wallace's commencement speech is well illustrated. His use of stories and examples makes some of the seemingly abstract part of his speech more meaningful. He introduces the entire speech with a story about two young fish and an older fish (David Foster Wallace 198). The story ends with the younger fish asking a mind boggling question about what should be an obvious reality, water. He uses this to introduce his main thesis which is that "the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see" and "in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance" (199). In order words, it is easier to make more meaningful choices by paying attention and becoming aware of what is going on inside. The water in the story represents all the things that are present in one's reality, the options that one has, the things that are in and around one that represent objects of choice. This is an insightful, "aha" moment. Realizing ones' options gives one control. .
It is not uncommon for commencement speeches to focus on the meaning of liberal arts education.