Default Positions

Well, I continue to struggle with teaching and learning. The whole thing has become harder the closer I get to not doing it anymore. And it’s harder too because the pressure upon students now, more than ever, is to succeed. I can understand that what with the economy being what it is.

I have wanted to think of education as the development of the person and haven’t always been able to say exactly what I meant by that though I tried to in "Self-Development and College Writing."

The other day I came across the commencement speech that David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005. Wallace was a novelist–some kind of genius, as a friend put it–who committed suicide recently. It’s very down-to-earth commencement speech. He attempts to define and defend "liberal arts" education, as he tries to navigate the sea of cliches invoked by such an occasion. But part way through it he writes something that touches me and my notions of what education might be:

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

I suppose this hits me particularly hard because just the other day in class, I was trying to talk with my students about something like this. We (or rather I) was trying to discuss D.W. Winnicott’s idea about creativity and its role in daily life. For Winnicott, this type of creativity is essential to a feeling of wholeness and aliveness. He writes very strange and incomprehensible things trying to get at what he means. But I think what he means has something to do with what Wallace says when he writes about liberal arts education as learning "to choose how you construct meaning from experience."

The main point to be made here is that while we do construct meaning from experience, we don’t know we are doing it. In Wallace’s words, we simply fall into what he calls, when it comes to thinking or constructing meaning, the "default position." This position he explicitly says is "unconscious." These unconscious, default positions have something to do with Winnicott’s false self. The false self, the ability to have one, is essential to social functioning. The well adjusted person has a solid false self; the problem is that those very adjustments supply the default positions for those ways of making meaning that go along with such a thing as being well-adjusted.

So we don’t think about where our thoughts come from or even that they come from somewhere and were, where-ever that somewhere might be, constructed.

That’s the point of liberal arts education: to constantly point to that fact and in point to that fact to suggest experience teaches us nothing. We construct its meaning and there are various ways to do that, those "various ways" having something to do with what Winnicott calls creativity.

Wallace’s commencement address may be found at.

One Reply to “Default Positions”

  1. As the old greeks put it: Know thyself, and to thine own self be true. William James asked what can we actually do with the power of the will….all we can really do with that facility is PAY ATTENTION. And we must learn to use some intelligence as regards what is is exactly that we pay attention to. Pay attention to truth and beauty, as much as you can, please.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *