Reflections on Water, by Gordon Dossett
Last summer as the second group from SMC prepared to go to Salzburg, Georgia Lorenz hit upon the idea that the college might embrace a theme to focus discussions of global citizenship. Her notes from last June are the first reference to what emerged in a Global Council retreat in January and has now been adopted as an experiment for our college community—trying to encourage deep and widespread examination of water within disciplines and across disciplines and connected to global interests and concerns.
Just as the Turkey study tour has proven especially timely—President Obama just recently traveled there—water seems everywhere lately. Los Angeles will be adopting water rationing in June. In tandem with the United Nations, the DWP is calling this the Decade of Water and has commissioned SMC folks to make public service announcements, having international students speak about water in their home countries. Quotations from Shakespeare drift through my head, an occupational hazard for English professors (“Thou art false as water,” cries out Othello—tragically wrong, as it turns out.) Water flows soothingly in the central quad of our campus.
Two recent written references to water stand out. The first comes from a recent article in the New York Times by Mark C. Taylor, chair of religion at Columbia. Taylor urges a broad revamping of education. He advocates that colleges eliminate departments and establish “zones of inquiry.” He writes:
Consider, for example, a Water program. In the coming decades, water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of water will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges. These vexing practical problems cannot be adequately addressed without also considering important philosophical, religious and ethical issues. After all, beliefs shape practices as much as practices shape beliefs.
A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture. Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge (“End the University as We Know It,” A21, April 27, 2009)
I’m not sure I’d go along with Taylor’s idea of abolishing departments (and tenure) but I’m heartened to see the prediction for his proposed “Water program.” For our campus the “multiple perspectives” will include a deliberate global perspective, as well, and I hope further insights will follow
The second reference has been to a graduation speech delivered in 2005 by David Foster Wallace, whose life sadly ended in his suicide this past September. The graduation speech has been recently published as a book entitled This Is Water. Wallace uses water as a metaphor for everyday-ness, anchored in the following little story:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"
Wallace’s analysis of the story is casually brilliant:
This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story ["thing"] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning. …
Later Wallace returns to the fish story, which is central to his speech.
[T]he real value of a real education … has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
"This is water."
"This is water."
Just in those two recent references, then, we have Taylor’s complex associations of literal water and Wallace’s metaphoric use of water to make a philosophical, really existential point. With as many brilliant minds as we have around our campus, I look forward to the myriad ways in which water will reflect thought and in turn urge us to think further and to act.
Note: To find an online transcription of David Foster Wallace's commencement address, just go to google and type "David Foster Wallace water Kenyon."