by Logan Miller
How’s the water today?
I am tempted, being the liberal arts student that I am, to believe that most of my fellow students here at the University of Nevada, Reno are familiar with the parable I just quoted. My temptation stems from the fact that my college, despite being the largest here, often has trouble defining exactly what its students get from earning a liberal arts degree and, as such, I often feel that what I have gained is the same thing every other student has gained. That is, I have received a basic education.
I do not mean to suggest I have been shortchanged here. Indeed, there is something quite comforting in thinking I have gained the same knowledge my fellow students have gained. Thinking this way allows me to feel a sense of togetherness, of connection with not only my fellow students graduating next week, but also with all the students that have come before us and all the ones that will come after. Thinking this way allows us to be a family, a Wolf Pack.
If such sentimentality does nothing for you, then I hope I have not lost you, because my aim here is to not be sentimental.
I have not received such a typical education and those feelings of familial closeness I suggested before are predicated on a misunderstanding of what our educations mean and that, by keeping up such a charade, we assume we know and can speak for one another. For instance, I can ask, How’s the water today? and get the response I expect. By keeping up such a charade, we can only do harm to ourselves and to each other.
In 2005, David Foster Wallace recounted this parable as part of his commencement speech to the graduating seniors of Kenyon College: Two young fish are swimming along until they happen upon an older fish swimming in the opposite direction. This older fish nods to the younger two and asks, “How’s the water?” before swimming on. The young fish look at each other perplexed, before one asks, “What the hell is water?”
Wallace contends that this parable suggests that it is the most obvious and important realities that are the hardest to see and talk about, and it is this idea I would like to entertain here. But I do not want to suggest that, or have it suggested by virtue of this medium that I am the older fish and you are the younger fish or that I have any damn clue what water is.
In fact, I want to ask you, What the hell is water?
We often think about our grades as the currency through which we will buy whatever it is that is hidden over that graduation horizon, be it a job, another degree, the respect of your parents, or some combination of these and other things. However, I think that by doing so, we essentialize our experience and knowledge into the little alphabetic marks on our transcripts. Put another way, by thinking too much about our grades, we lose what is important in our educations.
What is that important bit, you ask. For me, it was becoming a writing tutor and finding out everyday, 30 minutes at a time, that I did not know as much about writing as I thought I did. For me, it was working at The Nevada Sagebrush and trying and failing to discuss and correct every mistake or problem in each issue. For me, it was joining a writing club and working to become recognized by the Associated Students of the University of Nevada before gleefully parting ways with it. For me, it was taking six extra credits my last semester because there were things I had left to do.
For me, it didn’t have a lot to do with grades.
What we pay for here is more than a career, is more than a step in the process of economic exchange, but I am also suggesting that I have no idea what that simple, material reality looks like. Therefore, I can’t really talk about it, only around it.
This is why I want to know what the hell water is, because I do not know, and I think that you might.
But I will tell you what I do not think it is. I do not think it is breaking your back here for four or more years while thinking, deep down, that grades are what you are working for here.
With that in mind, ask yourselves what water is. When you decide, someone much wiser than I am will be there to ask, “So, how is the water today?”
Logan Miller will be earning a Bachelor of Arts in English with an emphasis in writing. He can be reached at email@example.com.