The “Capital-T Truth” and the Default Setting to Achieve it

This week, Mr. Brent Hurley considers the value of a liberal arts education, particularly following an unprecedented time in history. At TCS since 2015, Mr. Hurley is an English teacher and the assistant head of Senior School - student life.

Written by guest blogger, Brent Hurley

“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?’”

In David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech to Kenyon College in 2005, now known as “This is Water,” he begins with a parable of two young fish who are ignorant of the most basic reality in their tiny world after an older fish poses what for many is a daily, banal platitude – How’s the water? Over the course of the past 10 years, I routinely start the school year by having my English students read this speech, and I’m always amazed months later when they tell me that Wallace’s speech was the most meaningful text we read throughout the year.

But why? Perhaps it’s because Wallace’s challenge to the student is to consider the possibility that they are not as special as they think they are. Or, as David McCullough Jr. once opined to a group of graduating students, “The sweetest joys of life then come only with the recognition that you’re not special because everyone is.” Ask any teacher, and you will find that having something stick with a student from class to class is always a challenge, and I often will mark that lesson down as a victory in the year-long battle of helping students find conscious value in what we read and discuss day-in and day-out. But for some reason “This is Water” strikes a chord with them in the way it reveals the “capital-T Truth,” as Wallace describes it, that the value of a liberal arts education is its ability to keep us from being beholden to our natural default setting, “which is to be deeply and literally self-centred and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.”

As we help our students make sense of their world and their place in it, the capital-T Truth is that the COVID-19 pandemic has left an indelible mark upon a generation of young people that will demand a radical reassessment of how we think about the value and purpose of education. A recent study published in Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science found that the brains of teenagers have aged faster than normal over the past two years, with young participants reporting more severe symptoms of anxiety, depression, and internalized problems like feelings of sadness and low self-esteem. What it reveals is that many young people have experienced significant trauma. As we rejoice in the return to in-person learning and resume our lives as though we’ve simply pressed the play button on a video game, the truth is that the game, for lack of a better word, has changed – and we all know it. Our students walk the same halls, busily chatting with their friends just like their contemporaries did pre-COVID; they participate in the same rituals of academic and social teenage life that we’ve become accustomed to, but there’s something missing for many. Imagine a 16-year-old taking their final driving test and being asked to complete a three-point turn, and the young person responds, “Absolutely, I can do that. Now remind me, where does the key go again?” Even more concerning, they know how to press the gas pedal but not how to use the brakes. The inevitable crash includes feelings of confusion, frustration, and an inability to make sense of their feelings or how to move forward through their challenges. There is a feeling of being ill-equipped to confront disappointment and failure, and a tendency to retreat rather than lean in when an opportunity to learn presents itself.

So what is to be done? Is there a button that we can press to take us back to 2019? Or, if we slow down and really think about it, is that where we really want to go? The seeds of this mental health crisis that we are now faced with were sown long before the pandemic hit us like a bolt of lightning. Instead, I submit we should adjust our default settings and reconsider what we choose to place value upon or worship, as Wallace puts it. Yes, acceptances to competitive programs at competitive universities remain top of mind for many in our community, but what happens when they arrive on campus unable to make friends? If our graduates are unable to navigate the social minefield of having freedom for the first time, will the traditional emphasis on test scores and scholar status help them find self-worth and confidence when they finally strike out on their own?

Giving our students the tools to thrive in a post-COVID world requires us to reconsider what it means to actually thrive. When we teach students to think critically about what truly matters to them, they will access tools such as “attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them…in myriad petty…ways every day,” for, as Wallace notes, “That is being educated, and understanding how to think.” Fostering the skills to build meaningful relationships with their friends, their family, their teachers or, perhaps, someone they meet for the first time in English class, and consciously placing those skills atop the proverbial priority list is the mindshift we have chosen to embrace as we navigate a world without a roadmap in many ways.

The capital-T Truth is that an education is not about test scores or admission to a reputable school; instead, it’s about the simple awareness of what is essential to thrive as part of the human condition: our inescapable need to be seen and valued. Our desire to connect and be connected. Our ability to bounce back when we get knocked down. Our awareness that we are not the centre of the universe. Our recognition that we are not special. This is the invisible curriculum that is all around us, hidden from plain sight but tangible when viewed through the eyes of our students. The trick is, as Wallace reminds us, to keep the capital-T Truth up front in our daily consciousness, and to keep reminding ourselves and our students, over and over –

This is water.

This is water.