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Saturday, June 9, 2012

High School Graduate? You're Not Special

Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough Jr. recently delivered the keynote speech to the class of 2012 at the Wellesley High (Massachusetts) graduation ceremonies. McCullough's text did not center on the accomplishments and the virtues of the students, rather he pointed out to the graduates that their gowns were exactly the same and that their diplomas were exactly the same. And, he quite frankly told the class, “All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.”

"Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests,
your glowing seventh grade report card,
despite every assurance
of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur,
that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia,
no matter how often your maternal caped crusader
has swooped in to save you...
you’re nothing special."

-David McCullough Jr.

McCullough has been taking some heat for his tough love address. The question we should ask about McCullough's chosen words is this: "Was the speech appropriate as a goodbye to a class of high school graduates?" For those who expected to hear the typical generalizations meant to instill assurances of confidence and achievement, the obvious answer is "no." Yet, for others who prefer realism over "candy-coated" wishes of continued success, the answer is "yes" and "it's about time."

After reading the entire speech, I found myself understanding that McCullough's address is calling for a greater standard to be achieved by graduates who believe in life-long learning and who live an existence that requires their active participation in the truly important things they love.

The verbal irony of "you are not special" is a challenge to a "new" commitment. That new commitment requires people to live productive lives without the need of constant praise driving their egotistical selves. It requires them to develop character -- generosity, compassion, kindness, creativity, responsibility.

Today, so many parents and loved ones believe pampering a child insures that a young person is prepared for life. This belief has grown to the point of over-indulgence in many cases. And, unfortunately, too much indulgence and attention robs young people of some things that are very important: the opportunity to be alone with other kids and the chance to figure out the world on their own. Isn't it wrong to give children as much opportunity and attention as possible, while requiring little from them in return?  Can't a young person be be over-­scheduled and over-nurturing?

Tom McGrath calls this affluenza. It happens when over pampering parents indulge their kids so much that they lose all ability to think independently, show empathy, demonstrate effective problem-solving skills, and adapt to all of the curveballs life usually throws at them -- some call them Generation G, as in Gimme. Don't we really need to understand the best gift we can give to a youth is not to give him something, but to allow him to become something? (Tom McGrath, "Bad Parents, Philadelphia Magazine, September 2007)

McCullough chooses to tell the graduates the following:

"Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie....

"But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not."

Because of early achievement and recognition, some youth have come to believe they are the "center of the universe." Although praise and reward in proper context may help students excel, many have grown to accept it as a staple. McCullough says:

"And consider for a moment the bigger picture: your planet, I’ll remind you, is not the center of its solar system, your solar system is not the center of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the center of the universe. In fact, astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center; therefore, you cannot be it. Neither can Donald Trump... which someone should tell him... although that hair is quite a phenomenon....

"If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole."

McCullough assures the student that wisdom, not material advantage, is the chief element of happiness. And, he says, part of this wisdom is to recognize at any moment "how little we know."
I believe understanding we are not gilded professors of subject matter is a key to driving sincere investigation in open quests for knowledge. Happiness is actually the journey for understanding and attainment of more understanding represents a step in that long travel.

Allow me to include the some of the last content in McCullough's address. I believe the advice is invaluable and pertinent to a graduation ceremony. I, for one, would surely relate to these "tough words," and I believe they needed to be conveyed. I have found the best way to motivate a class of high school students is to challenge them and give them every opportunity to say, "Once someone pointed me in the right direction and helped me with the method, I did the hard work on my own."

Thanks, David McCullough Jr, for reminding your students that special is a byproduct of doing, and it is never an end in itself.

I hope you excuse my plagiarism of your address in my blog content, Mr. McCullough. Readers, please do yourself a favor and read the entire speech here:

"As you commence, then, and before you scatter to the winds, I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance. Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about, lest you too find yourself on the wrong side of a Baltimore Orioles comparison. Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages. And read... read all the time... read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it. Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself. Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might. And do so, please, with a sense of urgency, for every tick of the clock subtracts from fewer and fewer; and as surely as there are commencements there are cessations, and you’ll be in no condition to enjoy the ceremony attendant to that eventuality no matter how delightful the afternoon.

"The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer. You’ll note the founding fathers took pains to secure your inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness–quite an active verb, “pursuit”–which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots rollerskate on Youtube. The first President Roosevelt, the old rough rider, advocated the strenuous life. Mr. Thoreau wanted to drive life into a corner, to live deep and suck out all the marrow. The poet Mary Oliver tells us to row, row into the swirl and roil. Locally, someone... I forget who... from time to time encourages young scholars to carpe the heck out of the diem. The point is the same: get busy, have at it. Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands. (Now, before you dash off and get your YOLO tattoo, let me point out the illogic of that trendy little expression–because you can and should live not merely once, but every day of your life. Rather than You Only Live Once, it should be You Live Only Once... but because YLOO doesn’t have the same ring, we shrug and decide it doesn’t matter.)

"None of this day-seizing, though, this YLOOing, should be interpreted as license for self-indulgence. Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things. Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

"Because everyone is.

"Congratulations. Good luck. Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives."

Here is a video of Mr. McCullough's speech:

English instructor David McCullough Jr. is the son of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian David McCullough Sr.
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