Sunday, June 10, 2012

'You Are Not Special'

Did you happen to catch this item on the news? David McCullough Jr., an English teacher at Wellesley High School, in a commencement address last week told graduating seniors they aren’t special. Wellesley is an is an upscale, high achieving school in Wellesley, Mass.
The speech, which has gone viral on You Tube, is almost 13 minutes long; he gets warmed up after about three minutes. Listen to the entire speech

In addition to exhorting the Class of 2012 to pursue distinctive lives, McCullough delivered some sobering words: “None of you is special. You are not special. You are not exceptional.”
The educator called the graduating students “pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble wrapped... nudged, cajoled ... feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie.”

“Contrary to what your U9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you … you’re nothing special,” he said in his speech, which was published in the Boston Herald.

McCullough offered statistics, saying numbers were stacking up against the graduating class. He said half of the class would be divorced and life wasn’t going to revolve around their every whim.

"Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That's 37,000 valedictorians ... 37,000 class presidents ... 92,000 harmonizing altos ... 340,000 swaggering jocks ... 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs," McCullough said.

"Even if you're one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you."

David McCullough Jr. His father is David McCullough, an American author, narrator, historian, and lecturer -- a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian award
“You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.  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.
No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it…  Now it’s, “So what does this get me?”  As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin (note: I had to look this up to understand his meaning. Bowdoin is a college in Maine which is consistently ranked among the top ten liberal arts colleges in the United States by U.S. News and World Report. In the 2011 edition of the rankings, Bowdoin ranked sixth) than the well-being of Guatemalans.
While McCullough tells students they are not special, the speech ends up at the usual place: Do good. Do well. Do something. The road to that ending is paved with great lines, including, “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 roller skate on Youtube.”

"The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you're not special.  Because everyone is."

What do you think of this speech?  Is he justified in admonishing students for considering themselves special? Or do you believe young people should hear straight talk such as this more often? I'd be interested to know your opinion.


  1. I only read your post and I think that the speech was brilliant.
    Absolutely not a one you´d expect when graduating, but a down to earth speech.
    IMO, more of this should be heard, especially now, when the young generation is awfully pampered ( by us, their parents ).

  2. Am with Mette on this one....students need straight talking in order to cope with problems life will throw at them.
    Excellent speech.

    Do hope your bout of flu is on the mend. Ida

  3. I loved the speech! And agree with both Mette and Ida, in that children are fawned over and spoiled and led to believe they are worthy of special privileges. I was glad to see this speaker address the subject. Ida, I am almost over my flu. I returned to work today.

  4. I also loved the speech! I believe straight talk is the communication we need in today's world to encourage the young people.

  5. With all due respect to the rest of the comments, I can't agree. I think it is the result of sour grapes from the adult child of a very special man with the accolades that accompany his specialness, but that his son will never achieve. (I would agree if he said that contrary to all you hear, you can't "be anything you can dream".) But unless it was delivered to a Kindergarten class, these young adults have already been introduced to the real world and don't need it thrust meanly on them on a day meant to celebrate them. I am just guessing at the statistics, but I do remember that if they are graduating from high school, they are already doing better than over half of all American 18 year olds, and that does make them special.


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