“You’re not special”

David McCullough Jr. seems to be all over the news these days as a result of his commencement address at Wellesley (MA) High School, where he teaches.

Or, you can read the text of the speech here.

Press reports seemed to portray it as a condemnation of “kids these days,” but that totally misses the point in my view. Moreover, those who feel that McCullough’s remarks were in poor taste are both missing the point and proving it simultaneously.

From my perspective, what McCullough is really condemning are certain aspects of American educational culture in the 21st century. In fact, it seemed to me that he was speaking as much to the adults at the ceremony as to the graduates. Especially here:

As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans.  It’s an epidemic — and in its way, not even dear old Wellesley High is immune… one of the best of the 37,000 nationwide, Wellesley High School… where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement.  And I hope you caught me when I said “one of the best.”  I said “one of the best” so we can feel better about ourselves, so we can bask in a little easy distinction, however vague and unverifiable, and count ourselves among the elite, whoever they might be, and enjoy a perceived leg up on the perceived competition.  But the phrase defies logic.  By definition there can be only one best.  You’re it or you’re not.

This may be my own bias, but I read those last couple of lines as: “And who cares if we’re the best? That’s not the point!” After all, he begins his next paragraph by saying, “If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning.”

Perhaps the media is blind to that culture and McCullough’s message because they tend to perpetuate the very hyper-competitiveness he critiques, what with their national rankings of high schools and all. It’s adults who create—and buy into the importance of—those rankings, which are often based simply on the number of students taking AP-type exams. And it’s those rankings that tell students, in turn, that they are “special.” (Coincidentally, it’s also those same school rankings that can drive property values up or down, thereby conveying the “material advantage” that McCullough says education is precisely not for.)

Coincidentally, if David McCullough weren’t the son of David McCullough, I suspect this speech gets nowhere near the attention it has gotten. And that, in and of itself, says an awful lot about which kids we as a society think are special.

So, again… it’s not a speech about “kids these days,” contrary to what the media may lead you to believe. If anything, it’s a speech about how some adults these days are distorting the values of education, thereby doing kids (not to mention society) a grave disservice.

  1. Nic said:

    I have to confess, I was one of those all ready to start ranting about this speech. Fortunately, I listened to it first and read a transcript before making a complete idiot of myself. To be honest, the only thing I can say against the speech is that it was perhaps a little ambitious considering he was talking to a secondary school audience. Of course, as you point out, it wasn’t just the graduates he was speaking to, so perhaps that one point isn’t even relevant.

    This speech is not intended to crush dreams, quite the opposite. He isn’t saying “you’re not special and never will be”, nor is he saying “you’re worthless and always will be”. Any teacher who says those things to any pupil has no business being a teacher. The way I’m reading the speech is that he’s saying that special shouldn’t be something you aspire to in itself, it should be a by-product of your aspirations. That no-one has some kind of “Divine Right” to special. Those lines about climbing the mountain to see the world, not so that the world can see you, the ones about learning for the joy of learning, how can they be construed as anything other than encouraging those graduates to get out there and do what they want to do, what they love, not what will make them “special” in the eyes of others?

    And really, isn’t that often what “special” is? What others think of us? Me, I was an average student, I got average results, there’s nothing special about my intellect, nothing special about the way I look, nothing special about me at all. But when I was working in a supermarket during uni, there was this elderly lady who always came to my checkout and always told me “I like to come to you because your smile brightens my day”. You’d better believe she was special to me and presumably, I was special to her, just because of my smile. I always made sure I had a smile for her, not because I had my manager breathing down my neck (I can’t say that I was a stellar example of customer service when faced with hostile customers) but because I knew that my smile was making a small difference to her.

    Personally, I think these graduates will look back on this speech and feel grateful for it. I know I would have done. To this day, I’m convinced that our graduation speaker was a hologram being broadcast from another planet, as he clearly had absolutely no idea what the graduate jobs market was like out there. Either that, or he had some official threatening him with disembowlment if he so much as hinted at reality. What we really needed to hear was that things were hard and we were likely to have a tough time but to hang on in there, we’d be ok with persistence. That, at least, would have been truthful. No-one wants to leave university feeling immensely patronised.

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