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.