Graduates, ‘you are not special’

“You are not special,” English teacher David McCullough Jr. told graduates of Wellesley High School in a commencement speech that’s gone viral on YouTube.

You are not special. You are not exceptional.

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.

Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped.

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

. . . 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.

. . . 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 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 (high schools) 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.

. . . 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.  You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness.  (Second is ice cream…  just an fyi)  I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning.  It’s where you go from here that matters.

McCullough concludes by urging graduates to “be worthy of your advantages” and “read all the time.”

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. 

The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

Because everyone is.

Here’s the video. He gets warmed up about three minutes in.

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  1. tim-10-ber says:

    Thank you! I really like this!

  2. Yes, that was fun. Thank you.

  3. Seriously negative stereotype to be telling individuals.

    “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. You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness.”

    Blah, blah, woof, woof.

    Then they go to college, go seriously into debt, work really hard, love learning, and then fail to get a job. He tells them that they are living in an unreality, but then tells them to ignore the reality of material things like paying the rent.

    Which high school students think they are so special these days? Which ones don’t know that their collection of bobble head soccer awards don’t mean anything? Who, facing the competition for college or jobs thinks they are special?

    “be worthy of your advantages”

    What is it about some high school English teachers that drives them to feel that they have to teach all of the lazy honors students a lesson that has little to do with US or Brit Lit? My son’s US English Lit teacher is on a mission to lower grades no matter how hard kids work. He is proud of it. A lot of it has little to do with English. BTW, my son’s advantages mostly come from all of the learning we’ve ensured at home.

    Students know what lies ahead of them. They see it at home when their parents get laid off. Few think they can “leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.” They hear everyone, including educators, talking about how they should go to college (for material gain purposes), but see their friends and relatives with non-dischargable loans and jobs they could have gotten right out of high school.

    What I see are lots of kids working very hard to be perfect students to get into college; top grades, music, athletics, and community service. How do you leverage yourself around GPA and SAT? Legacy admissions aren’t automatic these days.

    “… midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement.”

    Don’t blame this on the students. Educators want everyone to go to college … for material purposes … for all of those so-called 21st century jobs. The old CP is now the new honors, but students aren’t fooled. It’s the grownups who are fooling themselves into thinking that any old college piece of paper will do.

  4. Cranberry says:

    An appropriate speech to deliver at Wellesley High School.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    Given, among other things, the viewpoint in stlgretchen’s link, I suppose we could ask ourselves how much of “you’re special” the kids have gotten the last eighteen years.
    Too much? Too little? Just about right?
    Other than the occasional no-scoring rules for little kids’ sports, I don’t recall seeing any.

  6. This reminds me a lot of a TEDx talk from last year entitled, “You’re Not That Great: A Motivational Speech.” After years of being kid-gloved people really seem hungry for this kind of message.