Satirist Stephen Colbert gave the commencement speech at the University of Virginia, telling graduates the baby boomers “have given you a gift, a particular form of independence . . . because you do not owe the previous generation anything. Thanks to us, you owe it to the Chinese.”
Americans are “historically illiterate,” by and large, complains historian and author David McCullough in a 60 Minutes interview. When he speaks at universities, he meets bright, attractive, stunningly ignorant college students.
One young woman at a university in the Midwest came up to me after one of my talks and said that until she heard me speak that morning she’d never understood that the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast. And I thought, “What are we doing that’s so wrong, so pathetic?” I tried it again at several other places, colleges and universities, same thing. . . . when I say our fault I don’t mean just the teachers. I mean the parents and grandparents. We have to take part. The stories around the family dinner table. I say bring back dinner if you want to improve how children get to know history.
What about the teachers? asks Morley Safer.
“We need to revamp, seriously revamp, the teaching of the teachers,” McCullough replies.
I don’t feel that any professional teacher should major in education. They should major in a subject, know something. The best teachers are those who have a gift and the energy and enthusiasm to convey their love for science or history or Shakespeare or whatever it is. “Show them what you love” is the old adage. And we’ve all had them, where they can change your life. They can electrify the morning when you come into the classroom.
One of the historian’s children, David McCullough Jr., is an English teacher known for his “you’re not special” commencement speech at Wellesley High in Massachusetts.
“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.
After attending his nephew’s high school graduation, Darren suggests that common courtesy could make the experience less painful.
. . . when did graduation ceremonies become like English soccer matches? When did “pomp and circumstance” give way to screaming and air horns? . . . Could you not simply clap for your kid when his/her name is called? Do you really need to scream for several seconds, block other people’s views with your signs — or my personal favorite, try to run up and hug your kid as they come off the stage . . .
Darren also wants valedictorians — there’s never just one any more — to avoid cliches in their speeches. That’s a hopeless cause.
Another tip: Watch out for bears at graduation ceremonies.