Monday, June 11, 2012

The "You Are Not Special" Commencement Address


The video above is the teacher address at this year's Wellesley High School (Massachusetts) commencement, given by English teacher David McCullough Jr.  Some excerpts are featured below from what is being called the "You're Not Special Commencement Address" (full text available here):

"Each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same. All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special. You are not special. You are not exceptional.  

Contrary to what your 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. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Yes, you have. And, certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs. Absolutely, smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet. And now you’ve conquered high school… and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you, the pride and joy of this fine community.

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

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 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. 

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

26 Comments:

At 6/11/2012 8:18 AM, Blogger Tom said...

The graduates were squirming and the parents must have gone ape-shit.

 
At 6/11/2012 8:32 AM, Blogger SteveH said...

No, the students chuckled. They got it.

 
At 6/11/2012 8:52 AM, Blogger Krishnan said...

"Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself"

(When I read that, I thought WTF. Sure, they are not special and all that - sure, there is grade inflation - sure they are not learning as much as they should - ALL excellent things to remind them - and then he launches onto "Be selfless" - Right. "Do not work for yourself but for the service of others" (Yea, right - and he teaches history? Or perhaps some social science?) -

Typical, liberal condescension - for the most part, with some sensible things thrown in.

 
At 6/11/2012 9:45 AM, Blogger Gene Hayward said...

FYI...He teaches English and is the son of David McCullogh, the noted historian and biographer...

 
At 6/11/2012 10:05 AM, Blogger geoih said...

His speech was a load of altruistic crap.

 
At 6/11/2012 10:05 AM, Blogger geoih said...

His speech was a load of altruistic crap.

 
At 6/11/2012 10:45 AM, Blogger bart said...

His speech was a load of altruistic crap.


Spoken like a politician, bankster or other greed freak. Well done!
/sarchasm

 
At 6/11/2012 11:47 AM, Blogger Ed R said...

Mr. McCullough sounds like a bitter and disillusioned person.

Or perhaps a feeble attempt at sarcastic humor??

 
At 6/11/2012 11:55 AM, Blogger Buddy R Pacifico said...

If you have ~16 minutes then check out Alan Sorkin's very entertaining 2012 Syracuse U. Commencement Speech. I think it is a good analog to McCullogh Jr.'s speech.

 
At 6/11/2012 12:18 PM, Blogger sethstorm said...

I'm not sure he can get much more arrogant than that.

 
At 6/11/2012 1:14 PM, Blogger Aiken_Bob said...

Speech was on target. Usually the folks that comment on this blog are reasonable - This has hit a nerve. I'm assuming that the folks making comments have kids that are so perfect -- we older farts welcome a reality pill. Certainly not arrogant -- but then again I don't know anyone that remembers their graduation speakers speech.

 
At 6/11/2012 1:24 PM, Blogger Jon Murphy said...

Usually the folks that comment on this blog are reasonable - This has hit a nerve.

I agree. I'm surprised by the reaction here.

 
At 6/11/2012 1:35 PM, Blogger juandos said...

"I'm not sure he can get much more arrogant than that"...

Arrogant?!?!

Reality is an arrogance trip, eh sethstorm?

 
At 6/11/2012 1:53 PM, Blogger morganovich said...

i think the fact that there has been such a reaction is precisely why this speech was so good and so needed.

life in not an exercise in imaginary accolades and the accumulation of prizes like so many world of warcraft magic weapons.

the fact that a speech that was predominantly about living a full and authentic life seems so controversial amazes me.

my sense is that faced with some of these responses, mr mccollough would say QED.

this speech was nothing like arrogant. it was an exhortation not to settle for false baubles and smug self satisfaction but to strive for real achievement.

anyone objecting to that would seem to be precisely the one most needed such advice.

 
At 6/11/2012 1:55 PM, Blogger RichmondG30 said...

One of the best commencement speeches I have ever heard.

I've been telling my teenage kids the same thing since they were old enough to understand. (I chuckled when he mentioned the U9 soccer trophies.)

Our collective kids have been lead to believe that they will get all they want out of life just be showing up and claiming it. It is not that simple. A successful life is hard work, and must be earned every minute of every day.

Bravo!

 
At 6/11/2012 1:55 PM, Blogger RichmondG30 said...

One of the best commencement speeches I have ever heard.

I've been telling my teenage kids the same thing since they were old enough to understand. (I chuckled when he mentioned the U9 soccer trophies.)

Our collective kids have been lead to believe that they will get all they want out of life just be showing up and claiming it. It is not that simple. A successful life is hard work, and must be earned every minute of every day.

Bravo!

 
At 6/11/2012 2:09 PM, Blogger Jon Murphy said...

One other thing that makes this speech funny (to me, anyway) is that is was given in Wellesley. Wellesley, for those of you who do not know, is a very wealthy suburb in Massachusetts. These kids are the most spoiled, entitled kids you ever want to meet (my cousin is one). I got some joy out of watching their teacher say that.

 
At 6/11/2012 2:35 PM, Blogger Larry G said...

Collin Powell gave a self-effacing address also...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtf6VQSBJAs

go to 8:30 ...

 
At 6/11/2012 2:53 PM, Blogger gadfly said...

Rush liked the speech, because it reminded him of his own canned commencement speech.

You know, you people may have forgotten, but way, way back in the eighties, first in Sacramento and then I brought it forth to this program, I did my commencement speech. My message was -- (laughing) -- and I got in trouble. It was just a bit of satire. And I told them, "Contrary to what you've heard, there's nothing unique about you, there's nothing special about you, and you are not the future. Our world is not dependent on you yet. There are a whole lot of people ahead of you that got started five, ten years ago that are not just gonna sit down and lay down and get out of the way for you."

http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/videos?uri=channels/381256/1671810

 
At 6/11/2012 4:23 PM, Blogger sethstorm said...


Arrogant?!?!

Yes, arrogant - which also seems to reflect on the character of that school as well. I'm not surprised to hear it is an overly wealthy school where such a speech is met with the understanding that they are at the top.

The other person's condescending speech of the same format was eugenically Darwinistic - even worse. In both cases, the only good thing to happen is to have the speech forcibly stopped.

Personally, I'd do whatever what is needed to keep that kind of speech from any graduation of any offspring of my own.

--
All of that said:

There are ways to deliver the message while not coming across as arrogant or condescending.

My short (and less-condescending version) of the others:
"The world is full of opportunity; you just have to be willing to grab and make use of it."

 
At 6/11/2012 4:47 PM, Blogger juandos said...

"The other person's condescending speech of the same format was eugenically Darwinistic - even worse. In both cases, the only good thing to happen is to have the speech forcibly stopped"...

Well then this begs the question sethstorm, do you believe that nature is Darwinistic?

"Personally, I'd do whatever what is needed to keep that kind of speech from any graduation of any offspring of my own"...

Well how very progressive you sethstorm but in all honesty I really do understand your point of view...

I wonder what you think of the following then?

School’s snub goes national
'Bigfork resident and Oscar-winning producer Gerald “Jerry” Molen says he was surprised about the national attention that came about on Friday regarding the story of him being turned away from addressing the Ronan High School graduating class because of his conservative political views'...

Principal pulling plug on patriotic song
'A New York City school principal is refusing to let students sing a Lee Greenwood patriotic song during graduation, but says a Justin Bieber love song is OK.'...

 
At 6/11/2012 4:57 PM, Blogger Mike said...

If you're one who believes this commencement is offensive in any way, you'd do yourself a great service to listen to it again and pretend the man is speaking directly to you. Because he probably is.

 
At 6/11/2012 5:00 PM, Blogger Its GSATT said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 6/11/2012 5:16 PM, Blogger bart said...

...very wealthy suburb in Massachusetts. These kids are the most spoiled, entitled kids you ever want to meet (my cousin is one). I got some joy out of watching their teacher say that.

Same here, wish I would have had more real commencement speeches for all my graduations.

 
At 6/11/2012 10:24 PM, Blogger sethstorm said...


I wonder what you think of the following then?

School’s snub goes national

For Montana, that is even surprising that it even got that far.



Principal pulling plug on patriotic song

The wrong decision, completely.

 
At 6/12/2012 1:39 PM, Blogger morganovich said...

"If you're one who believes this commencement is offensive in any way, you'd do yourself a great service to listen to it again and pretend the man is speaking directly to you. Because he probably is."

bingo.

well said.

 

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