One of the most talked-about commencement speeches of this year wasn’t given at an Ivy League graduation, nor was it delivered by a celebrity or politician; it was given to a class of graduating high school seniors by one of their favorite teachers. And while other speakers may have dealt platitudes and pep talks, Wellesley High teacher David McCullough gave students this blunt message: “None of you is special.”
Although the class in the affluent Boston suburb may have been “pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped,” by their parents, he said, they needed to regard their place in the world. In fact, McCullough reminded the students that 3.2million seniors were in the process of graduating from more than 37,000 high schools across the United States. “That’s 37,000 valedictorians, 37,000 class presidents, 92,000 harmonizing altos, 340,000 swaggering jocks, 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs,” he said.
"The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you're a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer," he said in the speech. (You can watch it in its entirety here.)
So far, the reaction to McCullough’s speech has been mixed. And though he’s since defended his actions on morning talk shows, publications such as the UK’s Daily Mail have characterized it as a “bizarre rant.” But according to an ABC News report, the overwhelming majority of Wellesley parents appreciated the speech.
The Christian Science Monitor’s Stephanie Hanes writes that she was surprised he was called upon to defend the speech at all. “As the overwhelmingly positive reaction to McCullough’s speech shows, we are in the midst of an ‘everyone is special’ plague; one that is not doing any favors for kids, their parents or their future employers.” In her article, Hanes cites the book “The Narcissism Epidemic,” in which authors Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell maintain that our cultural habit of telling every child that she is special actually lowers achievement and lessens empathy.
The sentiment is in line with McCullough’s speech, which might have been blunt talk, but ends with this message: "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," he said. "The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you're not special. Because everyone is."
The speech has made me think hard about the messages I’m going to send to my daughter (thankfully, I have 15 years to prepare her for the person she’ll be at her high school commencement). Should responsible parents stop making kids feel they’re special? Or was McCullough’s message delivered to ears too young to understand it? Weigh in.