Tuesday 19 June 2012

US teacher tells students: You are not special

Speech to graduating high schoolers nudges them to go for real achievement
The Straits Times, 16 Jun 2012

BOSTON - It took someone special to tell an entire cohort of graduating high schoolers the stark truth few wanted to hear - that they were nothing special.

Mr David McCullough Junior, an English teacher at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts and the son of Pulitzer-winning historian David McCullough, did that at a recent graduation speech, sparking widespread discussion in various forms of social media.

'None of you is special. You are not special. None of you is exceptional,' he said, pointing out that a total of 3.2 million students were graduating from over 37,000 high schools around the same time as those sitting in their graduation gowns before him.

'That's 37,000 valedictorians... 37,000 class presidents, 92,000 harmonising altos... 340,000 swaggering jocks, 2,185,967 pairs of uggs,' he said.

'Even if you're one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion, that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you.'

Mr McCullough implied that the students' confidence, their carefully-bolstered self-esteem, may be unearned and undeserved.

He argues they are operating under a false impression of their own centrality and vividness. As he puts it, 'hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet'.

His address does push students to recognise real achievement.

'The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life is an achievement,' he said, encouraging graduates to 'do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance'.

Although he tries to end on a more uplifting note and move the speech back into more conventional territory of inspiration and caring about others in society, the true heat of the speech is in its critique of the emergent generation he believes is overly managed, overly protected and exquisitely nurtured.

In comments that appear to be more directed towards parents than the youth he was addressing, MrMcCullough told the students: 'You've been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble- wrapped... feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie.'

In the school's YouTube channel, Mr McCullough added: 'You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless...

'We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.'

The Boston Herald reported that his words were very well received by his audience.

The teacher, a father of four, admitted he was himself guilty of the actions he pokes fun at in his speech.

Towards the end of the address, he said: 'The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you're not special. Because everyone is.'

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