BOSTON — Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough Jr. is hoping that as he steps out of the classroom for summer break Thursday, he can step out of the spotlight a bit, too.
Two weeks have passed since McCullough gave a graduation address that’s generated enormous interest online, and in not just national, but international media. In his speech, McCullough — whose father is the famous historian David McCullough — steered clear of the typical praise and platitudes heaped on graduates. Instead, he tried to give them a reality check on their significance in the world.
“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,” McCullough said in his talk.
The address, which was a big hit with the crowd, has come to be called the “You’re Not Special” speech, because McCullough told the graduates that no fewer than five times.
McCullough came to our studios earlier this week, and WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer asked him what’s wrong, in his view, with kids leaving high school feeling important.
“If you send a kid out with an inflated sense of self, somebody’s going to pop that balloon,” he replied.
As for response to his speech, McCullough said those who call him disgruntled have it wrong: “I am not a bitter person. I am far more chinchilla than I am snarling badger!”
Overall, he said, the experience has been somewhat surreal.
David McCullough: It’s a very strange sensation for someone who’s been shambling along quite happily in obscurity to suddenly be the media darling of the moment.
Sacha Pfeiffer: What message did you want to get across to the kids? Was this intended to be a harsh message?
I wouldn’t call it harsh, no. I hoped it was realistic. Several people who have taken lines out of context –the sensationalizers and carnival barkers who are looking for a sound bite to exploit for ratings purposes — seized on that “you’re not special.” I hoped that pointing out that they’re not exceptional, they’re not special, would be liberating for them. If children are treated like they’re special, there is an implication, particularly from demanding parents, of expectation. Don’t you know you’re special? That means you should be achieving more than you are. And that expectation pressures kids, and that pressure makes them conservative and safe and unwilling to take chances. And that, in my view, inhibits their capacities or the possibility of growth.
You talked about some lines being taken out of context. And the line that is most often quoted is, “You’re not special.” Of course, what comes after that is, “Everyone is special.”
Of course. Of course.
But what do you mean by that? That everyone is special?
That everyone deserves to be treated with respect and taken seriously and cared about. Everyone on the planet. If everyone is special, then it kind of nullifies the concept of specialness. I wanted to emphasize for them that though you may have been the valedictorian, though you may have been a touchdown hero, that doesn’t make you a more important person. And when I sit and I look at my students in my classroom, each one of them is as important to me as any of the others.
There’s a point in your speech where you said: “If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. We Americans, to our detriment, have come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.” Would you pick up a little bit after that?
No longer is it how you play the game. No longer is it even whether you even 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 mid-level curriculum is called Advanced College Placement.
So this gets at the idea that at the most elite colleges, it’s not even great grades that are enough. You just need to be a knock-out student with ridiculous extracurricular activities.
That’s the perception, certainly. And so kids and their loving, well-meaning, ambitious parents want very much for their kids to have access to the best, and so they schedule them up to the earlobes and they demand from them extraordinary achievement in everything they do, and suddenly any capacity for self-determination or experimentation or failure goes right out the window. I try to tell my students that the only adult to whom they owe anything, really, is the adult they’re going to become. And they shouldn’t want that person to look back at them and shake his or head and say, “Oh, jeez. You blew it. You should have been thinking differently.”
So in many ways this is as much or more a critique of parents, it seems, than of students and kids.
And I’m one of those parents, and so I know whereof I speak. I say all of these things in sympathy with these parents. I feel, too, the same cultural encouragements, the same pressures, the same desire to see my kids have access to the best education available to them, the best experience. And I don’t know what to do about it! I’m trying, I’m thinking, and maybe this speech of mine might encourage conversation, which might inspire some change.