Everyone has gone appropriately bonkers over the commencement address delivered by English teacher David McCullough, Jr., to this year’s graduates of frou-frou Wellesley High School in Massachusetts. The Daily Beast, the Boston Globe, CNN, WashPo – it’s everyplace. Now known informally as the “You’re Not Special” speech, Mr. McCullough’s address gently reminded the graduates that they had received more from the world than they’d yet given back, and warned them not to mistake luck’s gifts for just rewards. If you haven’t seen it, do:
I thought a lot of that was poignant. And this part’s poignant enough to demand a reading as well as a hearing:
Commencement is life’s great ceremonial beginning, with its own attendant and highly appropriate symbolism. Fitting, for example, for this auspicious rite of passage is where we find ourselves this morning. The venue … Here we are on a literal playing field. That matters. That says something. And your ceremonial costume … shapeless, uniform, one size fits all. Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-box assassin – 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’re not special. You’re not exceptional. Contrary to what your U-9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mr. Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you, you are 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. Why, maybe you’ve even had your picture in the Townsman. And now you’ve conquered highschool. And indisputably here we 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.
The empirical evidence is everywhere – numbers even an English teacher can’t ignore … Across the country, no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians. That’s 37,000 class presidents, 92,000 harmonizing altos, 340,000 swaggering jocks … but why limit ourselves to high school? After all, you’re leaving it.
So think about this: 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 … And consider for a moment the bigger picture. Your planet, I’ll remind you, is not the center of your solar system. Your solar system is not the center of its galaxy. Your galaxy is not the center of the universe. In fact, astro-physicists assure us the universe has no center. Therefore, you cannot be it. Neither can Donald Trump, which someone should tell him.
The point is: We’re small and insignificant and our accolades are meaningless. But! Mr. McCullough goes on to explain, we may still do good work well! And in doing so, we find some meaningful differentiation from our fellows.
It’s a worthy message for anyone to hear, and not just for upper-middle-class teenagers. Unfortunately, Mr. McCullough’s address was also stumbled across by Palm Beacher Rush Limbaugh, who took it to a very dark place. On his June 11 show, he slavered over Mr. McCullough’s speech, railed against the entitlements of modern youth, and ultimately decided Mr. McCullough’s address was really a brilliant attack on the social safety net.
Limbaugh: My fear is that all too many teachers today are, in fact, teaching their students that the world does owe them a living. And it’s not just youthful people. It’s not just young people being told the world owes them a living. We have civil rights groups in this country telling their charges, “America owes you a living because you’re a minority and because of things that happened hundreds of years ago, or thousands of years ago. The world, this country owes you a living.”
Obama believes the country owes people a living.
I believe … I honestly believe that, as I just told Snerdley during the break. I think Obama is a classic example of what this teacher was warning about. I think Obama, his whole life, has heard this. One of the ways to explain him is that he was taught how “special” he is. If he needed an A, some teacher gave him an A when he only deserved a C. The way was paved for him, and he has trouble dealing with criticism now …
The notion that the President of the United States is some sort of under-achiever – this president, of all presidents – is beneath retort. But it is worth wondering why Rush Limbaugh believes only the “special” should feel entitled to a “living.” I have always assumed social safety nets exist precisely because so many people aren’t special, but “deserve” a “living” anyway because they’re human.
Rush Limbaugh played a great deal of Mr. McCullough’s speech on his radio program. Interestingly, he omitted this bit:
Americans, to our detriment, [have] come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point … 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 Bowden than the well-being of Guatemalans.
Good thing, too, lest Guatemalans get the idea the world owes them something.