David McCullough gave an unusual commencement speech; depending on who you listen to, he gave either one of the best or one of the worst high school commencement speeches ever.
Have you heard of him? He is the Boston area high school teacher who told students they “are not special.” That’s right, he told graduating students, those dreamy eyed teens about to set forth to pursue their dreams, that they are NOT special. He also made a statement about parents who are overly generous with compliments and shield their kids from reality. He told the audience, “You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies are meaningless…. We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.”
Many people are not impressed with McCullough. The critics would have preferred that he deliver the more typical speech – about dreams and determination and going for it. They don’t want the children of America to have their dreams – and egos! – shattered.
But my sister and I think he is refreshing. Many current parenting practices – and some educational policies for that matter – focus on building self-esteem without requiring building accomplishments. There is considerable research that has shown that empty self-esteem boosts are detrimental to people in the long run.
Our only issue with David McCullough is that he said it before we did. You see, when Catherine and I get together, as we did this week on our road trip from Charlotte to Ashville North Carolina so I could attend the TABS board meeting, we solve all of the world’s issues, whether we know anything about the topic or not. We joke that we are preparing to write a book. Whenever we find something that bugs us, and we get all worked up about it and agree on a solution, we conclude that it will be a chapter in our book – this entertains us endlessly.
One of our favorite topics, and therefore our most developed chapter (in our minds at least) is on the subject of parenting. (You should know that Catherine is 13 years younger and has no children, but that kind of detail doesn’t stop us from considering ourselves experts.)
Our chapter on parenting shares the title of this blog: “You’re just like every other snowflake.” McCullough didn’t use this expression, so consider this blog our trademark.
Ps. Listen to the speech here. It is well worth the 12 minutes – we need to push for excellence, and we need to encourage students to do what they believe in, which is essentially what he’s saying.
Pps. Read The Subversive Graduation Speech for my favorite commentary by an independent school grad.