Teachers everywhere are hailing the commencement speech given by Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough, Jr. to the schools’ graduating seniors- and I’m one of them. The speech, which told the students, “you’re not special,” has gained notoriety in the few short days since it was delivered on June 1, 2012 in the posh Boston suburb, where in 2009 the average house or condo price was $839,850 and the average median household income was $133,359 per year. Described in the media as a “rant,” labeled “bizarre” by the UK Daily Mail, and described as “the most blunt commencement speech ever,” McCullough’s address seems to echo the thoughts of educators at all levels.
In addition to all of my friends who are gleefully sharing links to the speech on Facebook, blogs and chat streams all over the Internet are lighting up with comments such as this one on The Washington Post, in which UrbanDweller said, “As a teacher, I say this is an absolutely brilliant commencement address!” On The Huffington Post, blogger Adam Kirk Edgerton responded to the speech with this comment:
“I love this speech. It’s exactly what a lot of sheltered, advantaged students need to hear (sorry for the assumption, but Wellesley is pretty affluent). The economic realities of today demand a lot more honesty from us as teachers. And having gone from an urban to a suburban district, I’m still learning how to deal with the “hagglers” – students who expect and feel that they have a right to a wide variety of grade adjustments, modified assignments and extra credit options.”
I suspect the reasons teachers have responded so positively to McCullough’s words are the same that make me think it’s one of the best commencement speeches ever: it speaks directly to some of the things that educators see hindering even the best and the brightest college students today. While the media has focused on the “you’re not special” aspect of the speech, it has neglected the full context of those words: you’re not special-unless you make yourself, and your life, special, by making good choices and embracing hard work for its own sake, by eschewing false accolades for meaningful contributions. McCullough followed up his “you’re not special statement” by saying,
“But, Dave,” you cry, “Walt Whitman tells me I’m my own version of perfection! Epictetus tells me I have the spark of Zeus!” And I don’t disagree. So that makes 6.8 billion examples of perfection, 6.8 billion sparks of Zeus. 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. We have come to see them as the point – and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole. 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 Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans. [Read the full text of the speech here.]
I see evidence of this attitude among my students nearly every day, from the complaints of students who do not want to read anything unless it’s going to be on the exam, who want to know if they can do a PowerPoint presentation instead of a research paper because they can use the PowerPoint as part of their employment portfolio, or who complain about their grades because “they’ve always gotten high grades before.” These student responses all spring from what Professor Marshall Grossman of the University of Maryland and many others have identified as a culture of entitlement among today’s college students that causes conflict with faculty.
My experience working with entitled students is similar to that of countless educators, and is supported by research. According to James Madison University psychology associate professor Tracey E. Zinn and her colleagues, who have examined entitlement attitudes among college students today, there are several common characteristic beliefs among these students that professors have noted:
- Entitled students believe that “knowledge is a ‘right’ that should be delivered with little effort or discomfort on the student’s part.”
- Entitled students believe that high grades are the reward not based on “mastery of material, but in return for non-academic aspects of education, such as the student showing up to class, or the student or her family paying tuition or taxes which go to the teacher’s salary.”
- Entitled students often think that poor performance on a test “is a sign that the test was too difficult, not that the student did not understand the material.”
Zinn found that the result of such beliefs is that “students that scored high on an assessment of academic entitlement were less able to regulate their own learning and had less sense of control.”
Viewed in this context, McCullough’s speech actually does the Wellesley grads a favor: instead of resting on their laurels, in order to ensure that their successes and the advantage they’ve had as students in an excellent school system continue, he reminded them that they need to take control of, and responsibility for, their future lives. McCullough reminded them,
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. You’ll note the founding fathers took pains to secure your inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness-quite an active verb, “pursuit”-which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots roller-skate on YouTube. … The point is the same: get busy, have at it. Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands.
Perhaps McCullough comes by his appreciation of the larger context these students have graduated into through his father David McCullough, Sr., the esteemed Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and host of PBS’s American Experience, who must surely have inculcated his son with an understanding of how vital it is to see individuals within a larger framework. Students must understand that they do not exist as individuals within a vacuum, and that the work they do must stand on its quality alone-which only they can ensure.
But I wouldn’t doubt that he also came to these conclusions watching generations of students rely on their old tricks instead of embracing all their new opportunities to the fullest. And since that’s what all educators really want for their students-a happy, successful life lived to the fullest-it’s no wonder that David McCullough, Jr.’s speech has made educators everywhere breathe a sigh of relief and think: “Finally, someone came right out and said it.”