Many a professor complains about coddled undergraduates these days. But it’s not usually the topic of secondary school commencement addresses.
But this year’s teacher address to graduating sixth form pupils at Wellesley High School, a well regarded Massachusetts institution that sees many go on to leading colleges, has set off much discussion of the topic. The talk is being called the “You’re not special” commencement address because that’s what the speaker – English teacher David McCullough – said, over and over again.
When every child has football trophies and glowing report cards, McCullough said, “you are not special. You are not exceptional...No matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you...you’re nothing special.”
He added: “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, counselled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored.”
Several times he touched on the way this plays out at high schools such as Wellesley, where many pupils want their transcripts to draw attention to their academic superiority. “We cheapen worthy endeavours, 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.”
While most people are focusing on McCullough’s criticisms, it should be noted that he closed on a more uplifting note related to his theme: “The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.”
• The text of the talk is here and video from YouTube is below.