By now many of you have probably seen what has become known as the viral graduation speech by teacher David McCullough of Wellesley, MA, High School. I hadn’t until this morning, although I certainly have read numerous commentaries on it. His basic premise is that none of the high school graduates sitting in front of him is special—empirically or experientially—and that they really haven’t done anything to earn all the accolades thrown their way. Instead, they have been led to believe through a life of everyone-getting-a-trophy and self-promotion that each is truly exceptional when in fact there can be only one best. After establishing that notion, McCullough encourages them quite forcefully to take action, to live a full life based on truly significant meaning. I’m vastly oversimplifying; so if you haven’t watched the speech, take the 13 or so minutes. Agree or disagree, you will react. I hope that here I also will add to your thinking about the speech, although I won’t offer any ultimate opinions about the speech itself.
I have no problem with many elements of McCullough’s message; in fact, I believe it’s an essential point for people to hear. I have some concerns about the timing and the rhetorical methodology. Is high school graduation really the place for this message delivered in this fashion?
We could debate this point ad nauseum, and people have in assorted fora ranging from YouTube comments to op-ed columns to kitchen table discussions. It’s a fascinating topic, largely because of the multiple ways it can unfold. Rather than address each of them, I want to begin by focusing on one that I find particularly disturbing because of the flawed ad hominem approach it takes in two ways.
First, naturally there are those who focus on McCullough and have judged him based on this speech. I’ve seen comments calling him a “truly great teacher” and others calling him “a pompous ass.” (As in many areas, the two can easily go together.) I don’t know. I do think that we have to consider the fact that someone chose him as speaker. Often the students bestow that honor on someone. Whoever made the choice, surely they had some idea what McCullough would bring to the event. Plus he made headlines for his 2006 graduation speech about the decrepit state of the world, when he told students to “carpe the heck out of every diem.”
Second, many of those who support McCullough do so by slamming the youth of today. They are an easy target; they always have been for the older generations. Reading some of the commentary, I would believe the current generation of young people is the worst ever, so busy naval gazing that they consider “innie or outie” the most pressing question of their age…and that we all hang on the answer.
I have to ask those people: How much time have you spent with significant numbers of young people? Granted, I encounter them primarily in the independent school world. Yet while many of these students come from a great deal of privilege, they and their families are not immune from factors and trends affecting the larger world. And the criticisms leveled at today’s youth are either explainable or not really in line with what I experience every day.
Narcissism is a natural consequence of adolescence. Indeed, it’s an important developmental stage as young people discover their own identify and forge their independence. With the amount of change in every aspect of life, self-absorption is inevitable as one tries to figure out what is happening and what it all means. Think about how change can rock you as an adult. Now think about dealing with the realities of adolescence before your maturity, let alone your cerebral cortex, has developed fully. In less glamorous and less forgiving terms, how many of us can say we weren’t self-centered twits in high school?
The world in which kids are growing up doesn’t make it any easier. Our media and technological tools encourage self-glorification as we measure value by number of followers and rate everyone as a key contributor to the wisdom of crowds. Hyper-competition, whether in academics or athletics or even arts, dares us to find ways to stand out as uniquely special, as precious.
But I also see a generation that is open and generous in refreshing ways. They are accepting rather than suspicious of others, and their generation enjoys cross-cultural understanding and connectedness that is exceptionally humane. This also makes young people particularly curious, and in many ways they are more interested in the world as a whole. I also find them more interesting because they are creators rather than consumers. For those of you who want some hard data in defense of today’s teenagers, they also do mind-boggling amounts of community service, some of it incredibly far reaching. One could dismiss that as resume building or the NBA Cares type of activity (basketball stars who brag on commercials about their outreach because “it makes me feel good about myself”), but I see it more as an outlet for teens’ idealism. And they are idealistic. The cynicism comes from how often they believe those ideals have been tarnished by adult actions.
And therein lies what for me is a key message from McCullough’s speech. When he tells the graduates, “Yes, you’ve been pampered, cossetted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped,” the question is begged: By whom? So, to quote myself from the beginning of the post, “I have no problem with many elements of McCullough’s message; in fact, I believe it’s an essential point for people to hear.” Not just those graduating high school, but those who have reared them. Actually, anyone involved with helping kids grow up. We must keep asking difficult, often painful questions about how we are influencing the next generation. It’s part of our responsibility as adults.
That responsibility is quite daunting, and I know that I come up short quite regularly. I cringe when I recall certain things I have said; I regret actions that smack of hypocrisy. Educating kids, whether as teacher or as parent, is incredibly difficult. As the old commercial for the U.S. Army used to say, it’s the toughest job you’ll ever love.