Teacher Tells Graduating Seniors: You Are Not Special

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I wonder if that's the first time some of them had ever been told that. I definitely believe in boosting the self esteem of kids, that parents need to do that as opposed to tearing it down. But the balance is key, and some people have lost all sense of that balance. I agree completely that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself, and that's what makes for an extraordinary life.

LA Times

David McCullough Jr.'s speech takes on the self-esteem movement

In a commencement speech that eviscerated the self-esteem movement, Massachusetts high school graduates were told the welcome truth that praise must be earned.

June 13, 2012

John Vasconcellos could be forgiven for having a migraine right now. As a longtime California legislator, he was the driving force behind the state's Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. That group's 1989 report helped persuade schools nationwide to nurture their students' self-esteem as a way of eliminating social problems and academic failure. Yet for the last few days, the loud accolades have gone to a Massachusetts English teacher whose speech to graduating high school students dumped on all that carefully cultivated self-worth. "You are not special," David McCullough Jr. told the students — in hearing range of their parents, no less. "You are not exceptional."

And the Class of 2012 applauded. Many of the students in affluent Wellesley, Mass., appreciated the bald honesty and overdue dose of reality.

Of course, the self-esteem movement has been taken down before. Research published in 2004 found that, contrary to expectations, higher self-esteem was not linked to better learning or even better behavior. That same year, the main character in the children's movie "The Incredibles" memorably fumed, "They keep inventing new ways to celebrate mediocrity." And an international math test found that although American students ranked low on skills, they were at the top of the world when it came to believing they were good at math. There was a reason for that: They were also the most likely to report getting good grades in the subject.

McCullough took that on, too, bemoaning that today's B is yesterday's C.

The speech was not all about running down its audience. McCullough emphasized that special is as special does, that children can earn greatness rather than merely expect it. Parents love their kids for their very existence. That's a parent's job. Middle-class American childhood, with its plethora of kiddie awards — remember the seventh-place ribbons adorning a wall in the film "Meet the Fockers"? — feeds the belief that the world will look on them the same way. The lucky Wellesley students had McCullough to dash that expectation. As he told them, what will make them exceptional — or not — are their actions, not their beliefs about themselves.

The Wellesley High graduates might not be special, but they aren't stupid either. They know the current economy isn't tossing a shining future into their laps. Here was someone to give voice to that sneaking suspicion. When they encounter their first low grade in college, or an incompatible roommate, maybe they'll cope instead of calling in Mom. If so, they'll have learned something worthwhile on commencement day.


His speech

Dr. Wong, Dr. Keough, Mrs. Novogroski, Ms. Curran, members of the board of education, family and friends of the graduates, ladies and gentlemen of the Wellesley High School class of 2012, for the privilege of speaking to you this afternoon, I am honored and grateful. Thank you.

So here we are… commencement… life’s great forward-looking ceremony. (And don’t say, “What about weddings?” Weddings are one-sided and insufficiently effective. Weddings are bride-centric pageantry. Other than conceding to a list of unreasonable demands, the groom just stands there. No stately, hey-everybody-look-at-me procession. No being given away. No identity-changing pronouncement. And can you imagine a television show dedicated to watching guys try on tuxedos? Their fathers sitting there misty-eyed with joy and disbelief, their brothers lurking in the corner muttering with envy. Left to men, weddings would be, after limits-testing procrastination, spontaneous, almost inadvertent… during halftime… on the way to the refrigerator. And then there’s the frequency of failure: statistics tell us half of you will get divorced. A winning percentage like that’ll get you last place in the American League East. The Baltimore Orioles do better than weddings.)

But this ceremony… commencement… a commencement works every time. From this day forward… truly… in sickness and in health, through financial fiascos, through midlife crises and passably attractive sales reps at trade shows in Cincinnati, through diminishing tolerance for annoyingness, through every difference, irreconcilable and otherwise, you will stay forever graduated from high school, you and your diploma as one, ‘til death do you part.

No, 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 afternoon, the venue. Normally, I avoid clichés like the plague, wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole, but here we are on a literal level 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 are not special. You are not exceptional.

Contrary to what your soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re 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 high school… and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you, the pride and joy of this fine community, the first to emerge from that magnificent new building…

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. Newton, Natick, Nee… I am allowed to say Needham, yes? …that has to be two thousand high school graduates right there, give or take, and that’s just the neighborhood Ns. 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… 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks… 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. 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. Imagine standing somewhere over there on Washington Street on Marathon Monday and watching sixty-eight hundred yous go running by. And consider for a moment the bigger picture: your planet, I’ll remind you, is not the center of its solar system, your solar system is not the center of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the center of the universe. In fact, astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center; therefore, you cannot be it. Neither can Donald Trump… which someone should tell him… although that hair is quite a phenomenon.

“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. In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — 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. 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 midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement. And I hope you caught me when I said “one of the best.” I said “one of the best” so we can feel better about ourselves, so we can bask in a little easy distinction, however vague and unverifiable, and count ourselves among the elite, whoever they might be, and enjoy a perceived leg up on the perceived competition. But the phrase defies logic. By definition there can be only one best. You’re it or you’re not.

If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning. You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness. (Second is ice cream… just an fyi) I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning. It’s where you go from here that matters.

As you commence, then, and before you scatter to the winds, I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance. Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about, lest you too find yourself on the wrong side of a Baltimore Orioles comparison. Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages. And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it. Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself. Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might. And do so, please, with a sense of urgency, for every tick of the clock subtracts from fewer and fewer; and as surely as there are commencements there are cessations, and you’ll be in no condition to enjoy the ceremony attendant to that eventuality no matter how delightful the afternoon.

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 rollerskate on Youtube. The first President Roosevelt, the old rough rider, advocated the strenuous life. Mr. Thoreau wanted to drive life into a corner, to live deep and suck out all the marrow. The poet Mary Oliver tells us to row, row into the swirl and roil. Locally, someone… I forget who… from time to time encourages young scholars to carpe the heck out of the diem. 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. (Now, before you dash off and get your YOLO tattoo, let me point out the illogic of that trendy little expression–because you can and should live not merely once, but every day of your life. Rather than You Only Live Once, it should be You Live Only Once… but because YLOO doesn’t have the same ring, we shrug and decide it doesn’t matter.)

None of this day-seizing, though, this YLOOing, should be interpreted as license for self-indulgence. Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things. Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

Because everyone is.

Congratulations. Good luck. Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives
 
Well said.

I wrote something similar on my blog a few months ago. It's nothing special :wink:

Just my take on the same theme, inspired by a particularly difficult student who was encouraged in the belief by the folks at home that she was special.

Here's the link for those interested: Here in America: Special
 
What a completely pointless and obviously attention whorish thing to say
 
I am annoyed (slightly tangential to the article) when grade inflation is brought up, along with comparing the "average" grade over time to demonstrate how coddled and infantile students are.

Guess what? Which courses are required v. elective and the week in the quarter/semester that students can drop a class (i.e, how self-selecting are the results?) are significant in terms of calculating what the final average grade is. I don't think it's off-limits to moan about how terrible today's kids are, but unless you recognize and bother to point out how this case is different than literally every other generation in history hating their kids, I'm going to save time and ignore you.
 
Grade inflation is a bit of a canard these days. It's vastly more difficult to get into top tier colleges than it used to be. It's an incredibly competitive world. It makes sense that most students in competitive colleges actually are working harder and are much, much more aware if their GPAs than in decades past. People forget what "the Gentleman's C" was actually about.
 
I've read a lot of anecdotal evidence from professors and lecturers that they feel students of this current generation come in and ask for marks to be raised a lot more often or that students have the expectation of a higher grade. :shrug:

Take with a grain of salt, of course.
 
What a completely pointless and obviously attention whorish thing to say


Pointless because. . ..

it's wrong?

self-evident and not worthy of unpacking?

true but but shouldn't be said?

true but graduation is an inappropriate place to say it?

And in what sense do you find that the speech was designed to draw attention to the speaker; i.e. get his name in the media, what have you? Perhaps any speech that doesn't pull out the usual tropes about "striving for your dreams" and so on is by default attention whorish?
 
Pointless because. . ..

it's wrong?

self-evident and not worthy of unpacking?

true but but shouldn't be said?

true but graduation is an inappropriate place to say it?

And in what sense do you find that the speech was designed to draw attention to the speaker; i.e. get his name in the media, what have you? Perhaps any speech that doesn't pull out the usual tropes about "striving for your dreams" and so on is by default attention whorish?

Oh, sorry. BVS is right. I should've quoted
 
Grade inflation is a bit of a canard these days. It's vastly more difficult to get into top tier colleges than it used to be. It's an incredibly competitive world. It makes sense that most students in competitive colleges actually are working harder and are much, much more aware if their GPAs than in decades past. People forget what "the Gentleman's C" was actually about.


I agree. I feel that what's expected have students has really changed since I was a kid. It used to be you learned to read in 1st grade. Now kids are expected to learn to read in Kindergarten.

Algebra I used to be a freshman class, no students are routinely expected to have taken it in 8th grade.

I know that's all the lower end of the education spectrum, and I admit that I felt it was extraordinarily easy to get A's while working on my masters degree, but I do think that the idea that "grade inflation" has made it "easier" is an oversimplification.
 
The problem with grade inflation is that it runs rampant in the elite private schools like Harvard, Yale, etc. Which then means that those students are the ones who will be populating most of the elite medical schools, law schools, business schools and graduate programs. And then you have a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You can make the argument that those schools have already "vetted" the students and that somebody at the bottom of Harvard's class is still better than somebody who is mid-range at a state school, but it isn't always true and it really wasn't my experience in the work force.
 
Well said.

I wrote something similar on my blog a few months ago. It's nothing special :wink:

Just my take on the same theme, inspired by a particularly difficult student who was encouraged in the belief by the folks at home that she was special.

Here's the link for those interested: Here in America: Special

I enjoyed your article. I would rather have replied there than here, but couldn't quite figure it out (drunk, with a toothache:|:crack:) cause it seemed more appropriate. It's nice to be able to follow you somewhere.

I never thought I was special. I always thought special was what you did, not what you were. Always thought I had to earn special. But I got a pass on unique.
 
I enjoyed your article. I would rather have replied there than here, but couldn't quite figure it out (drunk, with a toothache:|:crack:) cause it seemed more appropriate. It's nice to be able to follow you somewhere.

I never thought I was special. I always thought special was what you did, not what you were. Always thought I had to earn special. But I got a pass on unique.

Thanks for reading. :) Hope the toothache is feeling better and the hangover was mild :wink:
 
You have no idea how much I had to edit my above post. I do not type well drunk. I do drive better. Truly. Scary, huh? But I've stopped that.:angel: I'll let you know how the toothache is when the drunk is done.
 
Grade inflation is a bit of a canard these days. It's vastly more difficult to get into top tier colleges than it used to be. It's an incredibly competitive world. It makes sense that most students in competitive colleges actually are working harder and are much, much more aware if their GPAs than in decades past. People forget what "the Gentleman's C" was actually about.

In high school when I told my counselor what schools/programs I wanted to apply to, he gave some copies of the high school's grading scale since some of the schools were ones that no one from my HS had applied to in recent years. I'm not sure if this still happens but when I graduated there were schools giving out 4.1, 4.2, etc and ironically many of these schools had graduation rates below 70% and seniors that could barely read above a fifth grade level. At my school a 4.0 was perfect, meaning you got 100%. I think I graduated with a 3.9 and I was an A/A- (97-100%) student all four years. My parents slaved away so that we could go to a very good private school, but without any context my 3.9 was "meh" next to a 4.3.

The inflation problem and attitude that everyone has to feel awesome all the time permeates beyond school. In the world of German Shepherd dog trialing we have the same problem with Schutzhund (our sport of tracking, obedience, and protection). Scores are getting inflated and now getting a great score and a top TSB (fighting drive) rating no longer means anything because it doesn't set you apart. There was recently a good article in one of the Schutzhund magazines about how a few decades ago, a really good, strong dog got "G" (gut/good) and "SG" (sehr gut/very good) scores and the trainers/handlers were perfectly happy with that. Now everyone is obsessed with getting "V" (96-100) ratings and training dogs to be really flashy and precise. The training has certainly come a long way but the dogs themselves are weaker and dumber. :(
 
In high school when I told my counselor what schools/programs I wanted to apply to, he gave some copies of the high school's grading scale since some of the schools were ones that no one from my HS had applied to in recent years. I'm not sure if this still happens but when I graduated there were schools giving out 4.1, 4.2, etc and ironically many of these schools had graduation rates below 70% and seniors that could barely read above a fifth grade level. At my school a 4.0 was perfect, meaning you got 100%. I think I graduated with a 3.9 and I was an A/A- (97-100%) student all four years. My parents slaved away so that we could go to a very good private school, but without any context my 3.9 was "meh" next to a 4.3.



this is where standardized testing has it's place. sure, it's flawed, and it really measures how you took the test, but at least everyone is taking the same test.

i went to a high school where A's were tough to achieve, particularly in the honors/AP classes -- but test scores were sky high, both on statewide achievement tests as well as SAT's. i could name at least a dozen of my classmates who had an 800 on either the math or the verbal, and there were a few perfect SATs. and college admissions officers, at least at highly competitive schools, should be equipped to know the difference.

while legacies do enjoy some preferential treatment in admissions, it's nowhere near what it was when, say, in the 1950s and 60s when surname Bush (or others) guaranteed you admission to any school of your choice in any field. it's vastly more meritocratic, and i'd imagine your median student today is churning out higher quality work than your median student was in 1965. back then, they didn't have women to compete with for admissions, just for starters.

agreed with the "everyone is awesome" mentality and how that needs to end. i think there's merit to giving people individualized feedback, good or bad, to show that a coach or a teacher is paying attention and is valuing students and is taking an active interest in how we are all unique. it drives me nuts when i hear parents exclaiming, "WOW! GOOD JOB BUDDY!" at everything their kid does. i think it's much more meaningful to say, "you did some careful work building that sandcastle" or "i like how you shared your toy" or "i thought your third flipturn looked really good and that's where you made up time in the race" to be much more meaningful, especially for the kid. hearing "WOW BUDDY GOOD JOB" all the time seems almost like disinterest. praise effort, not outcome, to show how outcome is dependent upon effort.

i dunno, rambling. i should go to bed.
 
This discussion of marks just reminds me of a couple of American exchange students I knew who had a really hard time adjusting to the fact that at Australian universities, 75-79% is considered a pretty good mark and ≥80% is excellent. When they got their first assessments back, they were disappointed to get an 80% - and then very confused to see Aussie students congratulating each other on getting 77%.

Now when I'm tutoring and have any exchange students, I take them aside to make sure they're aware of how we mark. Usually they're not, and are very grateful to know that 72%, rather than being a bad mark, is actually our average. I'm surprised they're not actually told this sort of thing ahead of time.

What has struck me, though, from all of these conversations is how normal ≥90% is taken to be by Americans and it makes me wonder 1. how inflated the marks are and 2. if most of the rating scale below 70% or even 80% is simply not used, because that's how it sounds. I know barely anybody here who has got over 90% for an item of assessment, and in my own marking I probably only give it to one in twenty or thirty essays.
 
This may be totally unrelated, because it's not about grades so much as positive/negative feedback—but as a college student, I feel like when teachers or other people in the critique position give only negative feedback, it's really difficult to be productive. If people say only, 'what you're doing is shit,' instead of being helpful, it just...stops all motivation.

But more ontopic—It's a well enough crafted speech, and I agree with most of it. But I'd be really irritated if I had to sit through this guy's speech, because just as many kids whose opinions of themselves and their work are inflated, there are probably kids who've just been receiving the negative feedback and don't need to sit through it, truthful or no. People aren't special? Yeah, been informed of that. I think kids are smart enough to figure it out.

It's probably difficult to think of graduation statements. Most of the ones I've heard that stick with people are the cynical ones like this, that acknowledge that the world isn't a fair place, you're gonna have to work hard for a mediocre life and harder to be perceived as talented, etc. I mean, how to be realistic about the world students are heading into?
 
You don't think someone bragging about drinking and driving deserves to be ridiculed?


I didn't respond to your first comment because you're entitled to your opinion. I meant it as a lighthearted comment, but could see how someone might bristle at it. Just wanted to respond here because I don't think bragging would be the correct description. I had/have a phobia about driving. A few drinks relaxed me and I at least perceived I drove better.

However, I also realized it was stupid and dangerous and I do not drink and drive, nor have I for many, many years (hence the comment in my original post that I stopped that and the angel icon)

I do promise however that next time I use a throw away comment, I will add commentary in long, tedious explanations and clarifications such as this one.
 
Axver said:
This discussion of marks just reminds me of a couple of American exchange students I knew who had a really hard time adjusting to the fact that at Australian universities, 75-79% is considered a pretty good mark and ≥80% is excellent. When they got their first assessments back, they were disappointed to get an 80% - and then very confused to see Aussie students congratulating each other on getting 77%.

Now when I'm tutoring and have any exchange students, I take them aside to make sure they're aware of how we mark. Usually they're not, and are very grateful to know that 72%, rather than being a bad mark, is actually our average. I'm surprised they're not actually told this sort of thing ahead of time.

What has struck me, though, from all of these conversations is how normal ≥90% is taken to be by Americans and it makes me wonder 1. how inflated the marks are and 2. if most of the rating scale below 70% or even 80% is simply not used, because that's how it sounds. I know barely anybody here who has got over 90% for an item of assessment, and in my own marking I probably only give it to one in twenty or thirty essays.

This certainly isn't the case everywhere. At my university, at least in my majors (economics and electrical engineering), the "90 is an A, 80 is a B" scale gets thrown out the window. I've seen tests where the average score is well below fifty percent, and an A is roughly a 70% or so (probably the top fifth of test takers). And the Econ department at my school actively pressures professors to give around a certain percentage of people each letter grade in certain classes. In both cases, grading becomes mostly just relative to classmates, and the number of As is limited by that.

However, I don't think that's the case in most liberal arts departments at my school. One of many reasons why the average GPA for someone in liberal arts is much higher than the average GPA for someone in engineering, despite the fact that engineering is much harder to get into in the first place.
 
I tend to see the "grade inflation" phenomenon as something of a myth. I have been around a lot of college and high school teachers in my day, and I would say that for every one who grades "leniently" there are two who explicitly fight against what they perceive to be grade inflation. I graded for a professor in the Humanities once who insisted that the class average needed to be 80%, regardless of the overall quality of the papers and projects. To me, artificially lowering grades is a much more egregious evaluation practice than allowing multiple A marks. For me, if every student were to earn an A based on the standards that I set, every student would receive that A.
 
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