Special Is as Special Does
Modest, thoughtful David McCullough defended and explained his “You’re not special” high school commencement speech on CBS on Monday. The clip is below, and certainly worth viewing.
McCullough quietly observes that he has been a high school English teacher for 26 years, and consequently he knows students and understands what they need to hear. And what they need to hear isn’t that they are special in every way, but that they should start considering their responsibilities and their obligations to others and think about how they can be of service. Noting that students have come to feel more entitled over the years he has taught, McCullough stands by his comments, but regrets that he himself has become the story rather than the graduating seniors he addressed.
Many (but not all) of those who responded to his speech praised him for his courage and candor. The LA Times, for example, lauded his “bald honesty and overdue dose of reality,” noting that the move to promote self-esteem, which began in public schools over twenty years ago, has contributed to students’ sense of entitlement but has not been linked to better learning or better behavior. Instead, we saw grade inflation and a belief among children that they were much better students than they actually were (see Jean Twengy’s work).
I’ve written numerous articles and a book that deal with the same topic – that focusing on children’s self-esteem at the expense of actual accomplishment fosters a belief that nothing really is expected from them (and by the way, self-esteem and accomplishment are not opposites). When elementary teachers insist on giving every child a “most improved” award or summer soccer coaches give every player a trophy for just finishing the season, it means nothing. Of course, every child is special to his or her family, but McCullough is right to point out that neither employers and nor the world in general will have the same attitude as your family.
My own take, after watching the speech, is the same as Stephanie Hanes, writing in the Christian Science Monitor – “I admit to being a bit surprised that McCullough felt he needed a defense at all. His words were refreshing, honest and beautiful.” Those who took the time to listen to the entire speech will see that criticism of it is essentially unfounded.