Welcome To The Real World – Brutally Honest Graduation Speech Ruffles Feathers

Do you remember the graduation speech from your high school commencement? What about your college graduation? Don’t feel bad if you don’t; I don’t have a real clear memory of either, even though neither is all that far in the rear view mirror. Just about all of these speeches is the same; a heartfelt walk down memory lane, designed to eloquently summarize a four-year period in ten minutes or less.

The speaker usually touches on the highs and lows of the high school or college experience: the lessons learned, the friends made, the opportunities savored. Your standard, run-of-the-mill graduation speech is part nostalgia, part inspiration, a touching farewell to childhood and an optimistic introduction to the real world.

Well, at least most of the time…

If I had to guess, I’d say the Wellesley (Massachusetts) High School class of 2012 won’t soon forget their graduation speech. David McCullough Jr., the son of famed historian (if there is such a thing) David McCullough, gave the keynote address to graduates earlier this month. In his speech, the history teacher admonished the so-called trophy generation, reminding them that when everyone gets a trophy (or an “A” in English class, or accepted into the same college or university, etc.), the value of that trophy is diminished. McCullough went on to tell them in no uncertain terms, “You are not special.”

It’s true that, as McCullough says, today’s trophy generation “pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped.” (To read a full transcript of McCullough’s speech, click here. Since the day they were born, these children have been told they are special – extraordinarily so – and have grown used to having things go their way. This is the generation whose moms and dads inspired the creation of the term “helicopter parents.” This is the generation that, as so many of my teacher-friends have told me, lacks the respect for authority and discipline their predecessors held dear. This is the generation whose childhood was framed by the attacks of 9/11 (the class of 2012 was just beginning the second grade when the towers fell), whose adolescence was defined by the Great Recession.

McCullough’s unusual graduation speech has been both vilified and glorified in the social media universe. Many have chided him for his words, saying he failed to show respect for his students. Others praised him for telling these pampered students on the precipice of the real world where they really stand among their peers.

Where do I stand?

I agree with McCullough. When the vast majority of students graduate from high school, they are nothing special. So you were captain of your high school’s football team? So were more than 16,000 other student-athletes across the country. You graduated at valedictorian? So did the top student at each of the more than 18,000 high schools in America. Maybe
you scored a perfect 2400 on your SATs. Good for you… and the other 383 people who took the college entrance exam last year.

My point isn’t to diminish the accomplishments of a high school senior; my point is, simply, that there’s very little to differentiate one student from another at that stage of the game. At 18, you still have – relatively speaking – your whole life in front of you; who knows what you’ll become? At that age, I’m sure I thought I was something pretty special, but looking back on my 18-year-old self, I can now admit that I knew nothing, was nothing… at least, not yet.

Readers, do you agree with David McCullough Jr.’s graduation speech? What would YOU tell the graduating class of 2012?

9 Responses to Welcome To The Real World – Brutally Honest Graduation Speech Ruffles Feathers

  1. I don’t agree with it at all. The message, yes, I agree with it, but they had all of high school and they’ll have college and/or work to remind them that they have to fight to get ahead. Let the commencement speech celebrate the accomplishment and motivate them to go be special. Let every other day of their life remind them that they may not be.

  2. Ira says:

    Yes I agree with him completely! They have potential to be special, some are extraordinary, but most need to earn it.Daniel was not special at 18, but became special by 24!

    Ira

  3. Thinking something and saying it out loud are two very different things. He’s right, they’ve been coddled and helicoptered and all that but at the same time there’s no point in grinding them to dust, either.

  4. I posted on this yesterday as well, and I liked the tone of his speech – at least based on what I read about it.

    Now, I do think that we are each “special” in our own way. However, if special is used in the context of meaning “remarkable” or “extraordinary”, then no – we are not all special in that context.

    Taking that further, since we are not all special, we are not all entitled to hear accolades all the time. Not everyone wins, that’s the real world. It isn’t fair, and I wish it was different, but that’s the way it is. Best to have kids learn such lessons early in life, so they can make better decisions throughout adulthood.

  5. Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager says:

    I like the challenge he gives at the end: “Congratulations. Good luck. Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives.”

  6. Kathleen @ Frugal Portland says:

    I loved the speech. I’m guessing it impacted at least one student at the school, and for that reason, it was worth it.

  7. Jeff says:

    First, I really don’t see what the big deal is. I pretty sure I know WHY it’s a big deal. Someone said something that was not the norm and the 24-hour news shows need to fill those 24 hours. One reads the headline and the first couple of paragraphs and one stops. I get that. If one were to keep reading, however, one would read, in my opinion, a very uplifting speech. One that challenges this generation to be better than everyone has told them that they are. But you read, “You’re Not Special Speech Given at Commencement” and you take away that this is a bitter old man just chastising these poor kids on their day.
    After reading the speech, I took away something totally different. I took away a great deal of hope and optimism (or at least, the opportunity for these to grow). My take was not “you are not special”, it was “thinking you are/being special (or being told you are/ trying to feel special), is nothing special.” Why do we want to be special? We should simply want to “be”. And by “being”, truly “being”, you will realize that life is its own reward (not that you should need a reward, or “trophy” anyway).
    Yes, you aced your SAT’s (as 383 others do every year, apparently…wow, is it that many?), but what are you going to do with that opportunity? Because, when life winds down, if all you have to show for it is that “trophy”, you missed the boat. You should “do”, just to “do”. Trophy or no trophy. Let your experiences be your reward. Constantly strive to be better, learn more, and make this world a better place. Not because you will be remembered for it, but because of the thrill of doing it. The thrill of living. Two paragraphs near the end of the speech (probably after most stop reading) really drive this point home.
    “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.”
    I remember my high school graduation some 15+ years ago. I remember thinking, “Why is everyone so happy? What the hell does this matter?” (Of course, that didn’t make me special; I was, at least, 1 of 37,000 that year who thought that.) This generation is no different than the one before it. We thought we were great then, just as they think they are great now. They, unfortunately (in this case), due to the increase in information that flies through the air, are under a stronger microspore than we were.
    I read a quote from Aristotle today. I think it somewhat fits with this speech.
    “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” –Aristotle
    (Now, of course, Aristotle is no hero. In addition to all his great works he was a sexist, misogynist and a racist. But I still like the quote. I’ll take Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson any day.)
    “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” –Carl Sagan
    “The sky calls to us / if we do not destroy ourselves / we will one day venture to the stars” –Carl Sagan
    “For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.”
    ― Neil deGrasse Tyson
    “Curious that we spend more time congratulating people who have succeeded than encouraging people who have not.”
    ― Neil deGrasse Tyson

  8. It may not be well received but there are definitely inequalities in life and giving everyone an A for effort doesn’t fix those inequalities. It just makes the grade useless and people (read: employers) look for other badges of success to find talent to hire.

  9. krantcents says:

    Usually, graduation speeches are uplifting or inspiring. I realize McCullough’s speech may be thought provoking, but it is not appropriate to a (high school) graduation. High school students should be encouraged to do more with their lives. Much of the circumstance surrounding these students is not up to them. Most of what he describes is thanks to parents and not the child.

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