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?