Wednesday, June 6, 2012

"You're Not Special"

Making the rounds today, a commencement address: Wellesley High grads told: "You're Not Special", from a high school English teacher, David McCullough.
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.
But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.
The "middle class kids are spoiled by everyone telling them they're special" meme, while popular, is so false it's just obnoxious. Yes, Barney exists, and middle-class parents try to encourage their kids whenever possible ("good job!"). But all of our efforts are totally negated by our kids' school experience, as this teacher should know better than anyone. Middle-class kids today are utterly stressed out by school, from pointless homework that eats what we used to call "free time", to the jacked-up competition for college placement.

What a lousy way to begin adult life, collecting rejections from colleges. Of course, collecting rejections from employers is no better.

McCullough goes on to offer completely generic American-dream advice, which you can also hear from Barney:

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 ... Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself.
The current crop of middle-class high-school seniors, after years of overwork and stress, is facing a ruined global economy and an uncertain future. They deserve much better than to be talked down to by pompous windbags like this one.


  1. i think people need to learn this message. There are almost 7 billion people in the world, but most teens and young adults think the world revolves around them. What makes them any more special than those other 7 billion people? People need to stop thinking of only themselves. Parents are probably trying to get this guy fired when he probably just taught them on of the most valuable lessons. after trying to get him fired they probably consoled there children, rubbed their back, and helped them wipe their asses.

  2. Believing one is special will not do anything to alleviate the stress you spoke of - learning to work hard and towards one goal rather than expecting things to be handed to them is the best way to alleviate or work within this stressful world!

  3. Yup Anonymous, someday you and I will both be dead, like everybody else. Indeed, we'll fall away. Yet the world will remain, like an egg, no less full. So you ain't special, you ain't nuthin at all in the grand scheme. Most inhabitants of our planet surely don't wear seat belts, watch movies, make comments on blogs, so why then do you? What? You think imagine yourself a snowflake?

  4. PsychMom comments:

    Call me confused. The link at the beginning didn't work for me so I don't have the context for the teacher's comments. If he taught in a school that didn't permit teenagers to take aspirin on their own, made parents sign homework, or banned dangerous things like basketballs (not a joke), then I don't know why he's not taking some responsibility for the coddling.

    Then, I don't understand why he would expect children to reject the education he just provided in favour of rebellion. Everything that happens in school is geared to destroying interests, continuously doing work you have no interest in and finding ways to circumvent work. Think for yourself????? What? That is highly discourged in school generally.

    Finally, I don't understand any of the three previous comments. I must be missing something.

    Has anyone read Seth Godin's "Stop Destroying Dreams"? I will find a link...I would be interested to hear people's perspectives on that.

  5. PsychMom adds:

  6. I agree with PsychMom (not to mention FedUpMom). Even if it were beneficial to college grads to hear this message for the first time, the truth is they've heard it zillions of times, all 3 aspects of it. Since their earlier days our culture has told them, "You're spoiled by your parents, you're not interesting or unique, and you will only have value as a human being if you go out and do something that expresses your unique special wonderfulness."

  7. I think the schools are doing a fabulous job of teaching the kids that they are not special. That's why you don't see hordes of adults clamoring to be treated like kids are treated in school. Bathroom pass, anyone?

  8. So pampered kids are, these days, in school. The endless boring test prep, the disappearing recess, the fifteen-minute lunches, the occasional shackling.

    Everyone knows that life's a bitch and then you die. So it's really important to abuse kids throughout their childhoods, so they can get used to it.

  9. @PsychMom, I believe the link is now working.

    @Chris, damn straight.

  10. David McCullough wins the sub-genius award for this one.

    A. You're not special. There are millions just like you.
    B. Do whatever special thing your special heart wants.

    The transition from the unconditional love of parents to the conditional appreciation of the wider world can be tough. Some advice about how best to meet those conditions might have been more helpful than 'you suck, but don't try to fix that.' McCullough just sounds like a grumpy old man unhappy with his role in life, but unable to do anything better, so he gratuitously dumps on kids.

    Oh, wait, he's a high school teacher. Never mind.

  11. PsychMom says:

    Ok, I read the speech. The message would be better delivered to Grade 7 kids...

  12. They deserve much better than to be talked down to by pompous windbags like this one.


  13. While I feel that, for some people, it's better to find out that "you're not special" before reality hits you in the face, I still don't think that being talked down to in such a condescending manner is the ideal way to receive the message.

  14. Great post, FedUpMom! This part sums it up for me:

    "But all of our efforts are totally negated by our kids' school experience . . . . Middle-class kids today are utterly stressed out by school, from pointless homework that eats what we used to call 'free time', to the jacked-up competition for college placement."

    My sense is that parents are not so much mollycoddling their kids, as trying to protect them from the stresses of contemporary schooling, stresses that people like the teacher giving the speech never had to experience.

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