A Very Special Commencement Address


President Obama delivered a pair of  commencement speeches this year. At Barnard College and at the Air Force Academy.  Our president is a gifted orator.  His speeches were dynamic and inspirational. .  But it was a Boston high school teacher  who stole his thunder and delivered the most talked about commencement speech of 2012.  The so-called "You're not  special" speech.

David McCullough Jr.(son of the famous historian) spoke to the graduating class of Wellesley High, where he teaches English.  He told the young men and women  about to get their diplomas that they've been "pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped." He seemed to be puncturing the pretensions of a generation indoctrinated by their parents in the belief that self-esteem is the greatest good  in life and a bruised ego is the greatest evil.

But this was only a  clever  rhetorical ruse to drive across the  real message.  It came at  the end  of his speech. McCullough said that education should be for the exhilaration of learning. Not for material advantage. Wisdom is the chief element of happiness.  And a moral sensibility should be developed and protected.   The time-honored pursuit of truth and virtue.

"And read, " he said. " Read all the time. Read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect.  Read as a nourishing staple of life."

"Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself. Love everything you love."

A tall order.  Are young Americans up to the challenge?  Will they come to realize  that  what makes each of us special is the capacity to know and to love? That what is most important is not what we have but what we are? That, in the words of William Jennings Bryan, "if a man measures life by its accumulations, these usually fall short of expectations; but if he measures life by the contributions which he has made to the sum of human happiness, his only disappointment is in not finding time to do all that his heart prompts him to do" ? 

Only time will tell.



Filed under: education

Tags: David McCullough Jr.


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  • One of the real problems in education, in my opinion, is the increasing speciality of studies, especially at the university level. There are professors of, say, increased motion biometrics, for instance. What? I mean, huh? What? A professor of it?

    The idea of learning to increase wisdom is a lost one, and discredited, not only here but around the world, for the most part.

    The art of thinking is a lost one. The lack of a liberal education is already seen in today's world, where whole swaths of knowledge are not known to those who are "governing" the world. They can never get it right, because thy cannot deduce a correct answer. They are hopelessly lacking information and background that takes a lifetime of learning and experience to achieve and process.

    Excellent post.

    Too bad McCullough's speech was not uttered a generation ago.

    Is it too late? I think not. There will come a time in the not -so -distant future where the paper money we exchange and the credits assigned to us by credit agencies will be useless, and most of the "stuff" sold to us by Madison Avenue will have no survival value.

    Knowledge and wisdom will once again hold the day.

  • In reply to Richard Davis:

    Thanks, Richard, for the kind words. I hope your crystal ball is right. I'm optimistic too.

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