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.