'You're not special' graduation speech: David McCullough spins it into a book
When his 'You're not special' Wellesley High School graduation speech went viral last year, book agents came calling. Now you can look for a book on the same theme tweaking the modern parenting culture of praise in which, he says, 'if everyone is special, then no one is.'
Last year, in a bust-your-chops commencement address to Wellesley (Mass.) High School graduates, English teacher (and, yes, namesake of his historian dad) David McCullough told students something mot modern parents would consider sacrilegious: “You are not special.Skip to next paragraph
Lisa Suhay, who has four sons at home in Norfolk, Va., is a children’s book author and founder of the Norfolk (Va.) Initiative for Chess Excellence (NICE) , a nonprofit organization serving at-risk youth via mentoring and teaching the game of chess for critical thinking and life strategies.
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This year, he is on sabbatical and is preparing more words for the American audience via a new book spun out of last year’s speech. He's at work on a “philosophical” memoir of his 20-year teaching career. Rather than making this an anecdote-heavy tome, Mr. McCullough says his focus is on the theories behind the practices of learning and teaching. The working title for his book, “The Chief Element,” has its genesis in a line from his 2012 commencement speech: “You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness.”
The YouTube video of McCullough’s speech has had 1.9 million views, a number of them from literary agents and publishers, he told me during a recent phone interview in which he projects the sense that, while he’s a nice guy, you wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of his judgment on grammar, punctuation, or parenting.
“The book is really about my experiences as a teacher over the past 20 years and not the speech,” McCullough says. “I address the kinds of things I’ve experienced, such as how students approach the educational system to see what they need to study in order to look good to a university, instead of from the standpoint of the exhilaration of learning for learning’s sake.”
He adds: “Instead of looking at learning as a glorious gift, they see it as just a step to something else that they must complete, and move on.”
Looking back at his now-famous speech, the English teacher is still in awe of the response: “I really had no indication immediately afterward that this was going to take off this way. It wasn’t until the following week when I opened my e-mail and saw the outpouring that I realized the impact.”
While McCullough told me that he “really didn’t see any negative reaction at the time and anything that came in was dwarfed by the support,” the speech did seem to spark both furor and kudos in commentary.
Love it or hate it, the speech was a watershed moment for many parents who paused to at least discuss the culture of praise some say has been created around kids, making them egocentric and lazy.
McCullough has the following advice on the art of commencement speechmaking: “It’s a different assignment, the commencement speech. Believe in the importance of what you tell them. Be sincere. Be genuine. Think about whom it is you’re speaking to and don’t go on too long.”
He adds: “Of course there are some conventions you have to stick with, but mainly the old fart stands up there and tells them what they need to know.”