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.
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.”
What was his “convention” in the “You’re not special" speech that was so unconventional? “I went with the convention of giving advice,” McCullough says.
On that score the speaker did not skimp on tough love. Much of the speech bears repeating.
McCullough told the graduating class of 2012, in part:
“Contrary to what your U9 [under 9] 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.”
McCullough says that after the speech a grandmother came to him and asked for a copy of it because she loved it so much. He received more than 10,000 e-mails praising his approach, he says. Among the messages were offers from agents and publishers that led almost immediately to a deal with HarperCollins’ Ecco imprint to write a philosophical memoir of his 20-plus years as a teacher.
I believe the most overlooked and underpublicized piece of the speech held the real value and purpose of the address: "You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.
“We have come to see them as the point – and we're happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that's the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole."
Today, he says, “scores of students” have thanked him for the speech in person and via e-mail. “Too many to count really, and at some point it all became a blur,” he recalls.
“My intention was to shake students out of the parent-driven 'success for the sake of more success' mind-set,” he says. “I wanted to see them find the exhilaration of learning instead of just building an impressive student résumé.”
He hopes, too, that his book will help parents discover the truth of Sophocles' words when helping their children make their way through the educational system.