Sunday, June 10, 2012

Your Tattler News & Review Sunday Edition: "You're Not Special"

(Mod: Yes, it is Sunday, which means it's time for another of our weekly "News & Review" features. Today we have just one item, a portion of a high school commencement address delivered by an English teacher by the name of David McCullough. What he had to say to the graduating seniors of Wellesley High School, Class of 2012, was rather unique to this particular - and universal - occasion. Or at least as far as I can tell. If you wish to read the entire speech - and you really ought to - you can do so by clicking here.)

"You're Not Special" (Boston Herald.com)

Commencement is life's great ceremonial beginning, with its own attendant and highly appropriate symbolism. Fitting, for example, for this auspicious rite of passage, is where we find ourselves this afternoon, the venue. Normally, I avoid cliches like the plague, wouldn't touch them with a ten foot pole, but here we are on a literal level playing field. That matters. That says something. And your ceremonial costume, shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all. Whether male or female, tall of short, scholar or slacker, stray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you'll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma, exactly the same.

All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.

You are not special. You are not exceptional.

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. And, certainly, we've been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs. Absolutely, smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet. Why, maybe you've even had your picture in the Townsman! And now you've conquered high school, and indisputably, here we have all gathered for you. The pride and joy of this fine community, the first to emerge from that magnificent new building.

But do not get the idea that you're anything special. Because you're not.

The empirical evidence is everywhere, numbers even an English teacher can't ignore. Newton, Natick, Nee... I am allowed to say Needham, right? ...that has to be two thousand high school graduates right there, give or take, and that's just the neighborhood Ns. Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That's 37,000 valedictorians, 37,000 class presidents, 92,000 harmonizing altos, 340,000 swaggering jocks, 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. But why limit ourselves to high school? After all, you're leaving it. So think about this: even if you're one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you. Imagine standing somewhere over there on Washington Street on Marathon Monday and watching sixty-eight hundred yous go running by. And consider for a moment the bigger picture, your planet, I'll remind you, is not the center of its solar system, your solar system is not the center of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the center of the universe. In fact, astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center; therefore, you cannot be it. Neither can Donald Trump, which someone should tell him, although his hair is quite a phenomenon.

"But, Dave," you cry, "Walt Whitman tells me I'm my own version of perfection! Epictetus tells me I have the spark of Zeus!" And I don't disagree. So that makes 6.8 billion sparks of Zeus. You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another - which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality - we have of late, we Americans, to our detriments, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. 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 mantlepiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole. No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it. Now it's "So what does this get me?" As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans. It's an epidemic - and in its way, not even dear old Wellesley High is immune - one of the best of the 37,000 nationwide, Wellesley High School, where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement. And I hope you caught me when I said "one of the best." I said "one of the best" so we can feel better about ourselves, so we can bask in a little easy distinction, however vague and unverifiable, and count ourselves among the elite, whoever they might be, and enjoy a perceived leg up on the perceived competition. But the phrase defies logic. By definition there can be only one best. You're it or you're not.

If you've learned anything in your years here I hope it's that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning. You've learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness. (Second is ice cream, just an fyi). I also hope you've learned enough to recognize just how little you know, how little you know now, at this moment, for today is just the beginning. It's where you go from here that matters.

(Mod: McCullough, the son of a famed historian also named David McCullough - the "Jr." thing is never easy, I know - ended his remarkable talk with upbeat advice about the value of hard work, finding your passion in life, living it to its fullest, the very real possibility of exceptional accomplishment, all that. But he also said this: "The fulfilling life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you're a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer." Enjoy your Sunday.)

http://sierramadretattler.blogspot.com

40 comments:

  1. I read the whole thing AND the last two lines. You get a very different perspective when you do.

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  2. So what is graduation? It is the ceremonial beginning to the next part, that is why it is also called Commencement.

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  3. Sunday morning, a prayer of thanks for The Tattler.

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  4. I think in another setting this would be called psychotherapy. Assuming, at least, if the psychotherapist was an honest one.

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  5. The comments attached to the Boston Herald piece are priceless! Quite a controversy there, it seems.

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  6. I can just imagine this guy thinking ...so what am I going to say, again, to this year's bunch. What is his premise? Outside of this hyper privileged area a lot of hard working, hard scrabble kids and their families are very proud of their accomplishments at this time year as they graduate commencement.

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  7. My feelings are hurt. I'm going to sue. Where can I find this guy?

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  8. A beautiful speech.
    It applies to everyone.
    His premise?

    ...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 any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about, lest you too find yourself on the wrong side of a Baltimore Orioles comparison. Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages. And read... read all the time... read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it. Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself. Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might. And do so, please, with a sense of urgency, for every tick of the clock subtracts from fewer and fewer; and as surely as there are commencements there are cessations, and you’ll be in no condition to enjoy the ceremony attendant to that eventuality no matter how delightful the afternoon.

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  9. While I appreciate the importance to honor the graduates on getting to the goal of graduating, it is a celebration of getting there, and worth honoring.
    It may be a little produced, long winded, and I don't agree with everything expoused in it. It does get into the topic of government education, and what it has become in our society.It philosophically aligns with McCullough's thinking about education..

    Link-- http://www.thrivemovement.com/?utm_source=Email%2BPartner&utm_medium=Tipping%2BList&utm_campaign=THRIVE%2BLaunch

    It was produced by "Thrive", see what you think, it takes 2 hours to watch, make some popcorn.

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    1. 2 hours of a Sunday is too long to look at something that could be from Quakers (yay) or Scientologists (boo). Who finances Thrive? Want to say what you think of it, and is the author of the brilliant high school commencement speech a part of it?

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    2. Anti-"Thrive" site:
      http://helpfreetheearth.com/news461_thrive.html

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    3. I'll never buy Febreze again.

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  10. "Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it."
    Amen.

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    1. Gandhi's 7 social sins: politics without principle, wealth without work, commerce without morality, pleasure without conscience, education without character, sciences without humanity, and worship without sacrafice. Gandhi said that these things can destroy a nation and they can destroy individuals.

      A little humility and discipline go a long way.

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  11. My theory on why children are over-rewarded and praised for what are in actuality very small accomplishments is the narcissism of many parents. Unable to achieve the kinds of specialness in adulthood that they always believed was their right, they now lavish it upon their children in hopes that these pseudo-accomplishments will shine upon them as well. In the end it is the driven individual who creates for him or herself those things that stand above the common mien. Everything else is just pretty much an empty show with about as much significance as a Mayor Moran award certificate.

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    1. Maybe a part of that is also a result of the condition of part-time parenting. So many people have to have both parents employed in order to make it, that the kids are in day care before they're 6 months old - and the parents try to make up for all the hours they miss with their children.

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  12. So whatever did happen to Baby Jane?

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  13. Isn't she on the Sierra Madre City Council under an assumed name?

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    1. Oooh. Good point.

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    2. She's ready for her close up, Mr. DeMille.

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  14. Heat got ya down, Blanche?

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  15. "I coulda been a contender. I could been SOMEBODY."

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  16. Thank you 10:21 am. We are 34th of the developing nations in EDUCATION. Our children expect a reward for everything they do and many parents give them money for their grades. There are many children who feel entitled and really do not work that diligently at all.

    European children learn 3 languages, attend school for a full day, and have RESPECT for authority and especially their teachers. They also know more about American history,geography, public speaking than the average American. (think Palin, Bachman...)

    Our work is outsourced not just because it is cheaper but because we do not have enough well educated graduates in Science and Math.

    Sadly, being special means you have 2 parents behind you, or you have seen the writing on the wall and you are pushing yourself. To think that a teacher is part of your success is no longer part of the American dream. Soon, education will all be online, and children will not be important and matter even less.

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  17. Double up the bubble you live in...I was thinking about the overload we face on all levels starting with kids birthday parties... Maybe there is a market for retro birthday parties: cake/ice cream, Hawaiian Punch (remember that?) or milk, gift for the birthday child and prizes if you won the game. No goody bags for all, no piñata cum pony ride cum bouncy house. Holy guacamole, Catfish, where did simple go? Now what about weddings and graduation elaborations... Don't get me started...

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    1. Lot's of helicopter parents out there.

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  18. Wow - 12:35, do you really have to bash Palin and Bachman? What facts can you present here to justify your rude comments about these two successful and intelligent women?

    Seems to me you're just another liberal hack hiding in your "Anonymous" digital fox hole who has resorted to the tired tactic of attacking a conservative because you don't have anything else intelligent or fact-based with which to offer an opinion.

    Or, maybe you're just a misogynist?

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    1. Earl Grey, the tea for people who wish they were drinking bergamot instead, but who haven't had enough education to know what it is.

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    2. 2:31, it's too easy. According to Palin:
      Paul Revere warned the British, sputnik bankrupted the Soviet Union, the Vice President runs the senate,
      the Constitution is based on the Bible, the founding fathers said the Pledge of Allegiance, Democrats moved "In God We Trust" on coins, and New Hampshire is in the Northwest. A matter of record.

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    3. And no slouch in inaccuracies made and defended, Bachman:
      The founding fathers ended slavery, the Soviet Union is rising, Lexington and Concord are in New Hampshire, Democrats cause Swine Flu, and Obama emptied the strategic oil reserve

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    4. A bergamot is witty remark about a cheeseburger by a New Yorker.

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  19. From the web:

    "The tenants of modern trailer parks live in more luxury than early Sumerian aristocrats, whose mansions were reed huts with dirt floors. The motor scooters of unemployed college students travel faster than the horses of medieval lords. Civil War generals communicated by courier, but now every private has a mobile phone. Progress impoverishes the past. Complaints feel childish when you think of your ancestors. I grumble when my air conditioning breaks in summer, but in ancient Egypt even Pharaohs had to sweat. "

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  20. I have two college degrees and still don't have the presence, experience or smarts as Palin and Bachman. Yet, I do have the satisfaction of being in my world (Sierra Madre) and think that I am doing some good as a watchdog and rabble rouser. I am also of an age that does have respect for authority and know that I have to work for what I get. Most of Today's children have neither the desire to work, nor do they have the proper respect of their fellow man.

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  21. Earl Grey. Howmis your nom de plume something other than a respelling of Anonymous?

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  22. Single parent of Special EdJune 10, 2012 at 5:40 PM

    Palin and Bachman are really not well informed and scholarly women. They may have won elections but they are not women who are well traveled and are classically educated. Palin left Hawaii because some of the natives made her feel "uncomfortable"....her words, and Bachman did not get a law degree from an accredited Law School.

    Both preach morals.....he that lives in a glass house.....

    And, it is rather interesting that Palin has a Down Symdrome child and never once has spoken to the American people with compassion about the emotional and financial difficulties and challenges of raising a Special Education Child.

    Interesting how people claim to be CHRISTIAN and PATRIOTS yet, when they have money they care nothing about anyone without money who is challenged with the difficulties of raising special education children. Such compassion you show to your followers, Sarah.

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  23. Single parent, if Sarah Palin is such a disaster, why don't you run for Governor of ANY state (or Congressional seat) and see if you can get elected. Then you can tell me how smart you are.

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    1. So winning an election is a measure of intelligence.

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    2. Not always. After all, the Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem of Sierra Madre won elections.

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    3. We could also point to John Edwards - and in the interest of reaching across the aisle, Dan Quayle.

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    4. 8:52 If Single Parent runs and wins, should s/he abandon the constituents after half a term for $$$ ?

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  24. Ahh, Palin and Bachman. Few thoughts put more fear into me than imagining my child as one of them.

    I often envisioned that I would whole-heartedly support my child as a struggling poet or artist, perhaps even one that may not achieve success, but one who earnestly tries, nay, strives to evoke the ideals, the promise of the human condition.

    But when I see the Palins and Bachmans of the world, people who pride themselves in their ignorance -- not merely an ignorance resulting from a mediocre grasp on the ideals of Enlightenment, but a shrewd ignorance, a very performance art of uniformed thought, simultaneously real and faux, calculated solely to perpetuate a chosen meme -- I find myself thinking that perhaps the next generation will instead need to fill the trenches of law and politics in the continuing struggle against arrogant nescience.

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