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David McCullough Jr. delivers reality check to all of us

June 15, 2012 - Betsy Bethel
David McCullough Jr. is a high school English teacher in the Boston area whose Wellesley High School commencement address a couple weeks ago has gone viral. His message: "You're not special." (The link to the speech can be found at right ========>)

He backs up his assertion with numbers — numbers so obvious, he remarks, not even an English teacher can ignore them.

"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."

His message, I think, is the spirit-nourishing stuff on which the members of the Greatest Generation cut their teeth. It's what the following generation — of which he is a member — pooh-poohed as old-school, as too harsh and mean-spirited for their free-love society, but who now realize is just what their kids needed to hear. And it's something that today's parents of young children want to understand, but they struggle to find their footing in this unfamiliar territory.

And, I hope, it's a message that today's youngest generation will embrace and fulfill, for all of our sakes.

In 12 and a half minutes, McCullough nailed America and Americans.

"Consider for a moment, the bigger picture," he told the class of 2012, "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." (That quip earned him laughter and applause.)

"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 own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, 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 mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves to a better spot on the social totem pole." ...

"As a consequence we have cheapened worthy endeavors. And building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin (College) than the well-being of Guatemalans. ..."

"Climb (the mountain) so you can see the world, not so the world can see you," he says later in his speech. "Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly."

It's reality. And reality hurts. But McCullough wants a different reality for Wellesley's grads and the classes of 2012 from the 37,000 other high schools across the country.

Here is his advice for breaking the cycle of entitlement, empty accolades, selfishness.

— "I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance." Note: Don't do it because people will think you are great, talented, selfless.

— "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." A civilization that doesn't read has no foundation and will never learn from the mistakes of the past because they won't know what they are.

— "Dream big, work hard, think for yourself. Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might." Sound cheesy? Maybe. But I believe love can move mountains. And hate topples them.

In an interview with Boston's NPR station, WBUR, McCullough clears up any misconception that he thinks he has all the answers and is better than everyone else. "I’m one of those parents, and so I know whereof I speak. I say all of these things in sympathy with these parents. I feel, too, the same cultural encouragements, the same pressures, the same desire to see my kids have access to the best education available to them, the best experience. And I don’t know what to do about it! I’m trying, I’m thinking, and maybe this speech of mine might encourage conversation, which might inspire some change."

Dear Lord, let's hope so. Thank you, Mr. McCullough!


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