Service of Perspective II

June 14th, 2012

Categories: Education, Entitlements


You might see a child and a grownup walk down the street ahead of you and hear the adult exclaim, “Good job!” The child is licking an ice cream cone or holding the adult’s hand or crossing the street, nothing more.

I thought of this when Jim Roper, a friend and writer/editor, told me to listen to David McCullough’s commencement speech at Wellesley High School where McCullough teaches English. Dubbed the “You’re not special” speech by the media, it’s worth some 13 minutes of your time.

wellsleyhsHis message to the graduates was to “make for yourself extraordinary lives” and “selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself” and “do whatever you do because you love it and believe it is important” and “get busy, have at it, get up and get out, explore.”

To wake up the students he told them throughout the speech “Don’t get the idea that you are anything special.” He noted they were among 3.2 million seniors graduating from 37 thousand high schools this year which meant that there were 37 thousand valedictorians etc.

blue-ribbonHe also said:

** “If everyone is special than no one is

**If everyone gets a trophy then it has no value.

**A ‘B’ is the new ‘C’

**By definition there is only one ‘best’

**I hope you recognize how little you know”

The son of the author/historian of the same name, I get the feeling he shares this point of view with his four children, three of whom are teenagers.

I was surprised to hear John Gambling, father of three boys, former school trustee and a NYC morning radio personality who has consistently shared McCullough’s point of view, say that the media unanimously cheered the message. I’m not so sure that was the first reaction by them all.

Some considered his message a downer and questioned whether it was appropriate to the occasion. On “CBS This Morning,” Gayle King interviewed McCullough. She sounded tentative as she began: “When I first heard the speech, I rewound it a couple times and said to myself, ‘Did he really just say that?’ What was your intention, and were you surprised by the reaction?”

I’m glad his message went viral and feel that one reason service suffers is an overdose of people focusing more on how special they are than on their customers or the quality of their work.

Do you think McCullough’s “you’re not special” reality check/admonition was shocking for a high school graduation speech? Is there too much collective breath-sucking-in and finger-wagging when someone punctures a hole in the school of thought that we should praise people all the time and for no special reason?


15 Responses to “Service of Perspective II”

  1. CLC Said:

    I think it’s about time that someone sent that message. This whole “everyone gets a trophy” movement has gone too far. I think it stifles real achievement. If you’re going to get recognition without effort, why bother? It extends to things like grade inflation and changes in the sizes of clothing (why bother to lose weight if you’re now wearing a smaller size than you did a few years ago).

    Self-esteem is important, there’s no question. But it should be built on something real. I will never forget how my mother emphasized achievement and discipline when we were kids. We were expected to live up to our capabilities. Good grades and participation in extracurricular school activities were the minimum. When we achieved beyond that, she always found meaningful ways to recognize it. That made me want to achieve more. And then it became ingrained.

    It’s nice to know that you’re special to someone, but if you want to be viewed as special to the larger world, than you need to so something that is special. You need to earn the recognition. It’s not a birthright.

  2. kathleen F Said:


    Although this is the first I’ve heard of McCullough’s speech, I agree with him 100%. I recently heard a talk by the Chinese author of Tiger Mother, who caused quite a stir when her book made its debut about a year ago. She demanded her two girls work to their best ability and noted that in America children are praised for doing average work.

    McCullough has it right by saying the “best” is done really only by a few and by praising those who really are doing mediocre work is doing them a real disservice.

    On the subject of McCullough, the speech-giver’s father–I heard him interviewed when his recent book on Americans living in Paris in the 1800s (a great read, but sorry I forget the exact title) and he said that after writing pages, he would read his copy aloud to his wife to see if the cadence was good. And when one reads his work, you can almost hear someone saying the words out loud. They do have a cadence.

  3. Jeanne Byington Said:


    So well put. My mother used to note on appropriate occasions that “the tail doesn’t wag the dog.”

    Moderation is what people want. Being cruel to a child by withholding praise is as inappropriate as making a big deal over what should be expected.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Kathleen F,

    I wrote a post about the Tiger Mom. I think she went overboard, though her comments about American children were accurate in many, though not all cases.

    There’s a Tiger Mom revisited mother who lived in France and has written a book about how well behaved French children are compared to American children such as hers. The turnoff for me about this author, apart from the fact I thought she was copying Tiger Mom, [we do a lot of that here too, I’ve noticed], is that in the coverage I read about the book in The Wall Street Journal, she added how she didn’t even like the French. Being half French, that made me wince and I also thought it had nothing to do with the subject. Making such an aside, given the subject, I decided that her manners and behavior weren’t all that great!

  5. David Reich Said:

    I happened to see that interview on CBS. I don’t think he was looking to shock anyone, but rather he was using words that at first could be taken as a negative to get the attention of his audience. Then he hit them with the message.

    Interesting that he also said in the interview that he was speaking to only a few hundred graduates, and didn’t think that every one of them now has a cellphone to take video and put it online so it “goes viral.”

    Welcome to 2012, Mr.McCullough.

  6. Eddie Baecher Said:

    We are in an age of entitlement and ridiculousness, all soldiers are hero’s even though they signed an agreement with the military. We have New York’s Finest (Police), New York’s Bravest ( Firemen/people), I saw the other day on a NY City correction bus New York’s Boldest. What do we call NY City’s dept of sanitation??

    So many speeches or commencement speeches start out “you all are amazing people” or something of that sort. I applaud David McCullough’s commencement speech, it’s a nice breath of reality. We should stop all affirmative action whether it be for race creed or for the mere fact that a certain school can’t pass the grade, we lower the passing grade so the students don’t feel left out and no, they all should not get a trophy!

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Mr. McCullough admitted, on that program, that he just learned what a blog was.

    But even if he knew all about social media, the way his speech caught fire from a public high school graduation platform in a grassy Massachusetts field is breathtaking. You make speeches to thousands. Does this happen that often?

    And I agree with you–he wanted people to listen and millions have heard him!

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I’m giggling at what the Sanitation trucks might use as a slogan. Hysterical! The city’s loftiest garbage.

    As for lowering grades, it doesn’t help the students or their future employers: Nobody wins.

  9. Jeramiah Said:

    I’ll date myself by saying that I was a year behind McCullough’s father at college. It was a different time, long before it became fashionable to proclaim the hypocrisy of equality. Nothing in nature is equal to anything else. Even no two snowflakes are alike.

    I had the great good fortune to attend one of America’s oldest and then finest secondary schools. I was such a lousy student that it took me five years to complete four years of work, and even then I graduated 192nd out of a class of 192 students who did graduate.

    I believe I was complemented twice in five years on my work, and that on one of those two occasions, I was so surprised that I questioned the teacher as to why. He said, annoyed, something like, “Don’t be stupid. You know as well as I do that was a good piece of work.” And he was right. I knew I had done a good job. However, I also knew that most of my work stunk. Complements would have made me think less of my teachers. It was a tough place, and a lot of kids failed out. Why I didn’t I don’t know, but I think it was because I never stopped trying no matter how badly I did.

    Sadly, that school now operates on Johnsonian principles, admission is granted on the basis of a quota system whereby the student body demographically mirrors the country as a whole. Merit is out the window; nobody gets expelled, and everybody “gets a trophy.”

    McCullough, Jr., gave his address a few miles away, and I hope someone up there was listening.

    Curiously, I still remember what our headmaster had to say to our class. He told us similar things, but with a very different twist: that we focused too much on succeeding and not enough on looking out for the other fellow; that we were selfish and lacked compassion; that being exceptional was not as important being good, and so forth. We all thought he was jerk. He was, but he was also a man ahead of his time.

  10. DB Said:

    Hi Jeanne,

    Did you read George Will’s column today in the Washington Post …or in other papers?

    The quote came from Saturday’ s Metro section. The 9 year old quoted is Blake Layman.
    The Metro section featured two photos of Blake and a story about the Bethesda Elementary election.

    Blake is my grandson.

    Interesting that Blake (who did not win) captured the bulk of the attention. Blake took a lesson in humility and learned the pain of defeat by putting himself on the ballot, a wonderful lesson for a 9 year old.

    Of course, friends in Virginia said he must have been the Republican Candidate and could never win in liberal Maryland but would have won across the Potomac in conservative Virginia.

    On that note all the candidates received a prize for running … kids hamburger meals until July 11(extended one month to August 11 for Blake because he is in camp for the next three weeks). He visited three times this weekend and complained that he would miss all his free meals because of Camp. He spoke up!

  11. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Actually, the David of the commencement speech did make points similar to your headmaster’s…I suggest people listen to his speech and put the link on my post because I couldn’t highlight all that he said. He spoke of being selfless, not making financial success be the only goal and so forth.

    I trust you thought that your headmaster was a jerk for other reasons than what he said at commencement? Those teachers at the great schools you attended would not have been there if someone hadn’t heeded such advice. If we’re all knocking each other out and climbing to the top on a competitor’s face while patting ourselves on the back and howling about how great we are, what a horrible place this world would be.

  12. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Good for Blake! Great that he so enjoys the prize. And I think that it’s fabulous that he is able to take part in the free burger dinners in August when he returns from camp! He did something exceptional–he ran for office and opened himself up to possible loss at age 9. In my opinion, he deserves a “good job.”

  13. Lucrezia Said:

    The downer approach stinks every bit as much as deluding graduates into thinking they are headed for greatness. Of course everyone is special, but it is up to the individual to find out how to use his strengths. Is it not better to inspire people to perform rather than to tell them they are potentially worthless? Discouragement rarely, if ever, produces motivation.

    Our education shows poorly enough on an international level as it is. We have fallen from 12th place several years ago to 17th at present. What we don’t need are speakers to make the younger generation feel as or more inadequate than it may already be. If a speaker must blow off antagonistic steam, let it fall on the lousy education system. The students are victims, not villains.

  14. jeanne Byington Said:

    Maybe the speaker was addressing the parents as much as the victims. As a teacher of many years the students knew his feelings for them + that he cared–much as a parent wants a child to stand up straight or finish homework for the child’s good. Few would know them as well as he did. I would posit he has contended with hard shells of unfounded arrogance lately and that he knew how to get through to at least some of them.

  15. Lucrezia Said:

    Perhaps so, but a good teacher coaxes a student to expand knowledge, and is not a disciplinarian to bear down on the arrogant few. Even those few, if dealt with in less stentorian tones, may drop their visions of importance to persue learning.

    Parents (taxpayers) are not there to be lectured. They are the ones who have made the school possible, and who pay the salaries. If anything, they should be thanked, and under no circumstances need a lecture, no matter how indirect, on their failings. Teachers are not immune to arrogance, and many forget that many of the parents may be every bit as smart, if not smarter than they: A sobering thought given that despite inordinate spending, we remain a disgraceful 17th in the world, and possibly sinking.

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