WBUR

Wellesley High’s ‘You’re Not Special’ Graduation Speech Goes Viral

BOSTON — Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough Jr. is hoping that as he steps out of the classroom for summer break Thursday, he can step out of the spotlight a bit, too.

Two weeks have passed since McCullough gave a graduation address that’s generated enormous interest online, and in not just national, but international media. In his speech, McCullough — whose father is the famous historian David McCullough — steered clear of the typical praise and platitudes heaped on graduates. Instead, he tried to give them a reality check on their significance in the world.

“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,” McCullough said in his talk.

The address, which was a big hit with the crowd, has come to be called the “You’re Not Special” speech, because McCullough told the graduates that no fewer than five times.

McCullough came to our studios earlier this week, and WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer asked him what’s wrong, in his view, with kids leaving high school feeling important.

“If you send a kid out with an inflated sense of self, somebody’s going to pop that balloon,” he replied.

As for response to his speech, McCullough said those who call him disgruntled have it wrong: “I am not a bitter person. I am far more chinchilla than I am snarling badger!”

Overall, he said, the experience has been somewhat surreal.

David McCullough: It’s a very strange sensation for someone who’s been shambling along quite happily in obscurity to suddenly be the media darling of the moment.

Sacha Pfeiffer: What message did you want to get across to the kids? Was this intended to be a harsh message?

I wouldn’t call it harsh, no. I hoped it was realistic. Several people who have taken lines out of context –the sensationalizers and carnival barkers who are looking for a sound bite to exploit for ratings purposes — seized on that “you’re not special.” I hoped that pointing out that they’re not exceptional, they’re not special, would be liberating for them. If children are treated like they’re special, there is an implication, particularly from demanding parents, of expectation. Don’t you know you’re special? That means you should be achieving more than you are. And that expectation pressures kids, and that pressure makes them conservative and safe and unwilling to take chances. And that, in my view, inhibits their capacities or the possibility of growth.

You talked about some lines being taken out of context. And the line that is most often quoted is, “You’re not special.” Of course, what comes after that is, “Everyone is special.”

Of course. Of course.

But what do you mean by that? That everyone is special?

That everyone deserves to be treated with respect and taken seriously and cared about. Everyone on the planet. If everyone is special, then it kind of nullifies the concept of specialness. I wanted to emphasize for them that though you may have been the valedictorian, though you may have been a touchdown hero, that doesn’t make you a more important person. And when I sit and I look at my students in my classroom, each one of them is as important to me as any of the others.

There’s a point in your speech where you said: “If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. We Americans, to our detriment, have come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.” Would you pick up a little bit after that?

No longer is it how you play the game. No longer is it even whether you even 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 mid-level curriculum is called Advanced College Placement.

So this gets at the idea that at the most elite colleges, it’s not even great grades that are enough. You just need to be a knock-out student with ridiculous extracurricular activities.

That’s the perception, certainly. And so kids and their loving, well-meaning, ambitious parents want very much for their kids to have access to the best, and so they schedule them up to the earlobes and they demand from them extraordinary achievement in everything they do, and suddenly any capacity for self-determination or experimentation or failure goes right out the window. I try to tell my students that the only adult to whom they owe anything, really, is the adult they’re going to become. And they shouldn’t want that person to look back at them and shake his or head and say, “Oh, jeez. You blew it. You should have been thinking differently.”

So in many ways this is as much or more a critique of parents, it seems, than of students and kids.

And 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.

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  • Bob

    Well said. Celebrate sanitation workers, those in textile factories, masons, farmers, etc. Those are the ones who truly impact our lives.

  • rod

    This may be one of the most thoughtful, realistic, and yes, positive commencement speeches ever; trumping the endless “hitch your wagon to a star” varieties of pap that students (and their parents) have had to endure for generations.

  • Alan

    Well said, let’s hope all us parents listen to Dave to create a better and useful society. Also in the Globe and Mail a year ago there was an editorial call, a graduations speach ‘What should really be said’ that was college graduates that echo’s David’s themes.

  • Phillip

    Beautiful and thoughtful. COnsiderate and respectful of young people as more that the certificates and trophies on the wall. As a parent it is so difficult to set standards, adhere to them and avoid the self serving braggidocio when talking with other parents. Growing up is a long slow process, and it is painful as well. Encouraging young people to do good that they enjoy doing, for the good it does, rather than what it gets them is the heart of good citizenship.

  • David

    I live in Acton, Mass., another town of (often) over achieving kids and highly expectant parents. Mr. McCoullough’s comments certainly echo my experience. (I feel I need to add that I love my town). I think/hope that my kids have managed to live active and sane lives. They were both involved in a local dance studio, the Acton-Boxborough Dance Center. It is an inclusive, non-competitive environment. From the start, the founder gave out five-year awards to kids — not for skills, but for commitment and perseverance. I love this. It honors community. It identifies achievement as hard work and sticking to something over time. The “best” and “not-so-best” dancers receive equal awards. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could translate this approach to other endeavors? By the way, my daughter, who will be graduating high school next year, with also be receiving her 15-year award.

    • Lin

      “ The ‘best’ and ‘not-so-best’ dancers receive equal awards. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could translate this approach to other endeavors?”
      I think you missed the point of Mr McCullough’s speech.  If everyone gets accolades, regardless of talent, the accolades mean nothing.  Some people are remarkable in some particular area, but most people perform within one standard deviation of the average on most things.  Hence the term “average.”

  • Oliver

    best graduation speech in a long, long time. Congrats to Mr. McCullough for having the guts to give this speech to this audience! (I am a Wellesley resident and my kids will take his class in a few years, hopefully!)

  • nicoise

    I’ve said before, This idea of over-praising your children as a problem is very much an upper-class first world problem.  If you ever worked in a low-income, high crime area you know children don’t need to be told “you’re not special”.  There are much worse outcomes to a person’s life than having their ego deflated.  Everyone will eventually learn disappointment and failure.  Children who do not receive encouragement and praise at home are not very likely to receive it elsewhere.  

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_7VQC6JAQ7NFMTFPACOJGUKUJ3Q Charles

    This speech was inappropriate.  Man was created in the image of God. McCullough’s atheistic tone during this commencement is extremely depressing. America is special. If no one is special then why do anything. This was nothing but a harsh lecture from a deppressed English teacher.  Mr. McCullough, grades matter, in fact they are the most important factor in obtaining a college education and getting a job.  McCullough’s speech represents a decline in American thought and patriotism.

    • O2b21nsf

      You totally missed it Charles.  America is declining because of people striving for the grades devoid of passion or purpose.  Fame and riches are what people seek instead of true achievement.  Keep perspective on what you mean to the world.   As far as being special, everyone counts or no one counts.  On your deathbed, as you recount your life, do you think you will be most satisfied over your grades or job?

    • gifted ed teacher

      I find it odd that you so quickly bring up that Man was created in the image of God. What does that have to do with anything? I don’t think this address represents a decline in American thought at all. Many of  the great innovators of the world were and are American. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs come to mind, and if they were created in the image of God, they didn’t appear to get the message.  But our public educational system, sadly underfunded in all but the wealthiest districts, can’t keep pace with the creative, design and technological demands of the world around it. And letter grades are more and more becoming obsolete, archaic, as useful to our world as patriotism and gods.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_7VQC6JAQ7NFMTFPACOJGUKUJ3Q Charles

      There are many children who are left behind in American schools because educators do not want to educate children from broken homes, who come from poor parents, or who do not perform well on standardize testing. In my opinion,  McCullough exaggerated that every child in public schools is treated special by every instructor. McCullough purposefully avoided any reference to Christianity in his speech; living a life of purpose and inspiration. McCullough created a world void of any hope, innovation, or joy. McCullough went a step further and told those students what they are suppose to believe;  controlling their lives by telling them that if they travel to Paris they are not allowed to consider that an achievement. McCullough is a smart talented gifted person but I can’t call him special, since that is apparently how he does not view himself.  Students need to have the freedom to view themselves, as they want to view themselves without being publicly humiliated by an English teacher.

      • TMH

        What are you talking about? Your comments are very strange.

    • Moorepp

       There is no god and you’re an idiot.

    • TMH

      Why would you say this was inappropriate. It was very appropriate. Please try to look at the whole picture here. He wasn’t saying humans aren’t special or anything about God. I have a real hard time trying to understand peoples thought process when they get all caught up with a single part of a speech and twist it to something it wasn’t. High School students today need to be in-touch with how the world will see them. As a parent we think are children are special but not everyone feels every child is special this is the point of the speech.

    • TJLee089


      Man was created in the image of God.”  Which God? History is full of  those who have killed and been killed in the name of God. Apparently there is wide disagreement about what God’s image is.

      “atheistic tone”  Where? How does lack of reference to God invalidate the message?

      “America is Special”  The U.S. has some wonderful history (oldest surviving democracy) and some terrible history (slavery), as do most other nations.

      “no one is special”  The message is that not everyone is special. On average, people are only average.

      “deppressed English teacher”  Absense of “rose colored glasses” does not make one depressed.  

      “grades matter”  Not if everyone gets an A.

      “they (grades) are the most important factor in … getting a job”  Five years into that first job no one cares about college grades. Performance is all that matters. (Pssst! Don’t let the college students in on this.)

      “McCullough’s speech represents a decline in American thought and patriotism”  Honestly is never unpatriotic.

    • Maats

      With all due respect,  you couldn’t be more wrong. First his speech had nothing to do with God or patriotism. He simply reminded these kids that life will no longer treat them with kid gloves simply because of who they are. He encouraged them to do what makes them truly  happy instead of getting locked into some dead end relationship or job because they’re too afraid to “step out”.  Most of all his speech was intended to give them a sense of perspective and the knowledge that there’s really no such thing as being special, and becoming aware of that provides a sense of liberation.

  • SherrieN

    This went viral for a reason and best guess is that reason is: It makes sense and is real. It is inclusive, honest and respectful.  Having sat through graduations and awards ceremonies I have, more than once, had to force myself to stay quiet and in my seat as I listened to utter nonsense, exaggerated praise and impossibly positive predictions for the future. Thank you Mr. Mccullough for your integrity and courage to respect your audience enough to tell everyone in it the truth. More of this approach, here in the USA and around the world just might make the entire planet a better place for all of us to share. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joe-Heffel/1435038911 Joe Heffel

    McCullough speaks to the legions of us who reared our kids to stand on their own feet and to be able to fall on something harder than a Tempurpedic without sustaining a brain concussion when the need arises.

  • TMH

    Good for Mr. McCullough, his statements are very true. Hopefully the students understand what he was trying to get across. It appears that some of the adults reading or hearing about this didn’t understand what he was saying.

  • Scott Yorkovich

    McCullough was half right.  There is an important part of the equation that he didn’t recognize (and couldn’t at a public high school).  He is right that we should not see ourselves as special.  When we elevate ourselves as special, the whole fabric of
    society is stressed and the entitlement attitude becomes reinforced.  Where McCullough is wrong (or at least what he couldn’t say at a high school graduation), is that we ARE special where it counts — We are special in the eyes of our creator.  See this article at
    http://goo.gl/nQgrd

  • Maats

    Mr. McCullough appears to be a very thoughtful, intelligent and introspective individual. I think his message clever, humorous and most importantly, spot on. Kudos for being honest and caring enough to tell the truth. 

  • Nridley

    Very interesting.

     The fact that he has the confidence to do this in the face of orthodoxy, and that it has gone viral shows the tide, that ebbs and flows has turned.

    This is another demonstration that things are not going to return to normal

  • Todd
  • Bethany

    My psychology teacher showed this to us this year and I went home and shared it with my friend and boyfriend. I found this speech amazing as did my friend and my boyfriend. It is the truth and I agree with everything he said.

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