08 June 2012

"You're Not Special"

Making the rounds on yon Interwebs at present is this year's commencement speech at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, delivered by English teacher David McCullough, Jr. The title, "You're Not Special," caught my attention. There were myriad speeches that could have accompanied that title and I confess, I became eager to learn what actually did. Then I read it. In the spirit of Jim Emerson's recent blow-by-blow breakdown of the conversation about criticism between David Carr and A.O. Scott, I offer you now my rebuttal to Mr. McCullough's speech.
Dr. Wong, Dr. Keough, Mrs. Novogroski, Ms. Curran, members of the board of education, family and friends of the graduates, ladies and gentlemen of the Wellesley High School class of 2012, for the privilege of speaking to you this afternoon, I am honored and grateful. Thank you.
So here we are… commencement… life’s great forward-looking ceremony. (And don’t say, “What about weddings?” Weddings are one-sided and insufficiently effective. Weddings are bride-centric pageantry. Other than conceding to a list of unreasonable demands, the groom just stands there. No stately, hey-everybody-look-at-me procession. No being given away. No identity-changing pronouncement. And can you imagine a television show dedicated to watching guys try on tuxedos? Their fathers sitting there misty-eyed with joy and disbelief, their brothers lurking in the corner muttering with envy. Left to men, weddings would be, after limits-testing procrastination, spontaneous, almost inadvertent… during halftime… on the way to the refrigerator. And then there’s the frequency of failure: statistics tell us half of you will get divorced. A winning percentage like that’ll get you last place in the American League East. The Baltimore Orioles do better than weddings.)
Nothing says, "Know your audience" like beginning your high school commencement speech with cynicism over marriage. Who's supposed to find that funny? The still-married half of the parents? One imagines Mr. McCullough fighting to restrain himself from having a complete freak-out and yelling about why Stella won't love him.
But this ceremony… commencement… a commencement works every time. From this day forward… truly… in sickness and in health, through financial fiascos, through midlife crises and passably attractive sales reps at trade shows in Cincinnati, through diminishing tolerance for annoyingness, through every difference, irreconcilable and otherwise, you will stay forever graduated from high school, you and your diploma as one, ‘til death do you part.
You know who should record this speech? Billy Bob Thornton. Who invokes "passably attractive sales reps at trade shows in Cincinnati" in a high school commencement speech? Let me clarify: Who might invoke that who is sober?
No, 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 clichés 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 or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma… but for your name, 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.
 "We have added your distinctiveness to our own. You are Borg."
Contrary to what your u9 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.
We've left Billy Bob Thornton and are now beginning to channel Chris Farley. Mister Rogers? You're not actually speaking to these kids. You're bitching to the parents, about themselves.
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 all have 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 you’re anything special. Because you’re not.
You know what? My mom committed the unspeakable crime of actually taking care of me and being a mother. My dad did none of these things. If Mr. McCullough's argument is that parents should all be like my dad, then I can only assume he's one of the bitterest, soulless people out there.

You can walk into an auditorium full of students whose parents were (God forbid!) affection and encouraging and you can get high and mighty about how they've set their kids up to believe too much in themselves and you can feel good about taking them down a peg. Go ahead and walk into an auditorium where the parents have been like my dad, though, and see what happens. See if you feel good about popping balloons that were never inflated. Better still, see if anyone's even there. Make that "I hate your recitals and I'm not going because you suck" doctrine standard and see if anyone ever believes in himself or herself enough to even finish school.

Yeah, I get it: there are a lot of spoiled brats out there. To idealize the alternative, though, betrays McCullough's own egocentricity. As a teacher, I am shocked that he seems to feel that what these kids needed were the kinds of parents whose distance and detachment are proven to lead to poor performance in school and every other part of life.

It's not about "toughening up." It's about stoking the fire of belief in oneself. Sure, that fire can burn too much and lead to arrogance. That's what leads us to speeches like this.
The empirical evidence is everywhere, numbers even an English teacher can’t ignore. Newton, Natick, Nee… I am allowed to say Needham, yes? …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 that hair is quite a phenomenon.
I'll see your astrological evidence and raise you a Dr. McCoy: "In this galaxy there's a mathematical probability of three million Earth type planets, and in all the universe three million million galaxies like this, and in all of that, and perhaps more, only one of each of us."

That's not just science-fiction or pie-in-the-sky fancy. That's science. I can only assume Mr. McCullough hasn't spent any time around twins because even human beings who originated from the exact same cells are different people.

This guy is an English teacher? I shudder at the thought. Literature is art, and art is about exploring humanity, asking question after question about what makes us tick and how we might understand ourselves. I cannot fathom that anyone who sees us all as interchangeable clones of one another processes any of the actual content he assigns. At least if he was a math teacher, I could understand his pompous reduction of humanity to numbers.
“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 examples of perfection, 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 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 into a better spot on the social totem pole. No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even 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.
Or, as Ricky Bobby's dad once told him: "If you're not first, you're last!" Of course, later in the movie when Ricky reminds his dad of that, he scoffs at the stupidity of it. "Oh hell, Son, I was high that day. That doesn't make any sense at all, you can be second, third, fourth... hell you can even be fifth."

McCullough's broader theme here, though, is that we as a society have become so worshipful of trophies that we don't even care that they're supposed to represent an accomplishment and now view them merely as chips to be cashed in somehow. To be clear, this trend did not appear because people became selfish. Rather, it appeared because there were lots of people who resented anyone thinking themselves special demanding to know, "So? What does that get you?" It's the current iteration of "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" Have a society full of people who shout down any sense of accomplishment that is not accompanied by a dollar sign, and you'll have a society full of people who only value dollar signs. Because the prestige that used to be symbolized by a trophy do not buy things, they are no longer satisfying.
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 how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning. It’s where you go from here that matters.
So the guy who berated everyone in the audience for thinking themselves special or somehow worthy of the lavish amounts of affection they received as children is now espousing the path to happiness? I'm on board with valuing education for what it does for someone's growth as a human being and not because it unlocks special content in life.
As you commence, then, and before you scatter to the winds, 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.
Again with the relationship cynicism. Did it not occur to McCullough that he had just branded half the parents in attendance as abject failures? Probably not. That might require some measure of sensitivity toward the situation of others that he would resent being expected of him. They, after all, are the failures and they should live in acceptance of being failures. If they didn't want to be made fun of in front of their children, they shouldn't have been failures.

Yes, I'm projecting on this one because I'm getting divorced. Regardless, it's fair to point out that McCullough sough levity in a quip that statistically had to belittle several in attendance. There was no call for that. The kids may not be getting divorced themselves on that day, but divorce is a major event in the lives of those it affects - spouses and children alike. Why would he dangle that in front of people he had to be aware would be made to feel uncomfortable by it?

Also, I despise "Think for yourself" as an axiom. What it really means is, "Think like me because everyone else is part of group think and I'm not." Because, you know, you're special.
The fulfilling life, the distinctive 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. You’ll note the founding fathers took pains to secure your inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness–quite an active verb, “pursuit”–which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots rollerskate on Youtube. The first President Roosevelt, the old rough rider, advocated the strenuous life. Mr. Thoreau wanted to drive life into a corner, to live deep and suck out all the marrow. The poet Mary Oliver tells us to row, row into the swirl and roil. Locally, someone… I forget who… from time to time encourages young scholars to carpe the heck out of the diem. The point is the same: get busy, have at it. Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands. (Now, before you dash off and get your YOLO tattoo, let me point out the illogic of that trendy little expression–because you can and should live not merely once, but every day of your life. Rather than You Only Live Once, it should be You Live Only Once… but because YLOO doesn’t have the same ring, we shrug and decide it doesn’t matter.)
Ah, yes. We all know that people deserve whatever happens in their lives. If you're a One Percenter living in the lap of luxury, it's because you're a good person who put in the work. If you're poor, it's because you're selfish and lazy.

Except, that's complete and utter bullshit.

Despite the popularity of the rags-to-riches myth in our society that enslaves Joe Sixpack to the sham that is capitalism, the truth is that we know where one starts in life plays a tremendous role in what opportunities one has later in life. We have a caste system here, though we emphatically deny it.

What McCullough ought to have said was, "You are special. You've had families who could actually afford for you to come here, to be on teams and take lessons and do all the things that set you up for opportunities that, quite frankly, a whole hell of a lot of kids out there will never have."

But then, that would require McCullough to accept and acknowledge disparity among us as a society and that is anathema to those who worship at the altar of rugged individualism, where everything is possible with hard work. I know lots of people who worked hard their whole lives and never rose above the station into which they were born. I'll be happy to introduce you to them should you ever leave your ivory tower.
None of this day-seizing, though, this YLOOing, should be interpreted as license for self-indulgence. Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things. Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.
Because everyone is.
Congratulations. Good luck. Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives.
To demonstrate McCullough's own sense of privilege, he actually seems to view going to Paris as something so commonplace that it has no meaning. In my entire life so far, I have only met a handful of people who have ever set foot in Paris. In my world, you don't even put "going to Paris" on a list of things you're ever going to actually do. At most, it goes on your list of things you would do if you had the means, which you likely never will.

That, I think, is a perfect microcosm of what's wrong with this entire speech. It's from someone who has lived in a bubble so long that he feels good about trying to burst that bubble. It doesn't occur to McCullough to suggest, for instance, that instead of going to Paris just to do it that his audience consider spending that same effort on a Habitat for Humanity project, "just to do it." Again with the "free will" rhetoric. I have long been known for not being a follower, and I can think of few pet peeves I resent more than the arrogance of that admonition. The truth is, everyone thinks for himself or herself. We don't like to admit that because we are all so certain that we're the individuals in a world of sheep. I don't defer to others about what to think, I think for myself.

You know what? Everyone feels that way. We all process whatever we hear or read, place it in the context of our experiences and understanding and reach our own conclusions. Yes, many times those conclusions are the same conclusions reached by plenty of other people. That's not because we're all mindless drones. To wit: there are plenty of people stunned that Governor Scott Walker survived the recall vote this week in Wisconsin. I've heard it suggested that the Koch brothers bought that reelection by easily manipulating the exploited electorate. No doubt, their money was more than enough to buy the kind of ad campaign that we know can influence voters and that's an imbalance that must be examined further and corrected (if possible) in the future.

But to suggest that every Wisconsinite who cast a vote in favor of Gov. Walker failed to think for himself or herself is a demonstration of complete arrogance. Every person who even cared enough to go to the polls - and attendance was at record levels, I'm told - did so because he or she valued the process of casting a vote. They wished to add their voice, not to defer to the voice of others.

No, again I say that "think for yourself" is as shallow as it is patronizing...as is this dreadfully self-important commencement speech.

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