Monday, May 12, 2014

Commencement

'Tis the graduation season, which reminded me of David McCullough's "You're not special" speech from a couple of years back.

McCullough had several other points in that speech: a call to seize the day, a call to selflessness. But mostly, what caught people's attention was that a commencement speaker started out his speech by telling the day's graduates, "You are not special." And many on the internet seemed to fall on that message with a sort of glee, to read it as a smackdown of privileged young people, a call for them to shut up and fall in line.

I don't favor that reading myself. Frankly, I think that despite all we might say about children being spoiled and thinking they're smarter than they really are, despite the view that they need to be more realistic and obedient and grateful--the truth is, it is not obedience that is the best hope for humanity.


It is usually not the most obedient among us who change the world. It is not the ones who settle for the world they have been given. It is usually the complainers, the malcontents. The ones who look at what's in front of them and say, "This could be better. This is not good enough."

We need the idealism of the young. We need to be challenged on our hypocrisies and our ethical compromises and our bad habits and our lies. We need to be reminded that along with all the gifts we give the next generation, we also pass on horrible problems: growing antibiotic resistance, nuclear waste, high unemployment, armed conflict. Just to name a few.

They will be told soon enough that they're not special. Over and over again they will hear it; over and over they will confront the indifference of the world. We all do. I actually think graduation day is one of the rare days in life when one is entitled to a few pats on the back, a few hours of feeling special. All too soon, life will revert to its normal menu of traffic jams, incomprehensible bureaucracies, incurable illnesses, fruitless job searches, and the like.

Of course, when I read McCullough's whole speech, I see him saying wonderful things like, "Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others ... . 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. ... Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives."

Sadly, I think the speech will be remembered mostly as a "Get over yourself" message, when it really seemed intended to be a "Give of yourself" message. Either way ... go do extraordinary things, Class of 2014. It's your turn.

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