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