Greatest commencement speech ever

Okay, maybe not ever, but surely this is one for the ages. David McCullough Jr. addresses the Class of 2012 at Wellesley High in Massachusetts:

[C]ommencement 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.

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.

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.

It gets better — one might even say Incredible — after that:

“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?”

You know a kid who needs this speech. (You probably know an adult who needs this speech.)



  1. Tatyana »

    9 June 2012 · 12:07 pm

    Bits by 100 the one my son listened to, in Lincoln Center, by then UN secretary Kofi Annan.

    And yes, I do know that kid. Even if he thinks he is an adult.

  2. CGHill »

    9 June 2012 · 4:37 pm

    Interesting commentary at Partial Objects:

    [T]he message isn’t that “we” are not special. The message is that “you” are not special. And everyone thinks that you are not as special as you think you are. That’s right. Every single person reacting to this is reacting to the fact that other people are being told that they’re not special. No one is thinking, “I wonder if he means me.”

    Also at that link: Video of the speech.

  3. Tatyana »

    9 June 2012 · 9:38 pm

    ah, but you see – I am from a different planet. I grew up in a place where the pendulum stuck in a different extreme: every kid was told he is only as good as Collective he belongs to. That an individual is 0, not 1;a person is not only NOT special, but nothing – and only worth something as part of the group. we, the post-Soviets, all suffer from diminished sense of self-respect, and have to spend half a life to make ourselves believe that we “are worth it”.

    modesty was considered the highest virtue – and there were always plenty of those willing to prove to you that you no more than dust under their feet…

  4. CGHill »

    9 June 2012 · 11:12 pm

    A point I probably should have realized. Collectives and individuals will likely be forever at odds.

  5. fillyjonk »

    10 June 2012 · 3:00 pm

    My high school graduation speaker was the then-head of the Outward Bound program; his main focus was not all that different from Mr. McCullough’s. One thing I do remember was his comment that if you’re mired in how bad your own problems were, to go and find someone else with problems and help them. And you know? It works, a lot of the time.

    I will say I do think we all have some specialness, or perhaps, value is a better word: but we also all have responsibilities, one of which is not being a royal pain to others on account of our belief in our own specialness. There are too many people out there who hear all about how they have rights, but who ignore the part about having responsibilities as well.

    I will say that my graduating class at my school may have been a bit unusual; the headmaster actually started crying when he spoke about how we would all soon scatter to the four winds…and he didn’t do that at other graduations I’d been at.

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