Monday, July 2, 2012

The Less-Frequently Discussed Second Half of the "You're Not Special" Speech

In this blog’s time-honored tradition of providing commentary on cutting-edge issues that everyone’s already forgotten about, I present for your enjoyment the “You’re Not Special” Wellesley high school graduation speech.

Youtube’s great and all, but I really recommend reading the full transcript.

For those who haven’t heard (or haven’t clicked above), last month, English teacher David McCullough told the entire 2012 graduating class of Wellesley high school, their families, their friends, and (after the resulting media frenzy) the world, that if everyone was special then no one is, that in 2012 American high schools would graduate 37,000 valedictorians and 37,000 class presidents, and that today’s graduates have been pampered and complimented all of their young lives instead of experiencing the hardships they needed to grow. This of course got people talking more than the humdrum “Go out and achieve!” speeches usually do. Most commentators (Rush Limbaugh included) took McCullough’s side, launching rants against the younger generation comparable to an angry grandfather waving his cane at the neighborhood kids for wearing sideways caps and low-riders.

But I don’t want to talk about those things because they’ve all been said before. I, however, am more interested in another section of McCullough’s speech that antsier Youtube viewers might not have reached:
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.
McCullough’s explanation for why we love praise and awards more than personal fulfillment is, I fear, accurate, because if we’re constantly in competition with each other for the best grades, the best colleges, and the best jobs, then deeds that bring those rewards closer to our trembling grasp become all the more precious. It makes us desperate to get the things we want: we’d do anything. In a dishonest world, if we don’t take the fabulous prizes by any means necessary, then someone else will. If the average high-school senior, worried about getting into the college of his or her choice, was faced with whether to carefully research and prepare a term paper for a class in which he or she already had an A, or join an overcrowded after-school club whose leadership qualities would look really good on a college application, which would that student choose? How often have you seen a co-worker follow correct protocol, say something intelligent, or work a lot of overtime not because it was the right thing to do, but because the boss was watching?

The most satisfying actions aren’t always the ones that carry the most reward. The girl who wrote all those Twilight books earned far more fame and riches than John Kennedy Toole ever did for writing A Confederacy of Dunces, but which will likely last longer? Moving past the soundbites, McCullough’s speech speech actually calls for a more honest world where people work to produce something real (like a Guatemalan medical clinic) and not just to fill up their resumes with important-sounding achievements and program names.

 And I’m not just saying that because I got rejected from Bowdoin back in high school