The recent commencement speech given by English teacher David McCullough Jr. to the graduating class of Wellesley High School has ignited a firestorm of controversy with its simple message:
You are not special. You are not exceptional.
The speech has been both criticized for being mean-spirited and praised for being a wake up call to a generation of coddled and self-absorbed kids. For McCullough, it was his way of saying have realistic expectations, figure out your place in the universe and devote yourself to selflessness. Through selflessness, he states, comes the recognition that you’re not special, because everyone is.
Another less controversial comment McCullough made is that a full and distinctive life is an achievement and not something that will fall in your lap or you automatically deserve. Truer words were never spoken.
Without question, the dignity of the human person is rooted in their creation in the image and likeness of God. So, in this way each person is truly special and exceptional. Still, good grades, a nice beach house, a successful rigging project, or even a loving marriage, are not birth rights we are owed. These and other measures our culture uses to gauge “success” come as a result of hard work. In fact, “Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation.”
If Barnhart Crane were to write the opening line of a commencement speech it might go something like this:
“Embrace the ever-changing, ever-evolving world.” Jane Lynch, 2012
“I don’t believe in luck. I believe in preparation.” Bobby Knight, 2010
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.” Steve Jobs, 2005
And finally, “Always wear sunscreen.” Mary Schmich, 1997