A soft-spoken, bespectacled English teacher was giving a commencement speech one spring day in 2012.
He never thought the world would pay it any attention.
But the Internet was watching.
And 2.4 million YouTube views later, that teacher, David McCullough, Jr. is still talking about that speech and the book that it launched.
The speech’s message and the book’s title are one and the same: “You Are Not Special.”
“If everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless,” he told his graduation audience. “We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.”
Of course, many people could have said what David McCullough, Jr. said that day.
The fact that I’m writing about this public high school teacher from Wellesley, Mass. speaks to one of those deep, universal mysteries in life.
“We all know very hard-working, worthy, talented people for whom success proves elusive,” McCullough told me recently. “And we also know people who don’t seem at least outwardly to deserve much success and for them, it falls in their lap.”
Serendipity is a theme of McCullough’s success.
And while I think he deserves his meteoric rise, it’s not just because he served as a classroom teacher for 26 years.
He challenges what education is about today.
“I think it’s much more important to set aside concerns about success and instead devote yourself to the project in front of you,” he said. “I’d like to see kids emerging from high school enthusiastic about learning and not so much patting themselves on the back for one kind of achievement or another.”
McCullough excoriates helicopter parents, overbooked extracurricular schedules, standardized testing and the constant exhortations that kids receive about winning and losing.
He spoke at the Savannah Book Festival.
I asked him for an interview while he was here.
I was interested in his thoughts on whether schools are teaching kids the right things.
“Many people are discontent with the situation in American education today,” he said. “I would contend that putting all of one’s eggs in the standardized test basket is not the way to go. For me, performance on a standardized test is a poor determinant of what it means to be educated.”
The culture of testing leads high-achieving young adults to obsess about results, trophies, performances and college applications.
We label students “successes” or “failures” with how they run these gauntlets.
And in doing so, I believe, we diminish their lifelong love of learning, their well-roundedness and their independence.
“Parents today are so anxious to see their kids enjoy the cultural plums that they intercede at any sign of a wobble,” McCullough said. “They’re denying kids these very instructive experiences of handling things on their own.”
Of course, some young adults aren’t high-achieving and don’t have positive role models as parents.
And they independently go down the wrong path.
McCullough was speaking that spring day to well-to-do kids in a wealthy Boston suburb.
“Were I speaking to a different audience, I would have given a different speech,” he says.
I’d actually like to hear that different speech.
But that doesn’t discount the one he gave.
“I’d like to free kids from the notion that they have to impress other people,” he says. “Just be yourself and appreciate all there is to appreciate about life and your interests. I think that’s available to everybody, not just privileged kids.”
This message isn’t new.
It goes back to Sophocles.
But the media are new.
Serendipity struck McCullough with one medium – YouTube.
Now it can strike you with another – my conversation with him on my podcast.