Every year around this time, a few notable lines from a few notable commencement speeches start insinuating themselves into the canon of "words to live by." Recent favorites include Steve Jobs' 2005 speech at Stanford ("Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life"). Then there was Stephen Colbert's 2006 address at Knox College about "saying yes." Also in 2005 was David Foster Wallace's now-enshrined speech at Kenyon College, which discussed freedom, among other things, and which I won't even try to sum up in a single quote.
This year, the most buzzed-about graduation speech was delivered at a high school. In a June 1 address at Wellesley High in Massachusetts, David McCullough Jr., an English teacher there (and son of the famed writer and historian of the same name) informed the Class of 2012 that "none of you is special."
Though you barely have to type McCullough's full name into a search engine to find a copy of the transcript (there are also currently 142 million views on YouTube), here's a quick sample.
"Contrary to what your U-9 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."
There are few cultural nerves more sensitive these days than the one connected to anything related to parents coddling their children — and the fallout from the self-esteem movement that got underway right around the time this current crop of graduates was learning to walk and talk (and was being lavishly praised for doing so). McCullough, who didn't so much touch that nerve as clamp a Vise-Grip on it, has been barraged with interview requests, discussed in op-ed pieces and blog posts, and, unsurprisingly, branded a hero by Rush Limbaugh, who devoted a large portion of his show to replaying — and lavishly praising — the speech.
McCullough is not the first commencement speaker to have his words go viral. But I can't think of another who was invited on multiple talk shows because he's started an international (yes, the foreign press even covered it) firestorm. Sure, there's a certain cheap thrill to the topic — because who doesn't enjoy feeling superior to someone else and because it's a lot easier to talk about spoiled teenagers than about, say, the financial collapse in Greece. But in watching the video of McCullough's speech, I couldn't help but think that its ultimate appeal was not its tough-love message but the fact that it was not the least bit tough to understand. It's simple and familiar.
Grade inflation and trophies awarded just for participating may be worth griping about, but they're certainly not news. Moreover, the speech, for all its references to Whitman and Epictetus, is still more ham-fisted than nuanced.
It's still, after all, a high school speech. It doesn't ask as much of us as Colbert's "say yes" speech did, which required listeners to burrow past his fictional persona and separate the irony from the sincerity. It doesn't ask even a fraction of what Wallace's speech at Kenyon did, which required that we rethink the very idea of learning how to think.
Instead, it tells us what we already know; it justifies the feelings we already have. And that, as any pop songwriter will tell you, is how you wind up with a hit.
At least as long as there's an audience out there. And year after year, the ink and airtime generated by commencement addresses remind us just how hungry people are for the ritual of sitting down and listening to impassioned, heartfelt advice delivered from a podium. This hunger is, of course, one reason people attend religious services. It's why they attend lectures by self-help gurus and watch TED talks on the Internet. It's also why, every graduation season, we designate a few speakers as our resident wise men, elevating their remarks from well-meaning, arbitrary tips for the future into a kind of secular gospel.
This year, we chose a gospel that bluntly reminded us how unspecial we are. Meanwhile, its deliverer has become a star. If that's not advice on how to succeed, I'm not sure what is.