The Commencement Address that Went Viral

The psychology of David McCullough Jr.'s Speech

Posted Jun 14, 2012

High school commencement

Lily Tomlin once said, “I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework.” That’s exactly what David McCullough Jr. accomplished last week when he delivered his now famous “You’re not special” high school commencement speech. He gave students, parents, teachers, and all adults who care about youth something to take home and think about.

In today’s world, we think out loud, through blogs, editorials, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and all other sorts of social media. And indeed, people have been talking. The media put a negative and confrontational spin on the story, with articles like Time Magazine’s, Should We Stop Telling Our Kids That They’re Special? or The Washington Post version, Commencement Speaker Blasts Students. The Huffington Post headline, David McCullough, Wellesley High School English Teacher, Tells Graduates: 'You’re Not Special,' enticed readers with his quote, taken out of context.

The headlines were not only misleading, but the articles really missed the point. A far cry from blasting students, David McCullough’s message was that all kids are special. And indeed they are.

So why the media frenzy? Why the passionate blog comments from adults and teens? Because David McCullough Jr. gave all of us something to think about. And that’s the sign of a great teacher. 

As I read and listened to McCullough’s address from the perspective of a developmental psychologist, I found that many of the ideas behind his remarks support the research in child and adolescent development. In fact, I’ve written about many of those ideas in this column over the past year. Here are some of the lessons his speech reinforced and why we should teach them to our kids.

Six Lessons from McCullough’s Speech

Everyone is Special

When we teach kids that everyone is special, we teach them respect and kindness. When we constantly remind them that they are the best or brightest, they learn to look down on others.

Learning is a Journey

When we teach kids the value of learning over grades and trophies, we nurture their independence and self-reliance. When we pressure them to get the best grades in the class, they falsely learn that success is measured by money, status, and other outward signs of achievement.  

Affluence is a Privilege

When we teach kids that everyone has the same needs but not the same opportunities, we teach compassion. When we buy them success through affluence, we teach them to feel entitled. 

Strengths of Character Create Happiness

When we teach kids character strengths like honesty, courage, and fairness, we give them the tools to live a life of happiness and well-being. When we break the rules to their advantage, we teach them they can do the same.

Meaningful Goals Require Inner Purpose

When we teach kids that inner purpose comes from overcoming tough challenges and that mistakes improve their learning, we give them the initiative to engage with meaningful goals. When we assure them that inspiration will find them someday, it usually doesn’t.

Focusing on Others Brings Life Satisfaction

When we teach kids that doing for others brings life satisfaction, we teach them to be good citizens. When we lead them to believe they are the center of the universe, they begin to think they are. What kind of a society does that create?

If you haven't already, I encourage you to read David McCullough Jr.’s  full speech or watch the YouTube video. It is full of humor and great lessons for all of us. If it makes you think about your parenting, grand parenting, or the many ways we educate or interact with youth, that’s a good thing.

As you read or listen, let me know what other lessons you find. What’s special or thought-provoking about this speech to you?


Photo Credit: Werwin15

©2012 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.

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