Until he gave the commencement speech at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts in 2012, David McCullough Jr. was just an English teacher best known for being the son of Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David McCullough. But that 12-minute speech changed everything.
In his remarks, McCulloch excoriated the practice of cosseting children, encouraged students to read and love and fail and live life fully, and most famously, he told the graduating seniors, “You are not special.”
“I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know,” he told the assembled, “how little you know now…at the moment…for today is just the beginning. It’s where you go from here that matters.”
Where the speech went was viral: It has been watched over 2 million times on YouTube—earning McCullough a book deal, as well as an abundance of television and radio interviews and praise from the likes of Rush Limbaugh.
Nearly two years later, McCullough’s thin if timely address is now a book. You Are Not Special and Other Encouragements is meant as an extension of McCullough’s jeremiad. It bemoans the negative aspects of technology and social media, romanticizes long-ago ideals of adolescence, critiques over-involved parenting, encourages the enjoyment of the learning process and impresses upon the reader the responsibilities that accompany a privileged upbringing. Basically, it’s an argument to upper-class teens to make the most out of their high school education.
McCullough does not lack for authority. A product of a privileged upbringing himself, he has spent 26 years as a teacher in both public and private high schools, and he is raising four kids of his own. The most engaging sections of this ponderous tome are those in which he speaks from experience. There’s a great anecdote about an overzealous parent who won’t even let his son play goalie without coaching from directly behind the goal. Then there’s the tale of the Georgetown mug, a symbol of collegiate ambition that inspires various reactions from different students. But the engaging stories are few and far between, used simply as tools to prove McCullough’s many points in what can seem like a never-ending sermon.
In many ways You Are Not Special feels like 10 commencement speeches, one after the other. Each takes on a different topic—parents, college, sports—but all have the same didactic tone. Here is a man who is not searching for answers but telling you what they are. Sit down. Pay attention. Maybe even take notes.
In the foreword to the book, McCullough declares his audience to be “teenagers and anyone with an interest in them.” The problem is that no teenager will ever be able to sit through 300 pages of how to live a more fulfilling life. (My guess is that they could barely sit through his initial commencement speech.) Some parents and educators, on the other hand, will fly through the book. But with no compelling narrative, no characters, and no plot, most teens will shrug off, or tune out, McCullough’s well-intended advice.
Maybe getting teenagers to read the book cover to cover isn’t the point, though. Maybe McCullough’s objective was to prove that words and opinions matter. Despite all the over-sharing on social media and useless prose they are subjected to on a daily basis, teenagers should understand that language can be wielded with great effect.
After all, two years ago McCullough was just a normal English teacher with a famous father. Now, after one commencement speech, he’s a published author and bona fide YouTube sensation.
You Are Not Special: and Other Encouragements, by David McCullough Jr., Ecco, April 22