When schoolteacher David McCullough Jr. delivered a commencement address that told the graduating class at Wellesley High School that they were “not special,” his words became a viral sensation on YouTube and Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Was he out of his mind, reversing the mantra that every affluent American kid imbibes with his or her daily Adderall? Surely helicopter parents across the country would unite to kick this dissenter to the academic curb.
Not so. McCullough found himself deluged by positive emails, more than 700 of them. Only four emails, he tells us, were critical of him. It seems there was a pent-up parental rage out there about the very syndrome the parents themselves have created. Having spent their kids’ school years barging up to the head teacher’s office to insist their sons and daughters did not deserve to get a mere B-plus, did deserve to make the soccer team, must be given the history prize, should be applying only to Ivy League schools, it seems that affluent parents now have a major beef with how their offspring ... correction, the offspring of others ... are turning out. Just a bit entitled perhaps? A little unrealistic in expectations? A little complacent?
There’s a growing dystopian groundswell of opinion that we’ve given our children everything—except for the thing they need most and the thing no one can provide, the ability to find their own core passion without artificial support. And the understanding of how much work, how much sheer effort, it takes to succeed. In McCullough’s My Turn essay on page 26, he describes his recent experience of waiting nervously in the greenroom at CBS with economics Nobel laureate Paul Krugman. The episode spurs McCullough to wonder about the source of Krugman’s accomplishments—and to conclude that they have flowed from a mixture of innate ability and self-motivation.
Grade inflation, constant shielding from reality, all the things that result in the excess of amour-propre that afflicts affluent young Americans would have been absent, McCullough reckons, in Krugman’s upbringing. “Likely someone offered, with little regard for his self-esteem, criticism of something he had written. And I’m guessing he carried on because he enjoyed learning—and might have anyway as a matter of principle had he not. Probably he worked hard for a long time with no sign of external reward. For none of this did he feel particularly heroic. Or special. And I’ll guess over time he came to realize the toil had become a pleasure, then a joy, then a way of life, perhaps even an inextricable part of his being.”
But consider when Krugman grew up compared with what today’s emerging generation faces. The Nobel laureate of The New York Times was born into the roaring Eisenhower ’50s and living standards the likes of which the world had never seen, nor imagined possible. By the time he was ready to graduate from high school, America had so brilliantly recovered from Sputnik and the Soviets sending a man into orbit that President Kennedy’s promise to land the first man on the moon had been triumphantly fulfilled. True, Krugman graduated from college as Nixon was falling, with the end of the Vietnam War not yet in sight. But Lyndon Johnson had bequeathed the new generation the Great Society and the Voting Rights Act for African-Americans after hundreds of years of oppression.
Today’s kids inhabit a world where the cultural hype they have been fed at home and at school about how wonderful they are is about to meet a rude comedown. The anthem they will hear after the champagne corks pop at graduation is not so much America the beautiful as America the beaten. Bowed down by a decade’s worth of college debt, these kids are going to have to be pretty special—and very lucky—to live anywhere near as well as their parents did. And nothing about their upbringing prepared them for this. Perhaps we should allow them one last summer of grand illusion.