Sending a Life Raft into Lake Wobegon

On the heels of that toss-off post about junk mail I came across "one of the best" graduation speeches I've ever read. Denise Schipani wrote about it on Mean Moms Rule. A High School English teacher named David McCullough gave it in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Here's the full transcript.

My favorite part:

"You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.  If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.  In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another-which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality - we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.  We have come to see them as the point - and we're happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that's the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.  No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it…  Now it's "So what does this get me?"  As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans.  It's an epidemic - and in its way, not even dear old Wellesley High is immune… one of the best of the 37,000 nationwide, Wellesley High School… where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement.  And I hope you caught me when I said "one of the best."  I said "one of the best" so we can feel better about ourselves, so we can bask in a little easy distinction, however vague and unverifiable, and count ourselves among the elite, whoever they might be, and enjoy a perceived leg up on the perceived competition.  But the phrase defies logic.  By definition there can be only one best.  You're it or you're not.

If you've learned anything in your years here I hope it's that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning.  You've learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness.  (Second is ice cream…  just an fyi)  I also hope you've learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning.  It's where you go from here that matters.
As you commence, then, and before you scatter to the winds, I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance..." 

Also I love how he draws attention to the exertion implied by the founding father's choice of the word "pursuit" in delineating our inalienable rights. David writes: "...quite an active verb, "pursuit"--which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots rollerskate on Youtube."

I love that it's catching on as a "controversial speech". Not that it should be controversial -- but with the way parents overindulge and worship their kids these days I can see why it would be. Either way I hope lots of people read it, and think about what he's trying to say. I've been thinking lately about how everyone seems to approach any opportunity or event with a  "What's in it for me?" type evaluation and how it's so disheartening, and unsatisfying, most of all for the "me" so intent on boosting him or herself up. To get where? I think he's absolutely on point that "Americans love accolades more than genuine achievement" and that the crazy competition and--I would add--the Facebook phenomenon of doing PR for your own life --has its roots in our "dread of mortality". I love that he had that balls to say that. So few people do. Denial of Death permeates and leads to all kinds of destructive behavior. Mentioning it is almost verboten (unless accompanied by a rosy picture of eternity). But fear of it doesn't evaporate, however much it's pushed to the side or left unaddressed. Like the people who claim not to be in a bad mood, but they're just seething and they ruin the night. 

Great advice from this guy. Wish I could meet him. (And here we trail off into hero worship again..."transference heroics"...I should reread Becker myself.)  


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