Special Education

You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake, you are the same organic decaying matter as everything else. – Tyler Durden, Fight Club

My sense of the rustling encroachment of my mortality has been a little keener over the past couple of weeks. Personally, I’ve been hampered by a torn muscle in my lower back, which had making getting out of chairs treacherous, has taken me offline for tennis, and reduced me to a regimen of walking and stretching. This has made me feel older than I usually feel. The other thing that’s made me feel older is not physical, but communal. All over my feeds are pictures of my friends’ kids in graduation ceremonies – elementary school, high school, and good lord, even college.

This, of course, makes me harken back to my own commencement ceremonies. Perhaps it should also make me feel old that I cannot recall whether we had a guest speaker in high school. I don’t think we did. I remember getting a nod for NAS and maybe for Most Likely to Listen to Too Much Alan Parsons. Maybe that last part I made up.

Blue Hen Biden

In college, our commencement speaker was the Honorable Joseph Biden, then a Senator from Delaware. It was 1987, and Biden was just beginning his quest for the Democratic Presidential nomination. This was before the whole brain aneurysm thing. What I can recall was that it was about a bazillion degrees that afternoon and my girlfriend coyly mentioning that she only had underwear on under her robe.

Doctor Steve — with my brother and family

In grad school, I went back to UNC six months after I had actually defended to receive my diploma and so going back for commencement was like a mini-reunion. It was awesome. Except that the speaker was Ted Turner, who was decidedly not awesome.

So there you go… 0-for-3 in the commencement speaker memorability department. Maybe this was one of the reasons that a recent commencement address by David McCullough, a teacher at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, made my ears perk up. You see, after starting with some mildly funny remarks about commencements, McCullough channeled his inner-Durden and attempted to give students a little bit of reality:

“… here we are on a literal level playing field.  That matters.  That says something.  And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all.  Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same.  And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same.

All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.

You are not special.  You are not exceptional.”

The laughs sort of die off as he says this, and he establishes his thesis that if everyone is special then no one is. That if everyone gets a trophy then trophies have no value. He then squarely skewers the helicopter parents in the crowd:

“… Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped.  Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again.  You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored.  You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie.  Yes, you have.  And, certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs…

            …But do not get the idea you’re anything special.  Because you’re not.”

And since he was on a roll, he takes on the grade-inflated society we’ve created not just in academic classrooms, but everywhere it seems.

“…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… 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… where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement.”

He does go on to finish with some more uplifting words that essentially call on the students to leave the narcissistic crap behind and do something of value and meaning. Something of true achievement. See the whole video here.

Maybe it came decades too late – though it’s a message that probably adults should hear too – but I think I finally heard a commencement address worth remembering. I’m just glad I didn’t have to sit in a crappy folding chair to hear it. I don’t think my back could have taken it.

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29 thoughts on “Special Education

  1. I agree with every word you’ve written, Steve. I am thrilled someone finally stood up and gave a commencement speech that is full of nothing but truth. No fluff – no bells – just reality. Amen to that! Joe Biden and Ted Turner?! Wow. We did not have anyone speak at our high school graduation (as it should be, in my opinion). The Governor of GA spoke at my college graduation, alas I was not there – but my family was. Long story.

    • I do, too, LD — and I don’t think the speech is as negative as many are painting it to be. After thinking about it, I’m pretty sure that we had a class valedictorian that spoke at our HS graduation.

      Sounds like you need to have your own commencement story post! :)

  2. Chevy Chase spoke at my college graduation. I’m not making this up. He did have some serious things to say, but they were largely overshadowed by a truly impressive rambling narrative that repeatedly implied the school president and trustees were hopeless drunks.

    As for McCullough’s speech, I catch of whiff of the larger trend I fear we’re seeing—that years of rampant and rabid anti-science, anti-intellectual balderdash have softened the American brain, culminating at the time when other nations, not least China, are getting ready to kick our asses in everything from cheap goods to technological wizardry. And we’ll be congratulating the next wave of dingbats for being able to read at a 6th-grade level when they graduate from high school, and pretending they aren’t standing at the threshold of a long career in fast food and/or low-end retail.

    Hell, getting old may not be so bad—at least there’s still a semblance of a functioning economy here for us. I fear for my kids.

    • phantom — I think it’s remarkable that politicians will lament our standing compared to other nations in education standards and test scores, but yet we continually accept less and less from students and call it “exceptional”. Also, the same politicians decrying our testing scores continue to cut and cut educational budgets. How can that work??

    • Lauri — it’s got to be a strange time to be a student. So little seems to be expected, but yet “making it” as an adult is so much harder. Has there ever been a bigger disparity between student and adult?

  3. Our commencement speaker was Isaac Hayes, a man that didn’t even graduate high school. Entertaining though. He died a few years after, so it goes.

  4. Wellesley High is right down the road from my house and this surprises me to no end. Wellesley is a very rich community with a lot of precious snowflakes. My town is in the same boat. I call my kids snowflakes and they get mad, maybe they won’t be.

  5. Best commencement address ever. And probably the kick in the pants that I need right now! Haha

    it’s hard as a parent to raise your kids so that they know they’re special, yet they’re not, because some kids equate “unremarkable” with “worthless.” On a continuum with self-inflated narcissism on one end and total lack of self worth on the other, somewhere in the middle is a balanced, well-grounded, confident kid who becomes a balanced, well-grounded, confident adult. I think, as McCullough said, it comes from achievement, not being given a trophy just because you were born. That trip down the birth canal was likely way more difficult on your mother than it was on you, anyway.

    • Mello — you make a great great point about the difference between average and worthless. We’ve created a culture where being in the middle of the bell curve, which is DEFINED to be average is no longer acceptable — even though it should be!

      I’m not a big fan of Garrison Keillor, but he nailed it with the Lake Wobegon intro in which it was described as a place where “all the kids are above average”.

      • And not only is the bell curve the point of average, it’s also the area where the most statistical points – i.e. people – by definition would fall.

  6. Realizing you aren’t special is simply part of growing up. This is not new. Perhaps the level to which some kids are coddled these days is new, but going from being the favorite son to just one of the masses is not a unique experience to this generation. Some people peak in high school. Some people continually improve. Bruce Springsteen released Glory Days in 1984.

    And I’m not sure I care if the kid building the clinic in Guatemala is only concerned about his college application. The clinic is still being built.

    I don’t worry about my kid. He’ll adapt. That’s what we do. It’s human nature. Some will be better at it than others. It’s certainly a bit too soon to sign the death sentence on the US economy. We have a functioning economy – even a growing economy. We’re in recovery – albeit a painfully slow one. Again, we are not unique. We’re not the first Americans to weather a significant economic downturn. We’re not the first Americans to fear a rising Asian power (see: Japan in the 80’s).

    Okay. I’m done being contrary now. ;-)

    I hope your back feels better soon!

    • I made the too-common blunder of substituting “economy” for “job market.” This is actually a perfectly fine time to be an investor. My concern is that the softness in jobs is linked to skills—our workforce is still too geared for the manufacturing jobs that Steve Jobs proudly announced had permanently gone to China.

      As for those rising Asian powers, China has more than ten times Japan’s population, and not only plenty of manufacturing muscle but a growing educated workforce. I’m not sounding any knells here; China has plenty to struggle with, like the corrupt rubble of its communist government. But they’re a hell of a competitor.

      I’m sure my kids will adapt, but I’d rather see their generation lead the world than play catch-up.

    • Jenny — I think what’s different is that it is increasingly NOT being part of growing up for way too many children. In my last job, I interviewed college students for internships in my group — mostly from UCSD (one of “the best” research universities in America). It was clear from too many of the applicants that they wanted an internship because it would help them “get into med school” or because “I was told it looks good on my resume” — not because they wanted to learn what it was like to actually do research in a professional setting.

      I’m actually hoping that we can put aside the money to hire another intern — I will be very curious to see if the changing economy will have changed that mercenary attitude.

  7. I don’t even remember who our commencement speaker was. I think it was an alumnus of the school who went on to become CEO of some banking institution. As with my high school graduation and my grad school ceremony, my brain went outside for a smoke and came back in time to get my body out of my chair and walk across the stage to get a piece of paper rolled up in ribbon. (Our real diplomas came in the mail six weeks later.)

    I actually feel terrible for the kids graduating from college this year, Ivy League or no. The vast majority of them are carrying on average $30,000 in student loan debt. If they’re lucky and majored in one of the applicable sciences, engineering, or business, they’ll find jobs, mostly in the finance and high-tech industries. If they were silly, like me, and majored in some idealistic field of the humanities, like English or philosophy or history, well, good luck, kids. The big difference is that in 1980, I was able to sail through school on a scholarship and summer jobs waiting on tables, mowing lawns, and petsitting. That just doesn’t happen now: a public school education now costs what private colleges charged back in the 90s. The states are no longer willing to subsidize tuition for the land-grant universities. In order for a young person to go to college, they have to take out a loan, or once again have wealthy parents to pay for them. College is becoming a privilege of the affluent, as it was prior to World War II.

    I acknowledge I’m speaking as a parent of three of those so-called privileged graduates, who IMO didn’t receive much special treatment from their bedeviled single mom. (I still flinch when I think about the times I left them sitting on the curb in a storm because I was late running errands, or when I didn’t attend their awards ceremonies at school or music recitals because I was working, or worst, was either too tired or sick.) And we might as well have been in a different universe from those students at Wellesley High School. But flogging an entire generation for the parents’ sins (and that’s what it comes down to, “helicopter” parenting and overweening ambition) is harsh. The kids will mature and find their way in time. It’s we older adults who need to learn that we are exceptional and have settled for mediocrity. :(

      • I would argue that most of todays youth are precious snow flakes that have been helicoptered all of their lives, but I do live in the adjacent community of Wellesely. I see those Ivy league students gathering in 4 star restaurants surfing the webs on the iPads while texting on their iPhones and carrying designer bags. They sit and talk to their friends about what resort they are spending their entire summer vacation in or about how they were so hung over during finals (they don’t sound worried about their grades at all in these conversations). Granted they are not all from Harvard, some are from BC or BU or even MIT, but go to Harvard Square and check out just how many fine dining establishments there are around the school. These places are always packed. Look at rent in Cambridge. A two bedroom apartment cost around $2k a month. Yet there are no shortage of students trying to live off campus. The kids aren’t paying for this, their scholarships are not paying for this. Mom and Dad are, or, really scary, student loans are. No one has ever told any of these kids no. Listening to them talk on the T is enough to make you lose all faith in humanity. These are supposed to be the best and the brightest and for the most part, they are precious little snowflakes.

    • HG — the Beloved works in higher education, so we’ve had a LOT of discussions about the welfare of students and we were just talking about how college is moving from something expected to something more exclusive because so many families are getting priced-out by it.

      As I was saying above, there’s an depressing paradox that as a government and as a society, we want to increase our testing scores but yet we continue to cut and cut educational budgets as if it won’t cause an issue.

      But we’re also talking about students’ attitude — as if completing a degree ensures a job and great starting salary. I know it’s painting with a broad stereotypical brush but I was INCREDIBLY disappointed with the quality and attitude of candidates in their 20s for a full-time job with benefits. That’s not everyone — we found someone we liked very much, but I was appalled at how UN-interested some of these grads were in actually working.

  8. Hope your back feels better soon.

    This was the first year that I did not know any of the graduates at the local high school when they were announced in the newspaper. And that made me feel very, very old.

  9. I loved this, Steve. The funny thing is even the 20-somethings I speak to these days are sick of the narcissism and parental leniency. They want structure, they want boundaries and even some little kids know that “everyone gets a metal” is bogus. I think it’s good that the economy is kicking our asses. Many Americans, not just the new generation, could use a slice of humble pie.

    I read something about a new “parenting technique” where little kids are not given any discipline, they’re allowed to set their own rules so they aren’t constrianed in regards to development or creativity. Only in Massachusetts. As a result you see these parents asking their toddlers, what do you want to do now? Where should we go? I witnessed a group of adults actually doing this on a walking area near a highway. Good idea? I don’t think so.

    Most disturbing to me is the idea of volunteering for the sake of your resume. This sounds ironically new-agey, but I think the spirit of what you do is just as important as the act itself. People (and even animals) can tell if your heart is in it or not. Dedicating yourself to a community is life changing and I think you’re either a good person or you aren’t. Good folks are the ones who deserve that experience. There shouldn’t be “mandatory volunteering”.

    • amelie — I have been really curious about how this bad economy and job-market might change the attitude of newer grads. In a hiring we did this year, too many still had the same pre-Recession attitudes, though we did find a couple that we really likes, so maybe that’s a good sign.

      We’ve gotten several inquiries from people in school looking for internships, whether paid or not. One of the big things sweeping higher ed is the power of internships to have a beneficial effect on a student’s career arc. But like trophies, if everyone has an internship, then the “average” one is devalued.

  10. It was hard to be special at my school…they took 96-100 to be an A so, to be an A student, you didn’t have a lot of wiggle room. I was magna cum laude…there was NO summa. They didn’t play that, “give everybody strokes” stuff. In hs, it was far worse, of course but not in the same way…

    My nieces go to a school (primary) where EVERY child gets some award each quarter. I think that’s BS. Why should they strive?

    Turns out, my degree from a school that “made me” work harder than everybody else meant that I didn’t network. Yup, me. Little Miss Social. No time, had to graduate highest in my class from a tough school (trying to make up for my crap schooling previously and crap family). What’d it get me? Well, as a hard worker, I wasn’t sacked in all these years from a company who has sacked hundreds and hundreds.

    Doesn’t pay that well and I’m still working my arse off. I haven’t learned much from uni!

    • I was once told by an aghast parent that they went to a parent teacher night and that their kid’s 2nd grade teacher said that they never tell the kids that they’re wrong because they don’t want to “damage the kids’ self-image” — so if Johnny says 2 + 2 is 5, he’s told that “while that was a good answer, the better answer is 4” — BETTER ANSWER!?!??! Good grief.

      When I was in school, an A was 94-100 — we had it easy. :)

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