During this past week following Wellesley High School’s Graduation, various commentaries regarding Mr. McCullough’s speech have been posted all over the internet. It even hit the front page of Reddit. In this day and age, 1700 upvotes and counting on Reddit means that the post might as well be on the front page of the newspaper. But it annoys me that much of the commentary is negative. Although most of these negative reviews seem to surface from the lower echelons of the internet (e.g., “Boston.barstool.sports.com” where one poster said, “But if you don’t think this dude is one more school year away from going postal and shooting up this school, you are outside of your mind”), I think it’s a shame that even a speech presented in such an accessible form through carefully chosen, non-academic words could send contrary messages. It’s clear that McCullough wrote this speech to an audience of all sorts, not only the young intellectual graduates and the parents of a wealthy suburb. He wrote this speech to convey an important and universal message for everybody struggling to find that elusive balance between what one needs to do and what one wants to do in life.
It is the tension that springs from this very conflict that causes so much controversy around his speech. One commenter on Reddit stated, “It’s a good attitude to carry if you want some stability in your career and maybe rise to some middle management position, but not such a reasonable mindset if you have any real ambition in life…at it’s core it’s a cynical exhortation for the graduates to keep their heads down and just do what they’re told.” Some of you might chuckle at the irony; this is the exact opposite of what McCullough intended to convey. The commenter’s mistake lies in his conception of “ambition.” Immediately he establishes “stability in your career” and job position as the stakes of the argument. Moreover he suggests a connection between the position of one’s job and his degree of independence. This statement represents what I think is an increasingly problematic and outdated perspective on success and the proper way to live one’s life.
Having recently gone through the college application process, I’ve had to think about my major, graduate school, my future career, etc. Parallel to these, I’ve had to think about the value of brand name schools, the importance of salaries, and practical majors versus impractical. In other words, I’ve had to think about the meaning and importance of prestige – markers of reputation that can distinguish you on a paper resume. For truly, what other connotations can that word imply? In a nutshell, I hated how the college process reduced my character down into 500 word essays, lists of extracurricular activities, grades, and SAT scores. I kept wondering how colleges could ever make informed decisions about who to accept if the information they were using was so lacking, so single-dimensional, so seemingly ineffective at accomplishing colleges’ goals of creating diverse and thoughtful communities.
This way of assessing high schoolers has resulted in a robotic, artificially structured approach to school. We all know more than a few students who attempt to engineer their application to perfection. Their summers are spent doing hundreds of hours of community service not as an opportunity to help others but as a way to list off another achievement. Their academic career is not spent enjoying the profound personal value of learning, but wasted trying to average a number as close to 5.0 as possible. Though this is most prevalent in high school, I see it perpetuated by parents more and more in younger kids. My friend tutors a 7th grader whose parents have already brought her and her younger sibling to tour Harvard. When told that this tutor was attending Yale next year, she excitedly exclaims “Oh! That’s an Ivy!” This is not what education should be, especially during some of the most impressionable and developmental years of youth.
This problematic mentality is exactly what McCullough warns us against when he recites, “You’re not special.” He uses the word “special” to indicate a false sense of worth founded more on prestige than on meaningful achievement. He states:
“…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.”
How can he be more clear than that? We “love accolades more than genuine achievement.” He is by no means trying to diminish the standards or weaken the ambition of us graduating seniors. Instead he urges us to strive for something much greater than what we are used to striving for in high school, to struggle for things without the hope of being recognized, to raise our standards above the objective and bravely enter the realm where all goals must be subjectively determined.
No, he is not being unrealistic. He is not advocating a world completely devoid of the need for grades and rankings and job positions. What McCullough puts forth is a vision of a personal paradigm, a way for the individual to see the world. The fact that GPA’s will always exist does not prevent me from realizing that a GPA speaks little about my passionate desire to learn. The fact that six digit salaries will always be competed for does not mean that they are my ultimate ambition. The balance between need and want can only be achieved if one’s true hopes and dreams are kept alive.
I think Mr. McCullough’s message is one that needs to be heard all over America. Students and parents from all walks of life need to hear his message: “Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you,” because put simply, the real possibilities of life exceed infinitely beyond objective standards. As a matter of principle, living a fulfilling life demands the pursuit of true meaning and happiness as it pertains to the individual.