For years we have become bothered, even irritated, when someone in authority, especially in academia, would tell students how special and bright they were. Nonsense! An argument could be made that a certain student is special, or two, but an entire graduating class? Come on, talk sense. But an argument could be made that everyone could be special in their own way if they applied themselves. Special, special, special!
Finally, there was someone who had the courage to be honest with students in a high school graduating class. He told the students, “You’re not special.” The speaker was David McCullough, Jr., a veteran of 20 years of teaching. His talk generated an explosion of publicity. He wrote in Newsweek magazine that his talk was taken out of context and what he really meant, and what he said, was that any of the graduates would be special if they made something out of their lives. The feedback to him was mainly positive.
McCullough spoke words of wisdom when he said: “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 — 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 own detriment, come to love accolades more then genuine achievement.”
We have thought for years that trophies today, for the most part, are meaningless because they are given away like free candy at a parade. We have walked into many homes, including our own, to see trophies lining a mantle. Some young children receive trophies at the end of a season for just showing up at their teams’ games. That’s hardly special. We look at honor rolls that are published and it seems like everyone in a certain class made it (yeah, we know we’re out of touch). We can’t help but wonder if it’s special to make an honor roll these days. It has to be a mark of some degree of achievement because we do have some very special teachers who care, who teach. We don’t recall ever making an honor roll in grade or high school. In fact, did we have one? We didn’t think we were special except that nuns and priests kept reminding us that all of God’s children are special. In our era, trophies were rare. It was tough to be awarded one.
In college, we certainly weren’t special but we did rub elbows with a lot of bright people who would be called special. Listening to them was an education even though what they said quite often you wouldn’t find in a textbook. In the Army, few are special. You are a number, you do what you are told and you try to do the job they give you. We never heard the word special in the Army except that there was a branch called Special Forces. Nowadays they call anybody in the military service a hero. We witnessed a few genuine heroes in the Army and they didn’t get a medal. Most just would tell you they did what they were trained to do and they never considered themselves a hero. They wanted out more than a medal.
Don’t get us wrong. We appreciate anyone who makes a sacrifice for his country by serving in the military, but to call everyone a hero is embarrassing to them because the vast majority don’t consider themselves a hero.
We have cheapened the word special and to constantly tell students how bright and special he or she is, is a disservice to them.
We heard a college professor once say when asked about his students, “They are so bright we can’t screw them up.” Nonsense. That professor needs to go to a real world school where common sense is taught or maybe he was just trying to be funny.
What it comes down to is that if everyone is special, and in a certain sense they are, what word do we use to describe the ones who come to the top? Brilliant? Exceptional? One of a kind? Outstanding? Gifted? Uncommon? Unique?
If McCullough made the high school graduates think about being special, then his speech was a roaring success. Our message to high school and college graduates is that your education is just beginning. You’ve got much to learn and if you listen, apply yourself, never stop studying, ask questions, serve your fellow citizens, then you are special.