livingfamilytravelmediahome decor

Are High School Graduates Special?

An English teacher by the name of David McCullough Jr. stood up and told a high school graduating class that they’re not special. It was a commencement speech. And he told them nine times, “you’re not special.”

Naturally, like most things these days, it was recorded and then uploaded to the internet. Yes, you guessed it — it’s gone completely viral. Everyone from traditional media to new media is weighing in.

One the one hand, you have the critics who say that this kind of message is just not right for the occasion. I can see that, and so can Danny Rubin who writes on Business Insider:

Think back to your own high school or college graduation ceremonies. How would you feel if the keynote speaker took all the air out of the room by saying, quite plainly, there’s nothing remarkable about you.

Julie Green of Canada’s Yummy Mummy Club says:

Great commencement speeches are meant to linger on in the minds of the young and wet-behind-the-ears. Think Steve Jobs to the bright young things at Stanford (“Stay hungry, stay foolish”) or even wisecracking Conan O’Brien to still more bright young things at Harvard (“Fall down, make a mess, break something occasionally”)?

I agree with Green that both the Jobs and O’Brien speeches were fabulous — they were inspiring and thought-provoking. And most likely written by their staff too.

Sure, McCullough is no Steve Jobs. His jokes didn’t always land as well as Conan O’Brien’s. But I think he did a excellent job. He knows these kids. And more than anything, he knows what it takes to graduate from high school these days. Which is, not much.

If you think I’m being harsh, just consider the stats. In my province of Ontario, Canada, the graduation rate in 2009-2010 was 81%. In 2003-2004, the rate was 68%. Did struggling students all of a sudden manage to achieve the grades they needed to succeed? (No. No, they didn’t.)

This transformation is taking place in the United States as well, where this commencement speech was delivered. The Grad Nation campaign was launched in 2010 by the America’s Promise Alliance and aims to have a national graduation rate of 90% by 2020.

So if 90% of all young people are graduating from high school, is it really such a special achievement after all?

I’d liken it to learning to ride a bike. Regardless of who your child is, if you are their parent, you are so darn proud of this milestone. Seeing your little guy or gal with their hair in the wind, whizzing by you with no training wheels? Yes, that is special. But really, it’s only special to me — the parent. Because most kids — no, not all kids, and some kids have far more difficulties and challenges to face — do end up being able to ride a bike.

When my children first hit this milestone, sure, I said the same words that Green suggests are appropriate for the parent of the high school graduate: Woo hoo! Way to go, kid! You did it! What a stellar achievement! You rock! And then I encouraged them to keep practicing. Why? Because I knew they had a long way to go before they were going to be proficient riders — the work wasn’t done here. And to get true enjoyment from a bike, you’ve got to put the time in. Otherwise, you spend more time cleaning your skinned knees than riding to the park.

I think this also applies to high school graduation. Sure, it’s a milestone. But like McCullough says, “Today is just the beginning; where you go tomorrow is what matters.”

It’s important note that he wrote this for a particular group of kids — not the internets! — and this group of kids is graduating from what I understand is a high-income, highly educated neighbourhood  … kids who’ve had privileges, who’ve had it far easier than many other kids. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t think these kids should feel bad about this or be given a heavy dose of guilt as a graduation present. And I don’t think McCullough does this. Rather, he says, now that you’ve graduated, go on out into the world and “be worthy of your advantages.

And you know what? That’s precisely what I’d like for my children.

I’d love to hear what you think. If you’d like to weigh in, I’ve included the full commencement speech below as well as some other commentaries published on it.

Your child is not special,” by Liz Gumbinner of Mom 101

“‘You’re not special,’ high school teacher tells graduating students,” by Andrea Lee Greenberg of the CBC News

Teacher defends ‘you’re not special’ speech delivered at high school graduation,” on New York Daily News


  1. I think that anybody who listens to his full speech will understand what he meant ……”selflessness being the best thing you can do for yourself”… a very strong message indeed.  I hope the grads listened and weren’t texting during the whole thing!

  2. Adam Harrison says:

    I really liked your analogy with high school graduation being closer to learning how to ride a bike. And that was interesting to learn about that America Promise Alliance. Actually, the trend is not confined to high school, grades in university are inflating, making an ‘A’ more and more meaningless

    • I’m glad you liked that analogy, Adam. It’s funny how when one graduated from high school in, say, the 1950s, it actually was a significant achievement since so many young people did not. But now, when so many people do stay in school until age 17 or 18, there are graduations for kindergarten, grade 6, grade 8, and high school!

  3. I agree too. Celebrate achievement by all means, but we have raised an entire generation of kids who think they are special for every little milestone. And that can’t be good for them down the road. Graduating high school is wonderful and we should strive to have high grad rates, but the reality is that high school is just a starting point. A diploma used to mean something more than it does today.

    • Coffee with Julie says:

      I agree. My children are simply expected to get a high school diploma, just as they are expected to move from grade to grade (since holding children back a grade is no longer done these days). If they work hard to achieve their grades, I will most certainly be acknowledging their hard work but a high school graduation is not as “special” as it used to be. 

  4. neighbour says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment expressed in the commencement speech.  Working in education today you see a generation of kids who believe they are the centre of the universe and that the world should be laid at their feet.  McCullough clearly tells them, ‘this aint’ so’.  Go out there and carve out a ‘special’ place for yourself in the world- leave a positive effect in your ‘wake’.  I hope my own children follow his message.  Thanks for sharing.

    • Coffee with Julie says:

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts — an educator’s perspective is interesting here, because this commencement speech is from an educator. Like you, I think the message is that you aren’t born special, you need to go out and make something special of your life. It’s a great message in so many ways.

  5. I watched my daughter & her friends making their way through high school.  They all took their education very seriously & worked really hard at their studies while at the same time managing to make positive contributions to their community.  They were a great group of kids; intelligent, kind, inclusive and concerned for the well being of others.

    Now they are a great group of young adults, making their way through university using the same skills & work ethic that they honed during their high school years.

    Are they entitled?  They certainly don’t think so and that’s one of the reasons that they continue to conduct themselves responsibly.

    Were they special when they graduated from high school?  Yes, I think they truly deserved that label on achieving that milestone.  Four years of dedicated effort earned them that and it doesn’t matter that it’s only a stepping stone in life which many others have reached before them.

    Their example negates the opinion that there is a “whole generation” of children that are so self-centred that they need a wake-up call at their high school graduation.  Mr McCullough’s use of statistics to illustrate that high school graduates aren’t special is an amusing parlour game of mathematics but doesn’t actually prove anything.

    I think that he should have given those kids the benefit of the doubt on that “special” day in their lives :) 

    • Coffee with Julie says:

      Before I comment on your point, I need to say how much I loved this turn of phrase: “is an amusing parlour game of mathematics but doesn’t actually prove anything.”

      As I said in my thoughts on this speech, I think McCullough did an excellent job. However, had he been a professional speech writer, I think the speech could have been massaged a bit more carefully. McCullough raises so many inspiring points in the middle (examples: go to Paris to be in Paris and experience Paris, not cross it off a list or climb the mountain for the experience not to have your photo taken at the top) that are certainly relevant for today’s youth who are growing up in the middle of a social media frenzy that encourages a great deal of narcissistic behaviour and attention-seeking antics. These points are lost and buried a  bit though — they’re not given enough emphasis. In defending himself (there’s a link to the video where he defends his speech) he says that he used the “you’re not special” bit only to grab attention and then move to his main points. But once he grabbed everyone’s attention with it, he could have toned it down and expanded a bit more on the other points relating to really experiencing what life has to offer. That would likely have been more powerful, and landed on more open ears. 

      • Yes, I agree with you and it’s unfortunate that his inspiring points were somewhat lost as apparently we’re hardwired to highlight and remember the negative much more than the positive.

        My anecdotal reply was in response not only to his speech but to some of the comments made on a variety of blogs.  What stood out for me (because of my tendency to remember the negative) were the replies from those that took his point and built on it so that there was suddenly a whole generation of entitled slackers who deserved to be brought down a peg or two on their graduation day.

        I don’t think that was McCullough’s message.  He exaggerated for effect, coming up with a definition of “special” that I’m not sure even Einstein would meet because in the context of all time & all space most of us agree we’re all just “dust in the wind” :)

        • Coffee with Julie says:

          Well, I need to admit here that I do often join in with the moaners who complain about this “entitled generation.” Sure, there are many exceptions (such as your daughter and her friends), but there is a large majority of young people who really feel that they’ve been born with entitlement and a “specialness” that means that they don’t need to respect authority (teachers), follow the same rules as others (special exceptions when they don’t finish assignments or don’t get the grade they want), or work hard for privileges (cars, cell phones). I hang around far too many high-school teachers and college professors to not notice some of this.

          But is a commencement speech the right place to bemoan a generation of kids? I’m not so sure of that. Because the ones that did work hard, that deserve a good pat on the back for 4 years of work, certainly don’t deserve a lecture. And I don’t think McCoullough was aiming for a lecture with his speech. To me, he seemed to have a real genuine affection for his students.

          I guess my point is that graduating from high school isn’t so special anymore because it’s a basic milestone these days that the majority (i.e. that 80-90%) will achieve. Like the bike-riding analogy, I do want to celebrate and pat my kids on the back when they graduate but I would also be encouraging them to “keep at it” as well. 

Speak Your Mind