Sunday, June 17, 2012

What's so special about being special? Graduation time.

An English teacher, David McCullough Jr., recently delivered something rare for a commencement speech at a high school graduation, it was unusual, unexpected, and most of all, not boring. Even more unusual, for a high school graduation commencement speech, is that it made the evening news, and it also went viral across the Blogosphere, Twitterverse and YouTube as well. My guess is that it did so, not because it was itself a remarkable speech - the Gettysburg Address is still safely in the top ten - but because the themes it struck within so many of us, provided a perfect platform for effortlessly spinning language, dropping uncomfortable contexts, and most of all, giving easy access to feelings of offendedness for ourselves, and/or for giving offense to others.

It almost seems as if shielding us from what we don't want to learn, from those we're sure we should dislike, is languages new purpose in public speaking.

The speech itself, I thought, in tone at least, was geared well towards its target audience, which was, lets not forget, high school kids, and to their parents and faculty as well. It contains some good natured, humorous digs at all in attendance, which they responded well to, and it was a decent speech, and unusually thoughtful for what it was - a high school graduation commencement speech.

The reaction to his speech though, has surpassed its value as a speech, ranging from Bill O'Reilly's 'Talking Points Memo', to the Daily Kos, and it has been fascinating to watch.

My own first reaction went both ways at first. When I heard the title, "You're not special", it tugged an approving and amused contrarian chuckle out of me, but then as I heard a small clip that seemed to suggest 'selfless service', that swung me off in the other direction with concerns that the less obvious message would undermine whatever 'dose of reality' value the rest of it (which I'll get too in a bit) might have. But both of my reactions were just that - reactions, an expected starting point for considering the thoughts of another person, but to end where you started without having taken a step... that's not a good thing, and it is certainly not something which reflects a concern for Education... but it does seem to be the common practice today, even the 'natural' thing to do. But for those who are satisfied with what comes naturally, I'd like to point out that Liberty, Natural Law, Individual Rights, are very unnatural events in the history of mankind, and they cannot be promoted or preserved by a people who are satisfied with starting and finishing with what comes naturally.

Reflecting on reflections
No matter your opinion of the speech, on the one hand you've got to give this teacher credit for having the brass to tell the graduating class (and his fellow faculty members, and the kids parents) that, despite what they've likely been told by everyone from Barney the Dinosaur & Mr. Rogers (would any of them be old enough to remember either?), to their sports participation trophies, he tells them that most shocking thing of all in today's educational world, that as far as the outside world is concerned, they're not all that special:
"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. Absolutely, smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet. Why, maybe you’ve even had your picture in the Townsman. And now you’ve conquered high school… and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you, the pride and joy of this fine community, the first to emerge from that magnificent new building…

But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not."
[Watch the video for the 'ah...do... I... like that?' expressions of the blond lady behind him as he says this.]

His message sparked cheers or jeers from across the spectrum, left, right and center, which quickly brought Mr. McCullough a heaping helping of notoriety, and which is also an unusual result from giving a high school graduation commencement speech.

Why would an English teacher risk straying from the usual safe putty of graduation speech platitudes? Even if it hadn't gone viral around the world, it surely would still have caused a stir among his immediate audience, many of whom he has to continue living and working with, why open himself up to that? He explained why, after the initial flurry of attention from his speech, to a local news reporter, saying that,
"I took seriously the responsibility of sending these kids off into the world. And to go out there with unrealistic expectations, for unreachable goals or an inflated sense of self, is doing them no favor."
, which is a refreshing approach for a teacher to take in a high school graduation commencement speech - and just think about how sad it is that that might be seen as a refreshing approach, rather than the norm.

Mirror, mirror, on the Facebook wall...
Take a moment and try holding his speech up as a mirror, and if you are on Facebook, you must have seen this speech hanging on someones Wall, and see which passions of yours and your friends, you see reflected in it.

Conservatives have, for the most part, given his speech (perhaps too quickly) a big two thumbs up, and that mostly because of the obvious 'dose of reality' message that the likes of that paragraph injects into students who they feel are too pampered by society; O'Reilly summed this view up as,
""Talking Points" believes that students need to hear McCullough's stern message. Unlike some countries America is a very competitive place. Nobody is going to hand you money except the federal government and those funds will by paltry.

In the private sector you must compete, you must prove yourself to be special. And believe me few will care if your feelings are hurt. Performance is what counts.

Sadly many American students are not prepared for the real world. They have been pampered by both parents and the public school system. The old saying is life is hard and then you die."
, which is vintage O'Reilly, and fine for him, but I think if you take the message of the speech as being 'toughen up! Only performance counts!', then likely the only thing you took from the speech was what you brought to it, a chance to restate what you already thought.

Many others were quick to give it the presumed Ayn Rand seal of infamy (and I tended this way as well, at first, before I actually read it) for containing the buzz-word 'Selflessness', which they associate (correctly, IMHO) with the collectivistic crushing and smothering of the Individual to spiritual and eventually physical death; or even for not trumpeting the supreme value of the individual. Typical of this view was this from the comment section of Flopping Aces,
"I wish I could read the speech the way others have, but I cannot. Not once does McCollough mention the word “unique”, which each person is. And he is wrong about “special”, because each individual can be special if they prove it by earning the accolade by finding their niche in life. In addition the end of the speech encourages all the students to be selfless. Anyone who understands the first thing about individual freedom, about free market capitalism, about business, who has read Ayn Rand, F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, De Toqueville, Adam Smith, Henry Hazlitt, Milton Friedman, etc., knows that people should work in their own self-interests. "
Other conservatives liked the speech because of how they interpret that same word, 'selflessness', because they associate it (wrongly,IMHO) with admirable qualities of 'public spiritedness', generosity & a willingness to help others.

The comments of leftist pages (though not exclusively) are peppered with charges of

  • 'anti-intellectualism',
  • 'over competitive fascists!'
  • 'This whole meme reeks of right-wing hypocrisy and low information. I disapprove'.
, views which I think are largely stupid on the face of them, and I won't spend more than a sentence each on them. To charge a speech as being 'anti-intellectual', when its core theme is asking its audience to look past appearances and to give more deliberate consideration to the more substantive issues behind the appearances you may have been led to think were important - is what the word 'stupid' exists for. The terms 'over competitive' and 'fascists' don't go together at all, fascists (and their cousins in the proregressives) are for using the power of govt to pick winners and eliminate actual competition (calling it 'fairness'. doesn't change its spots). As for 'right-wing hypocrisy', McCullough's speech has critics who claim he is expressing left wing views, and right wing views, which I think reflects only the fact that they themselves see all in terms of which wing they want to promote - and charging anyone else with hypocrisy, is itself hypocrisy. I saw no 'wing' expressed in the speech... but if you do, please, point it out to me.

Enough of those comments - its pointless reflecting further on reflections that don't reflect even a facet of reality.

Still others seem to be whipping both speaker and speech for daring to say that their kids aren't 'special', or for McCullough's presumed status as an 'elite', through the associations they assume he (or at least his famous father) surely must have or is intent on promoting still more chipping upon their shoulders, which I'll get into more in a bit.

All of those charges came swirling swiftly up out of the Internet at McCullough's 'You're not special' speech, and in that same post-speech interview ref'd above, McCullough points out, a little defensively,
"The front end of the speech is the 'you're not special part', of course everyone is special... but... if everyone is, then no one is, so... there's 37,000 high schools in this country... that's a lot of competition."
And it's with numbers such as that, that McCullough begins to build a drumbeat of daunting statistics to stack up against the unrealistic expectations that your individual, unique specialness has a chance of standing out and being recognized by the world for being special, simply for having graduated from high school, or for engaging in the typical activities which lead up to that point. If that's considered too harsh to point out, let me ask you, is it more unkind to tell students that such things are foolish... or to let them go on thinking them?

That he's getting any flack for the 'not special' theme of the speech is doubly baffling, for as he notes,
"Normally, I avoid clichés like the plague, wouldn't touch them with a ten-foot pole, but 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."
Have you never wondered why graduates are all dressed alike at graduation? Graduation doesn't celebrate your uniqueness, but your uniformity with your fellows as together you all pass beyond the highest levels of the student world - where you may very well have been 'special', in order to arrive, together as a group, in your new position - at the bottom of the 'real world'. For anyone to be surprised...Helloooo...!

The speech itself of course has 'flaws', internal and external. For instance, if he's wanting to cure kids of their sense of specialness, telling them
“Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in”
, seems to me to appeal to the 'I'm too smart to fall for that' trait in the young, in the same way that the newly converted tend to say "LOOK HOW HUMBLE I AM!", which is not only counter-productive, but they'll be in no position, experience wise, to recognize what work is worth believing in, or be able to judge what is important and what isn't; being that they are only high school graduates, right? They've supposedly learned what they need to know, in order to begin learning what is worth knowing - emphasis on 'begin', not 'conclude'.

But even that, which was part of what getting education once was, is unlikely to have been learned in a modern school; today they aren't taught to judge, but to do; not virtues, but skills. If the Common Core of what they were taught in school, were basic minimum skills which the Dept of Education says are required for entering the marketplace, what could possibly qualify them to determine whether one sort of work or another is worthy of 'bothering with'?

What sort of judgment could they have learned through bubble tests in Math, or 'Science' or 'Computer skills'?

In what class which follows along with Arne Duncan's 'Common Core Standards', would a student possibly learn what is worth believing in? Sure, it'll tell you what you should follow... over and over again ... but following and swallowing and filling in bubbles to match up with memorized replies does very little towards preparing students to recognize whether or not something is worth believing in.

No, what our modern system of education prepares students for, is to be very unspecial, ordinary cogs, nothing more. That's one of its key features, not bugs... the sooner someone points that out to them, the sooner they might have a chance of overcoming the handicaps they've been taught to acquire.

But that's probably far enough down that facet - back to face of it.

McCullough opens his speech with some comments about marriage that are amusing, though mostly irrelevant, which provides a statistic that 50% of all marriages fail, which is more than a little misleading, if not untrue, but it does serve as a useful rhetorical device to set the stage for the rest of his speech, and when the 'you're not so special' theme came on, the audience, maybe most surprisingly, responded well to it, which, in this politically correct age where everyone is too unique and special to accept criticism, was encouraging on its own.

But again, many people didn't see it that way at all. The UK's DailyMail which said,
"In a rant targeting modern American parenting,"
And then there are the ladies of the 'Potter Williams Report', commenters on all things Educational. I usually find myself in agreement with them, especially in their opposition to govt programs such as 'Race To The Top' and 'Common Core Curriculum', yet on this speech it looks like we have no common ground. They said about his speech, in part,
"Don’t you love pampered delusional people like David McCullough, Jr. son of millionaire historian David McCullough, Sr. calling out other affluently raised offspring for being “doted upon, helmeted, and bubble-wrapped?” McCullough, an English teacher at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, gave a commencement address that proved one thing—he’s a know-it-all blowhard with his own latent feelings of inferiority and he thinks he’s “special” enough to tell others they ain’t.

Didn’t his Dad tell him he was special? If he doesn’t like being around suburban kids who do get a lot of what they want and don’t know anything else, then why is he teaching there?

Has he appointed himself the pied piper of setting the young and the rich on the right track?

Just think about the parents in the audience, most of whom have loved and nurtured their children, who had to listen to this smart-alecky nonsense."
[emphasis mine]
Wow!

First and least, is being a millionaire something which we believe disqualifies you from having an opinion? If so, is there some ground, somewhere, which you expect to be able to stand upon, which would prevent those millionaires from saying that in their opinion, that your opinion, has no value because you lack the wealth that they have?

Further, and you should read McCullough's actual speech if you haven't already, it's much briefer than my post on it, I challenge you to find something 'delusional' in it. And 'know-it-all blowhard'?! Find me the words in this speech which justifies That charge! And then "latent feelings of inferiority" lol, really? Where in the text of this speech does that come from? Better yet, where does their ability to psychologize a speaker by way of a single one of his speeches, come from? And doesn't that raise a few unsavory characteristics all their own?

I don't like knocking these folks, especially them, but when discussing matters of Education, the discussion should be enlightening, not endarkening - I mean, a cave is a cave, no matter who dwells in it, or with what cliche's and presumptions its walls are made of. And that's not nearly the worst of their reaction to his speech; to me it sounds as if they are ranting against their own prejudices about McCullough, and his associations, and even the preferences they assume his father, historian and author David McCullough, must have,
"But the kicker isn’t that well-off, country club children like McCullough speak and act like the wealthy elites they rail against, it’s that conservatives can’t see this tomfoolery for what it is—privileged leftists (his father, David, Sr. told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in 2011 he greatly admired Barack Obama) co-opting the tough love topic of the far right while pushing the 'we're all the same but we're really not’ illogic. "...

"...Didn’t his Dad tell him he was special? If he doesn’t like being around suburban kids who do get a lot of what they want and don’t know anything else, then why is he teaching there?"
, not to mention possibly a number of issues they have with those who are affluent because they are affluent, or associated with Michelle Rhee (Common Core Curriculum pusher & Race To The Top lobbyist, YES lobbyist). No, it looks like they're comments are more directed at everything they associate with him, and his Dad and his Dad's politics, Rhee, the affluent and celebrities in general, than with the speech itself.

For my part, I had my favorable/unfavorable first impressions from the title and an excerpt of the speech, but I found they didn't stand up in the face of the whole speech. Now, I know nothing of McCullough or his views, and I could find nothing more about him in a single quick googling, than his attending a gala banquet for his father, Author & Historian David McCullough, Sr. (author of the popular "John Adams" book & miniseries), and so I'll confine myself to commenting upon the content of this speech only... and to wondering how others managed to comment on information beyond that.

Looking past your own reflection - what's so special about being special?
If you haven't already, go back and read the speech. Aside from the rhetorical flourishes, his message is not that "You are NOT exceptional", instead what he says is that that's not enough:
"“But, Dave,” you cry, “Walt Whitman tells me I’m my own version of perfection! Epictetus tells me I have the spark of Zeus!” And I don’t disagree."
, what he says is that that is a given, your undeniable specialness is a given shared by graduates from 37,000 other high schools across the country, so you'd do well to not expect to be thought exceptional just because you are special, after all, what is it that you think is so special about being special?! Everyone is special? But no one does, or can be expected to know and appreciate your own uniquely special qualities, except those who know you personally and well. Everyone IS special, every single one of us, but by that very fact, it is common to all and cannot be counted upon as something that will make you stand out from them- because they have it too!

Of course you are unique, of course you are special, and you will be so whether you are pushing a broom at WalMart or making decisions as a CEO of a major corporation (missing that is something which the elitist and anti-elitist have in common) - that isn't the issue, and behaving as if it is, is to devalue your true worth. Who you are can, and only will, be known by those who know you well, it can't be seen from the outside, and it won't show up on a resume or in your SAT's. Stop behaving as if you expect it to.

Everyone else beyond your closest associates, requires tangible deeds to assess you by. Those assessments must come from others who don't know you, being able to see and cite something which you have done, and shown a habit of dependably doing, what is right, doing what needs to be done, doing it well, and showing some initiative in getting those things done. Things which common obstructions are sufficient to keep most others from accomplishing, and it is in that way, and only in that way, that you can come to demonstrate your unique and valuable specialness to those who do not already know you well.

Your reputation is how you establish your uniqueness, and you don't come by that simply by being you, but by being you consistently and over time. Any other pretensions, you'd best chuck into the big can of political correctness, asap. Only in that way can you expect to develop and demonstrate an exceptional ability to earn and achieve something of value - do that first, and recognition will follow.

And then there's the 'elitist' charge. What is there in that speech that is elitist? Seriously, tell me? Is it elitist to face up to the reality of your situation? Is it elitist to say that trophies, advancement and accolades, in and of themselves, are of infinitely less value, than understanding what is more important, and doing that, no matter the rewards?
"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
Is this 'elitism'? Or how about this,
"You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness."
Is that elitism? That little nugget was central to the education which brought about our Founding Fathers era, and it is today nearly lost - is it elitist to say that? To teach that? If so, count me down as an elitist! This 'elitist' charge, this guilt by assumed associations, is this somehow to be a demonstration of educated thought and criticism? If that is thought elitist, or a valid criticism of them, then we as a country had better be prepared to occupy a very special spot at the very bottom of a very crowded world. There are a lot of buzz-words in this speech, a lot of hot topic themes and assumed associations that seem natural to associate with McCullough, his position and his speech, but if we do not make a point of directing our thoughts beyond the seemingly obvious... our quality of Education in this country will never be regained.

From O'Reilly's 'stern message' to the wannabe Randian 'Selfless' charges, to the lefty's of being 'anti-intellectual' - they all have something in common, which I find disturbing, they are reacting to the appearances of the speech and don't touch the substance of it, which, however small it may be, is significant, they don't seek to spark any thoughtfulness in themselves or others, but only to nudge our reactions, and that has far more in common with propaganda, than thoughtful commentary or criticism.

I don't have much to go on about McCullough, but if I go with what are thought to be safe (!) assumptions, it's unlikely that there is all that much that McCullough & I would agree upon, and it maybe, as some have said, that he does have more wealth & privilege (as an English teacher? Is it possible that his father is wealthy and he is not? Maybe not) than I'll ever see - but that is, and should be, beside the point.

And as far as 'elites' go... I don't have a problem with them in and of themselves, only if they try to force their sniffiness upon others, and I just don't see that in this speech. In fact I didn't see a single political policy or issue supported - did you? Where were you looking when you saw that?

So where does the truth lie (ahem) here? Within - as always
The points of agreement between most of those who liked this speech, have got to be centered around the cursed participation trophies, because, as I've already said, there is nothing special, and shouldn't be expected to be, about being a decent person. There is no reason to reward you for being decent, because being that is, and should be, reward enough itself, and trying to grant any further reward, to what everyone should be, would be beyond meaningless.
"So that makes 6.8 billion examples of perfection, 6.8 billion sparks of Zeus. You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. "
, etc. Doing a decent job at simply showing up, is not exceptional behavior or worthy of being rewarded for - and attempting to do so undermines the value of those who do manage to turn exceptional efforts into exceptional results.

But I also cringe at the participation trophies because they seem to say that doing your best and not beating those who are the best in one activity or another, makes you inferior to them - counter intuitive though it may be, especially to those who don't bother to think things through, a person who tried and failed to be the best, shouldn't need to be consoled for the fact that they failed.

They tried. As they should.

And not only should trying, be something that should be expected of all, failing had better be something that you seek to avoid through succeeding, not something that you will be consoled for not achieving - incentives, as anyone who has ever considered actual economics would know, are things which are best not to have working at cross purposes. Even so, with that in mind, failure, if honestly come by, is nothing to be ashamed of. There is no shame, no boo-boo that needs to be soothed for there being in the world someone who is better at an activity, than you are.

The danger here is two fold.

  1. it is only an activity. Telling all children that they need to be consoled or 'recognized' for not excelling at it, shouts, as loudly as an implication will allow, that NOT achieving a skill is something to be ashamed of.
  2. it plants the notion that the person who outperforms you in some activity is to be resented, and that you should be rewarded and soothed, and that they - or SOMEONE - owes you for the crime committed of depriving you of the status of being recognized as being the best.
That is a path of folly, and folly upon folly. The sort of stuff an Iago would plant into the minds of Othello's and Roderigo's alike, and like Iago's 'motiveless malignancy', far from producing 'self esteem' in children, which actually achieving a trophy for actual exceptional behavior, it is far more likely to produce expectations of rewards for simply desiring to do good. McCullough notes,
"“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. "
Which I agree with wholeheartedly. Such practices develop an appetite for rewards, deserved or not, rather than for that which is rewarding,.. and being rewarded for doing nothing produces a desire for nothing but rewards.

The Virtue of Selflessness...NOT!
"We are all here on earth to help others. What I can't figure out is what the others are here for." --W. H. Auden"
Selflessness means to have no self, or to have no regard for yourself. Q: Can what you are talking about when using the word selflessness, be what it means, if you are talking about the importance of your being true to your self? A: No.

So now we come to the two lines which, for anyone with even (or only) an ounce of Ayn Rand in them, causes their knees to jerk:
"Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion – and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. "
'Ooh... Altruist!' we seethe. 'We've been tricked by all these rugged individualist distractions! This is the creed of the second-hander! This is what is killing the world!' As one person said on a private email,
"He does not talk about doing things in their own self interests. He is doing the same thing politicians do....making the assumption that you should spend your life deciding what is good for others, like going out and organizing communities (he did not specifically say that, but the ant-hill syndrome is there). He never mentions that each individual is different, unique, and needs to exploit their own uniqueness. Being unique is special, and telling people that they should all be selfless is ridiculous. As anyone who has read Ayn Rand, Hayek, etc., knows, one has to look out for ones self interests first before one is in a position to do things for others."
But no, that is not what he has said in this speech, please, look into the speech, and not only at your reflection upon it. What he is saying is not the second handed altruistic opposition to reality that IS killing the world. But there is something else, IMHO, that is also killing the world, and that is the failure to look at things in their proper context.

I'll admit that when I first heard this sentence I had the same reaction, but when I read the full speech, it faded away as an incidental error in an otherwise worthwhile commentary.

Context matters absolutely. Look at the rest of the paragraph, you don't even have to look at the full speech, just at that lines fellow sentences within that paragraph, and you should be able to recognize a common, though imprecise, 'common sense' approach to making a very great point. For instance:
"Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge..."
There is nothing 'second-handed' about this, in fact what he is saying means the exact opposite of the self-denying creed which 'Selflessness' demands, what it means is that you should not let silly things, like the dull approval of uninformed others, distract you from what is most important to you and the healthy development of your self. What it means is that you should do what is right and worthy, not for the accolades it may bring, or for what other people might think or post on their facebook pages about you, but because it is right and worthy and beneficial to your own soul - that is precisely what Rand was speaking of in her 'Virtue of Selfishness', do it for the worthwhile challenge and accomplishment, not for the praise and recognition of others, but for the value of embracing the challenge of doing something worthy of you.

That is the only individualism that can be practiced by an individual. The sort of individualism which needs applause, is mere collectivism with a gaudy narcissistic lighting.

He repeats the same here,
"Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly."
The clear intent here, is that you must forget about doing what others value, and don't seek after anything solely because others would look admiringly upon it, but do it for its own value, live it and enjoy it, you, personally, and though he doesnt' use the word Ayn Rand would, its meaning is the same: do it selfishly.

But he does makes the unfortunate slip of the lip, starting with the first offending sentence,
"Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others"
But even in that sentence, he refutes what the knee jerk individualist reacts at. Look closer at it, 'Exercise free will and creative, independent thought' - forget for the moment what follows immediately afterwards and take that in. You cannot exercise free will, creative and independent thought, except through being a creative, independent person intent upon making their own choices. You cannot be creative and independent if you are doing it for what you expect others needfully desire or what their reactions might be - you can play to their expectations, but that ceases to be independent or creative in doing so. And when he makes the unfortunately worded (in the eyes of some),

'but for the good they will do others',

, can that really undo the rest? Can it nullify the rest? Can it be taken to be in opposition to all the rest of the sensibility of the speech? What's more, can it really mean what you think it does? Isn't it possible that doing good for others is actually an objective good?

The answer is Yes, it can be... with the emphasis on 'can' - it depends upon the context, 'can' depends upon 'why' and 'how'.

I dont' think his comment can be taken in that negative manner, not without dropping the context of the entire rest of the speech, and in doing that I think we risk putting ourselves in the exact same shoes as those who want to target people for using words like 'target', because they can be taken as exhortations to violence... providing you studiously avoid, disregard and discard all you know and understand about figurative speech and metaphor and the context within which they were used.

I, of course, wouldn't word it as McCullough did, but I do not believe that, given what the rest of the speech clearly intends, that these few words can be taken as being at odds with the entirety of the rest of the speech. I don't think he is saying that the point and goal of life should be to turn yourself into an altruistic shmoo, seeking in word and deed only after the pleasing of 'others'. I think he is simply saying, that there is value in aiding, helping supporting others, and to try and deny that for some point of doctrinaire objectivist phrasing is to risk turning philosophy into ideology, and all criticism into propaganda.

If you have ever helped a child to understand how to tie their shoes, and felt the burning sun of their smile of delight and thanks, you know that there is value, supreme value, to be found, honestly, objectively, in helping others. Doctors, nurses, teachers, etc., these people also know this too well, and if you have 'objectified' yourself into an inability to recognize the value of being human with other human beings... I pity you. Truly.

Now, that doesn't mean that you should lose sight of the fact that 'good' things can be done for bad reasons and purposes. Mafia Don's are famous for 'taking care of' their neighbors in order to secure good popular opinion. A person could also set about teaching children to tie their shoes IN ORDER to collect their thanks (or those of their parents)... not because it was a kind thing to do or as the result of their having a generous soul, but to tally up chits of thanks to be stowed away for later bragging rights, or as claims upon them, 'you owe me!' to be trotted out in order to collect admiring glances from those you tell the stories of your deeds to.

That IS second handedness,and that is the corrupt expression of the participation trophy mindset, and in that context, which it seems to me consistent with the rest of his speech, he is entirely correct to say 'do what you do, not for collecting second handed glory, but for the true treasure of satisfaction and value you can bring to anothers life, and in doing so, you bring them to your own life as well.' There is no Kantian or August Comte altruism there at all, in fact Kant would say that that would nullify the categorical 'virtue' of serving others.

I would not choose to put it into these words, because I think it too easy to be taken as promoting the leftist, altruist credo, but I think what he means by this,
"And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. "
, is meant that in doing what you do, do it because it is what you do best, or because it is what is best to do at the time, and is the right thing to do, not the popular thing; the good thing to do, not the YouTube viral thing to do. To bring true value and enrichment to the world (which for anything other than your pet, private hobby, cannot be done except through others), is what the full context of the speech indicates to me that he had in mind.

If I were to put that into my own words, I'd maybe say,
'and then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience, is that in doing what you know to be good and true and right, not because it might bring accolades, but because you can see that it is good and true and right, cannot help but bring value to circumstances and even joy to others as well, and in the end, as in the beginning, that is the best thing you can do true good for yourself.'
, which I think is what he IS saying, and saying better, and briefer, than me, when he said this,
"Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, ah a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things."
Summing Up
I could very well be entirely wrong about David McCullough, Jr. himself, for all I know he could be a raging proregressive leftist whose fondest dream is to mainline Marx into his students intellectual bloodstream. Or he could be a staunch conservative. I don't know. I only have this speech to go on, and what I was able to get out of it, is above. This fellow, David McCullough, Jr., son of historian & author David McCullough, is a teacher, a high school English teacher, and for my money, the fact that he thought and said every other sentence in his speech is remarkable enough to me that I can willingly spot him a mulligan on those portions, of those two questionable sentences, without hesitation. And I congratulate him not just for participating in his students education, but for an interesting speech which might actually - shock - do those who listened to it some good.

Here's how he finished the speech up, and sent his students into their graduation from High School:
"Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, ah a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things.

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. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion – and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

Because everyone is.

Congratulations. Good luck. Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives."
Maybe it's best to leave the last word to a couple of his students, who left the world of students with some of his last words,
"Greg Stravinski · Account Executive at Mid-West Family Broadcasting

I had Mr. McCullough as a teacher several years ago, and I'm not exaggerating when I say that he had a significant impact on how I live my life today. He's one of the few teachers who will give you the facts of life whether you want to hear them or not, and this speech is a perfect example."
and
Martha White Collins · Wellesley, Massachusetts My son has learned more from Mr. McCullough in one year than we could have ever expected or possibly hoped for. The education he received went beyond reading, writing and critical thinking. What a great example Mr. McCullough provides of a life lived extraordinarily.

1 comment:

martin said...

Great analysis of the speech. I watched it shortly after it was first posted.