When David McCullough Jr. ’80 delivered the commencement address June 1 at Wellesley (Mass.) High School, where he teaches, he had no idea that in a few short days it would gain fame around the country and the world.A video of the speech went viral and appears in the online presence of many mainstream media outlets. It has been covered on the major TV news networks, and countless editorials and columns have been written about it, including one by McCullough himself that appeared in Newsweek and the Chicago Tribune (“My Turn” column, June 18).
In his speech, McCullough told the students several times, “You’re not special.” The phrase, taken out of context, spurred the huge reaction. But McCullough had provided a thoughtful background for his attention-getting statement, as this excerpt shows:
“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.”
McCullough, an English graduate, said in an interview a few weeks after the speech, “Initially the reaction was to the ‘you’re not special’ line. It was in the interest of ratings for many of these networks to fan that into controversy. Once that phase of it ended, people began to talk about what I said, rather than what they’d imagined I’d said. And it’s been, I think, a useful discussion, and I hope that part continues.” He is quoted in “McCullough: Media Fueled Wellesley ‘Special’ Speech,” by Emily Bedenkop in the Wellesley (Mass.) Townsman (posted June 19).
Read text of his commencement address
A sampling of other coverage:
- Boston Herald, Margery Eagan’s column, “Finally, Someone Tells ’Em How it Is”
- CBS This Morning
- NBC Nightly News
- Newsweek, editor-in-chief Tina Brown’s column, “Periscope,” in the print edition and Daily Beast online