I’d have a hard time handing a child a book called, “You Are Not Special,” but there it is, beckoning to us from bookshelves.
“Just in time for graduation!” the HarperCollins press materials kindly note, which makes sense, given the book’s origins.
David McCullough Jr.’s collection of missives, aimed at, he writes, “teenagers and anyone with an interest in them,” is a follow-up to the hugely popular commencement address he delivered in June 2012 at a public high school in Wellesley, Mass.
The speech has been viewed more than 2.3 million times on YouTube – a fact that proves nothing about its quality, of course. My 5-year-old son watches YouTube videos of grown men racing toy cars that routinely pull in 7 million viewers. If that doesn’t send you into an existential sweat, you’re a more self-assured human than I.
Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that McCullough’s speech, reprinted in the book’s afterword, is pretty great.
“Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction,” McCullough told the graduating seniors. “Be worthy of your advantages. And read. Read all the time. Read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it. Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself.”
McCullough, the son of noted historian David McCullough, is a longtime English teacher, having taught at Wellesley High School since 2002 and, prior to that, at a private high school in Honolulu for 16 years. He is the father of four children, including three teenagers.
Drawing on his teaching and parenting experience, “You Are Not Special” calls on teenagers to use their privilege and considerable talents to solve the increasingly complex and dire problems plaguing our world.
“We should see the comfort and security we enjoy and the resources at our disposal as opportunities, as responsibilities, to do the planet and those who inhabit it some good,” he writes. “To right what wrongs we can, to shoulder our share of the load and then some.”
McCullough is surrounded, in life and career, by privilege. The book contains a fair number of references to lacrosse equipment and Mandarin lessons and zip-lining in Costa Rica, and Uggs and other luxuries that most children don’t enjoy.
He’s certainly not describing my own children’s experience, embedded as they are in the Chicago Public Schools system, where 86 percent of students are categorized as “economically disadvantaged.”
But he notes this fact up front, and uses it to bolster his argument that the families to whom he’s speaking ought not to be let off the hook too easily.
“So let ’em eat quiche, one might be inclined to conclude,” he writes, “roll off to the country club and into fatuous, self-congratulating irrelevance. Who cares? We have, don’t we, a few more pressing concerns?”
We do, of course. And the lacrosse-playing, zip-lining, Uggs-wearing kids should help us solve them, he argues.
“These indulged kids, our kids, could be, should be, part of the solution for a planet in sore need,” he writes in the introduction. “With their advantages they could be, should be, leading the way. They could be, should be, each of them, among the ablest, clearest of head, best informed, best prepared, most inspired, most innovative, most empathetic, and, therefore, a great cause for hope, for confidence even, worldwide.”
It’s a lovely notion, even if it comes packaged in a book whose title seems to tell them the opposite. I would have gone with something like, “You Are Special, and So Is Every Other Human Around You, So Use Your World-Class Education to Make the World a Better Place for the Rest of the Just-As-Special-As-You People Who Grew Up With Fewer Pairs of Shoes.”
On second thought, his title is just fine.
And the book is fantastic.