Every Tuesday in The Minority Report, Drew Dixon takes a look at trends in youth culture and offers some biblical wisdom for navigating them.
A few weeks ago I attended the local high school in our area’s graduation ceremony. The valedictorian told the many graduates to go out and “catch their dreams.” Call me a cynic, but as I sat there listening, I couldn’t help but think about how many of these students would not go out and catch their dreams. Many of them will, however, catch a sexually transmitted disease, a job they hate, and an enormous amount of debt. Some of them will go to prison, some will cheat on their spouses, and some will flunk out of college. No one talks about these things during graduation because it’s a time of forward leaning and hopeful expectation and yet statistically speaking, many of these graduates are likely to make decisions that land them in one or more of these unpleasant circumstances. No amount of positive thinking will change that.
I was reminded of these thoughts when I came across this story from the Washington post about David McCullough Jr., an English teacher at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts. McCullough was privileged with the opportunity to give the Wellesley Commencement address in which he told the students:
Contrary to what your soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing 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. . . .
But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.
There are many things we could say in response to such a speech. As a Christian, I would quibble with the assertion that these students are not special based on God’s creation of all people in His image (Gen. 1:26-27). As a child of privilege myself, there is a part of me that wants to speak up for those students at his high school that surely have not gotten the kind of pampering and incessant encouragement that I did growing up. What about the students at Wellesley whose parents abandoned them? What about those whose mothers and fathers rarely, if ever, praised them?
There is a reason, however, that none of the many parents of the graduates at Wellesly High School complained to the school about McCullough’s speech–it recognizes something dangerous about the world we live in. Our culture of helicopter parents and constant praise has the potential to produce a generation of young people who think much more highly of themselves than they ought and refuse to attempt catching their dreams for fear of failure.
To be honest, listening to McCullough’s speech reminded me of the Old Testament Prophets who said things like:
“How can I pardon you? Your children have forsaken me and have sworn by those who are no gods. When I fed them to the full, they committed adultery and trooped to the houses of whores. They were well-fed, lusty stallions, each neighing for his neighbor’s wife. Shall I not punish them for these things? declares the LORD; and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this? (Jeremiah 5:7-9).
Jeremiah did not say this of Israel to demoralize them but to wake them up. Many people in Israel were saying of God, “He will do nothing, no disaster shall come upon us” (Jer. 5:12). Israel was headed for spiritual and national disaster and they did not need gentle correction. They needed a direct, clear, and jolting rebuke. There were certainly people in Israel to whom this rebuke did not apply, but that does not change the fact that it was a message that they needed to hear. Jeremiah spoke such words out of love for God and for Israel. If you don’t love someone you and you know they are headed for disaster, you don’t speak up, you just sit by and watch them falter.
At the very least, I can say without hesitation that had I received McCullough’s commencement address at my graduation, I would have remembered it. I cannot honestly tell you what was said at any of my graduations. McCullough ended his speech clarifying that everyone is special. And He challenged the students to adopt, what is whether he sees it as such or not, a very Christian ethic: self sacrifice:
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.
If it is true that we have largely cossetted, pampered, and blindly praised our children, perhaps McCullough’s address is one of the most honest, timely, and loving.