John Vasconcellos could be forgiven for having a migraine right now. As a longtime California legislator, he was the driving force behind the state’s Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. That group’s 1989 report helped persuade schools nationwide to nurture their students’ self-esteem as a way of eliminating social problems and academic failure. Yet for the last few days, the loud accolades have gone to a Massachusetts English teacher whose speech to graduating high school students dumped on all that carefully cultivated self-worth. “You are not special,” David McCullough Jr. told the students — in hearing range of their parents, no less. “You are not exceptional.”
And the Class of 2012 applauded. Many of the students in affluent Wellesley, Mass., appreciated the bald honesty and overdue dose of reality.
Of course, the self-esteem movement has been taken down before. Research published in 2004 found that, contrary to expectations, higher self-esteem was not linked to better learning or even better behavior. That same year, the main character in the children’s movie “The Incredibles” memorably fumed, “They keep inventing new ways to celebrate mediocrity.” And an international math test found that although American students ranked low on skills, they were at the top of the world when it came to believing they were good at math. There was a reason for that: They were also the most likely to report getting good grades in the subject.
McCullough took that on, too, bemoaning that today’s B is yesterday’s C.
The speech was not all about running down its audience. McCullough emphasized that special is as special does, that children can earn greatness rather than merely expect it. Parents love their kids for their very existence. That’s a parent’s job. Middle-class American childhood, with its plethora of kiddie awards — remember the seventh-place ribbons adorning a wall in the film “Meet the Fockers”? — feeds the belief that the world will look on them the same way. The lucky Wellesley students had McCullough to dash that expectation. As he told them, what will make them exceptional — or not — are their actions, not their beliefs about themselves.
The Wellesley High graduates might not be special, but they aren’t stupid either. They know the current economy isn’t tossing a shining future into their laps. Here was someone to give voice to that sneaking suspicion. When they encounter their first low grade in college, or an incompatible roommate, maybe they’ll cope instead of calling in Mom. If so, they’ll have learned something worthwhile on commencement day.