Dueling Wellesley Commencement Speeches

David McCullough, Jr., the son of the famous historian of that name, is a teacher at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts. And the younger McCullough has up until now been a private figure.

But thanks to YouTube and the internet, he’s now a star in some circles and a villain in others. McCullough, as it happens, delivered a commencement speech to the graduates of his school last week with an unusual message.

Namely, “You are not special.”

Reaction to the speech falls mostly on the side of those supporting his message. That side says today’s kids are pampered, over-protected and fed a steady diet of lies – and as a result they’re poorly prepared for the real world.

But there was another recent Wellesley commencement speech recently. That would be the one given by Tulane professor and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, who two weeks ago told graduates of all-female Wellesley College to be ignorant, silent and thick.

If you can’t get through all 24 minutes of the speech, we’ll summarize – Harris-Perry says that advice to graduates is difficult because each will walk a different path, and makes no effort to suggest that some of those paths might be more useful than others. But after much beating around the bush she suggests that her audience embrace ignorance as a precursor to learning, which is certainly a valid exhortation but loses much of its luster from Harris-Perry’s neglect to mention the importance of banking the knowledge gained through that learning and applying it toward success in life. And she suggests that being silent, rather than silenced, is a virtue – through silence one may listen and become more informed when one does speak. But in supporting that advice, Harris-Perry suggests that silence from Wellesley graduates who have achieved what she calls “privilege” is meritorious – because silence from those with privilege provides an avenue for those with none to speak. And while that’s very democratic and egalitarian, it is as (if not more) illegitimate to assume those without privilege have something of value to say as it is to assume those with it have nothing. Elite social status doesn’t confer quality to one’s perspective, but the lack of that status certainly isn’t an improvement.

And finally, Harris-Perry suggests that her audience be thick – specifically making the statement that “thin women look great in a bikini, but thick women look great in history books.” It’s difficult to discern precisely what that means, other than that she’s demanding the graduates of Wellesley get engaged in big issues rather than pursue the individual choices she says make advice to the group fruitless.

On the whole, it seems the high school teacher whose message to the students that they’re not special and that their success depends not on the degree they’ve just achieved but the journey they’re about to embark on offers more meaning and more positivity than the TV host who spends 24 minutes essentially telling the college grads they ought to treat their advantages with disdain. But our readers are well-equipped to make that determination for themselves.



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