Generation ‘Special’

Posted on June 23, 2012


This week’s Newsweek features a piece by David McCullough Jr, a teacher who gave a speech to the 2012 graduating class of Wellesley High School.  Visit Wellesley’s website.  The school sounds more like a university than a high school.  The gist of McCullough’s speech was “You are not special.  You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.  If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless…We Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.” 

Incendiary words, spoken to children who epitomize the best and the brightest of what this country has to offer.  The problem is that the “best” and the “brightest” have ceased to have any real meaning.

We are the educated middle class, the loving parents of these kids.  And we have created a protective aura around our children. Just as we remove all manner of objects and food groups that might harm them physically, we remove any sort of failure that might harm their little psyches. Because we believe them to be so special and so perfect, we make sure the world sees them in the same way. 

We email or fax reports to school and make no pretense that they are coming from Johnny. We expect A’s, with no concern that A’s have thus become meaningless. We graduate children who can barely read and who cannot think for themselves.

We fight to have Johnny admitted to special ed classes, believing it is better to have the label of special ed than to be “regular.” Regular, average, and normal are no longer acceptable terms for our children.

If Johnny is above average, we demand the designation “gifted.”  And we are willing to pay handsomely for it, to bypass the system and get the results we want from those who provide independent educational assessments.

We demand that Johnny makes the most competitive sports team.  We don’t care that his making the team might mean that the team will lose or that a worthy child won’t then get a slot that he deserves to get because our child took his place.

We are incensed if a teacher tells us that Johnny isn’t special, or worse, that he is falling behind. We storm into the school and berate the principal for the stupidity of the teacher.

We treat our children’s teachers and coaches like we treat other drivers on the road.  They are mere impediments to our getting where we want to be in the most efficient way possible. When we cause an accident, we blame the other driver.  When our child fails, we blame the system. We are thus shocked that Perfect Little Johnny turns out to be someone who doesn’t quite come up to the expectations we had for him.

As Newsweek says in a piece titled “Generation ‘Special,’’ “…it seems that affluent parents now have a major beef with how their offspring…correction, the offspring of others…are turning out. Just a bit entitled perhaps? A little unrealistic in expectations? A little complacent?” 

There are many caring (and realistic) parents out there, who don’t steamroll over the system.  There are many students graduating from high schools who are hardworking and who have never expected anything they didn’t deserve. But there are also many of the others.

These other kids will graduate, some with honors, and go on to colleges they never should have gotten into.  They will sit in classes they don’t deserve to be in, and they will struggle to get by or they will simply drop out. But few of them will understand why this has happened to them, and fewer, still, will place any responsibility on themselves.

From Newsweek: “…we’ve given our children everything except for the thing they need most and the thing no one can provide, the ability to find their own core passion without artificial support.  And the understanding of how much work, how much sheer effort, it takes to succeed.”

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