Two years ago, high school teacher David McCullough, Jr. gave a commencement speech at a school outside of Boston. He thought his audience was the graduating class, but the electronic world was eavesdropping. The 12-minute speech went viral. Suddenly he received emails from around the world and CNN and NBC wanted interviews. McCullough’s speech startled many because he told students they were not special. He criticized well-meaning but micro-managing parents for the intense pressure put on teenagers to excel. He argued that students are so afraid of failure that they miss the opportunity to make and learn from mistakes, and ultimately could miss out on having a fulfilling, happy life.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm.
MR. DAVID MCCULLOUGH JR.You are 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, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you, but do not get the idea you're anything special because you're not.
REHMYou just heard part of a commencement speech given two years ago by a high school teacher, David McCullough, Jr. His message became an internet sensation. It's received more than 2 million views on YouTube. His speech struck a chord with many who agree that teenagers are harmed by the growing pressure to be exceptional. McCullough expands on his thoughts in a new book titled, "You Are Not Special and Other Encouragements." David McCullough, Jr. joins me in the studio.
REHMAnd throughout the hour, you are welcome to be part of the program. Weigh in with your calls, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. David McCullough, it's good to have you here.
MCCULLOUGH JR.Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.
REHMAnd it's good to meet the son of the father I've interviewed so many times.
JR.And it's such a pleasure for me to meet someone of whom he sings so many praises.
REHMOh, thank you. I know that you have been a high school English teacher for 20 years, 26 years. You've been teaching at Wellesley High School near Boston since 2002. I love the "and Other Encouragements" of your title. Tell me what you mean.
MCCULLOUGH JR.Thank you. If kids get the idea that they are more important that others, that their every move is scrutinized and for the purpose of accolades, it becomes for them terribly inhibiting, pressure producing. Kids think the purpose of every endeavor is conspicuous achievement rather than the pleasure of doing something. I'm hoping that what I've written will, in some senses, liberate them from that pressure.
MCCULLOUGH JR.A kid thinks that because I'm so important, therefore everything I do is hugely important, when really, probably, it isn't. Kids need to adventure. They need to try new things, pursue something that might be common interest, it might not. They need to be willing to accept the possibility of failure. They need to fail a little and not think themselves failures for having done so.
REHMWhat got you started on this line of thinking?
MCCULLOUGH JR.Well, I've been teaching for nearly 30 years and I'm also the parent four children, three of whom are teenagers. So I see it at home. I see it at work. We've become a culture of praise and kids are starting to think that the purpose of the endeavor is praise, pleasing mommy and daddy is why I do these things when that's not it at all or should not be in my view.
REHMYou write of the example of a young girl who came to you in tears because she got a B on a paper.
MCCULLOUGH JR.That happens all the time. And how is a child going to learn -- if the purpose of school is learning, how is a child going to learn without experimentation, without adventuring beyond the prescribed norms. How is someone going to grow without reaching. And if they're fearing a B, we've all got problems.
REHMTell me about the response you got after you made this commencement speech.
MCCULLOUGH JR.It was overwhelming and jarring. I gave the speech and I thought it went nicely. The audience seemed receptive. I must say, Diane, I thought I was speaking only to those people in front of me.
MCCULLOUGH JR.I knew their families were in the stands. I was unaware it was being filmed. I was unaware that anyone beyond ear shot would take any interest in what I might say. When I came down from the dais, having just given the speech, I noticed from the stands where the families were sitting a grandmother came running at me at full speed.
MCCULLOUGH JR.And I stopped and she was a lovely person and showered me with the most erudite and much appreciated praise for my speech. And I said, well, thank you. And she said, might I have a copy. And so I just handed her the copy I'd read from. I then turned and standing just beyond her was Tommy Zinc (sp?) , who's a good friend of mine and head custodian at Wellesley High School.
MCCULLOUGH JR.And he said --and I'm gonna have to paraphrase through one word -- he said, that was "expletive" awesome. And so I thought between the two, between Tommy and the nice lady, I thought, well, maybe I've hit something here.
MCCULLOUGH JR.And over the ensuing week, emails and telephone calls and letters of appreciation became arriving in just mountains.
REHMFrom those who were present or...
MCCULLOUGH JR.Those present and beyond. Once it found the airwaves, it was Katie bar the door. By the end of the ensuing week, I was international headlines. My favorite was the Daily Mail in England which said, "American Teacher Goes on Bizarre Rant." I liked that one.
REHMSo you had to explain what you meant by "You Are Not Special."
MCCULLOUGH JR.I did, yes. And most of the "You Are Not Special" stuff happens at the front end of the speech and it was, for me, kind of warm-hearted teasing. The kids to whom I was speaking know me very well and I know them and they take me for what I am, which is a middle-aged, warm-hearted guy. I'm not hectoring, I'm not disapproving, nor am I somebody with some objective point of view who stepped in from the outside to wag a finger at these kids.
MCCULLOUGH JR.This was not intended to be a slap down of rich kids. It was more on the order of, you know, you're about to go outside, do you really want spinach between your teeth? It was more like that, than some condemning assessment of privileged kids.
REHMBut how did the kids themselves take it?
MCCULLOUGH JR.They took it the way I intended, they way I hoped they would.
MCCULLOUGH JR.Yes, absolutely.
REHMAnd do you think that some adults, the Daily Mail being one, sort of took it in a totally different light?
MCCULLOUGH JR.Sure. And, you know, taken out of context, I don't blame them at all. I mean, it does sound hectoring. But it certainly wasn't intended that way. To me, it was a setup for the more important message which comes in the second part of the speech and that is, do what you do because you love and believe in it. Your education is for your benefit, of course, but it's also for the benefit of everyone who stands to gain from your more enriched life.
REHMYou know, it's interesting that just a few weeks ago, the New York Times had in its Week In Review section, front page article on what it entitled "The Moral Child" talking about how too often parents focus on the achievement rather than on the effort. Was that something you were getting to as well?
MCCULLOUGH JR.Of course. Absolutely. Most parents are very well-meaning and I'm one myself. We're all swept up in this culture of achievement, much of which can be explained by an eagerness to see our kids enjoy the cultural plums. The gateway to American dream land, many people perceive, is through a prestigious college. And we all know they're very difficult to get into. They're very competitive.
MCCULLOUGH JR.And the first criteria is grades and so suddenly school is no longer about learning. School is about achieving an impressive GPA. It's an arms race and parents are so involved in their kids' lives, often to the child's detriment, that -- I had, not long ago, bumped into the mother of a student of mine and she said, "we got into" and then she named the college her daughter had gotten into.
MCCULLOUGH JR.And I thought, we? But from the parents point of view, she...
REHMIt is "we."
MCCULLOUGH JR.It is "we," yeah, because she was so involved in every step of the way.
REHMWhat about athletes?
MCCULLOUGH JR.To me, the athlete is the test case of so much of what is happening. All four of my children love sport and they're involved up to their earlobes in sports. I've traveled all over the country with my soccer-playing daughter. And on the one hand, it's a wonderfully enriching experience for her. On the other, it has denied her other experiences that might be equally enriching.
MCCULLOUGH JR.She could play the piano. She doesn't now. She could pursue friendships she otherwise wouldn't have had. She could've spent more time in the backyard drawing a picture of the oak tree.
REHMAnd she's focusing on soccer.
MCCULLOUGH JR.And she has been focused on soccer since she was six years old, yeah. But it has lead for her a terrific college opportunity just over here at Georgetown. So it's choices parents have to make and it's -- you're in for a penny, you're in for a pound. It's not like you can regulate one's level of participation. If you commit to one of these fancy sports programs, you're in it for a lot of money and a long time.
REHMYou were speaking to Wellesley High School kids. Pretty advantaged kids for the most part.
MCCULLOUGH JR.Hugely advantaged. And I hope they understand that with their privileges come responsibility, that it's not simply a cushy life of material splendor they're aiming for. I want them to understand that their advantages require of them participation in making this a better place for everyone.
REHMDavid McCullough, Jr. has been a high school English teacher for 26 years. His new book is titled, "You Are Not Special and Other Encouragements." When we come back, we'll talk more, take your calls. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd here's our first email for David McCullough, Jr. And of course, he is the son of historian, David McCullough who has, I'm happy to say, been on this program many times. David McCullough, Jr. has been a high school English teacher for 26 years. He delivered a rather provocative commencement speech to his Wellesley High School class near Boston, where he's been teaching English since 2002. The book is titled, "You Are Not Special: ...And Other Encouragements."
REHMHere's our first email from Luke in Caledonia, MI who says: "I'm terrified at the prospects of all these helicopter kids joining the workforce. It seems to me they've been rigorously trained in math and science with no humanities. And this has made them into little robots who question no authority. I can't imagine how pliable they'll be by corporate America's standards. I see a lot of 60-hour workweeks in the future." What do you think?
MCCULLOUGH JR.Well, I can put in there a little ease, they are by and large terrific human beings who have been raised in a culture not of their making. They are receptive and capable of great loving heart and they're bright. And they just need to be shown the way. I think they're naïve, a lot of them. But who among us at 18 wasn't a bit naive? Yes, they're going to have to suffer a few slaps and stumbles, and they'll learn from them. They'll be okay.
REHMYou know, it's interesting in a previous hour on this program we talked about the culture, which is spread around the country, of rape on college campuses. I wonder if you see any connection between this culture of you are special and the sense of privilege of not only opportunity but taking advantage of other people that young persons might grow into with this idea of I am special.
MCCULLOUGH JR.Yes, one sees that all the time, it's terrible. They think themselves entitled simply because they exist and they are wonderful. And they think, therefore, every accolade is theirs, every cultural plum is theirs. You know, parents are so eager to see their child enjoy the cultural plum that rather than inspiring them to climb the plum tree, rather than teaching them how to climb, they're buying them stepladders.
MCCULLOUGH JR.And -- or they're hauling down the branches or they're finding easier trees to climb. And kids think naturally all these things are mine to enjoy because they haven't worked very hard to achieve the kinds of successes, conspicuous successes that in other eras required so much more. At any sign of a wobble, the parent will step right in to prevent the child from suffering some horribly cataclysmic failure.
MCCULLOUGH JR.Well, that's a mistake, I think. Kids need to struggle and persevere and learn how to pick themselves up after a failure. The notion of entitlement that every success and accolade is mine for the taking can be terribly detrimental for an evolving human being.
REHMI realize you have not written a memoir, but I'm interested in your own life as a young person and a failure you might have encountered and how your own parents might have dealt with it.
MCCULLOUGH JR.Most of the parental supervision -- I'm 55 and I was raised in a different era. And the way I was raised would today feel like neglect. Out the door we went. Dogs leash-less in that era as well. And about the only supervision we had to endure was, you know, be home by dinner. And we went out and we made our own fun. And we negotiated the impasses as we encounter them on our own.
MCCULLOUGH JR.And we formulated a moral sensibility on our own. We chose the kids we admired and we chose the kids we disapproved of. All that we did on our own. And I wouldn't call that bad parenting. In fact, I'd call that quite good parenting. Doting on a child and bathing the child in praise and clearing the path before them isn't necessarily good parenting. In some ways, it's easy parenting. Much harder is to step back and watch your child struggle. And I think it's, in many ways, a much more beneficial effort of raising children.
REHMWas there a time or period that perhaps you struggled in school?
MCCULLOUGH JR.Oh, are you kidding? All the time. I was 13 years old when I started high school.
MCCULLOUGH JR.Yeah, just by a few weeks.
MCCULLOUGH JR.And we had just moved to the town into which we were living. I knew no one at the school. And very quickly I realized that I was a terrible math student. Math was suddenly out of numbers into letters in algebra 1. And algebra was a code designed to keep me out. And I told my parents I'm -- that I'm having a horrible time in math. And my father's advice was to work harder, not to sit with me and do the math problems together.
MCCULLOUGH JR.Not to hire a tutor for me, it was work harder. Well, I worked harder and I still did horrible. In fact, through the whole I did terribly. And then the next summer, down the street from us was a math teacher from our school. And the next summer my father and I together agreed that it would be a good idea for me to go see Mr. Mayhew (sp?) about some help in math. And I went down to Mr. Mayhew's house and I discovered that teachers live in houses with kitchens and cats in the living room.
MCCULLOUGH JR.That teachers are people. It was such a revelation to me. I've never seen a teacher away from school, really. And this was Mr. Mayhew, nice Mr. Mayhew. And he sat me down in his living room and wrote out a math problem for me to handle. And I look down at it and thought, oh, gosh, here we go and looked up. And across the room on the wall, I saw a photograph of four Grumman Wildcats flying in formation.
MCCULLOUGH JR.And I said, Mr. Mayhew, do you like World War II airplanes? He said, you bet I do. And he said, in fact, that's me flying in one of them. Mr. Mayhew had been a fighter pilot in World War II. He flew at Guadalcanal. He flew at Iwo Jima. So suddenly now not only is he a human being, he's a hero. And I still get tingles when I think about Mr. Mayhew, but he was just an ordinary guy who felt it important that I learn math.
MCCULLOUGH JR.And really that's all I needed. I'd gotten Ds in algebra my freshman year mostly because the teacher was a nice guy. He said, oh, you're a good kid, don't worry about it. With Mr. Mayhew, I earned my Ds and it made so much difference to me. I've had lots of struggles and never once that it occurred to me that my parents weren't enormously supportive and loving by not solving them for me.
REHMSo at no point did you say to your father, "Please, sit here. Show me how to do this." Or "Please do it for me."
MCCULLOUGH JR.Never would I have said, "Please do it for me." He would have laughed. Please help me, I'm sure I must have over the years at some point asking for his help. But he was always, and my mother, both very careful in regulating their parental touch. The other part of it, too, is they're very busy people. My father earning -- living to earn and my mother had a household to run. I had four siblings. We had, you know, dogs and cats. And they didn't have a lot of time to indulge in me and my issues or however they were.
REHMDavid, I have to tell you that one of my heroes is Fred Rogers. In fact, after I had him on the program shortly before he died, two days later I received in the mail a tiny book, I think three inches by three inches, with a mirror on the front. And the book is titled, "You Are Special." And inside that book Mr. Rogers wrote, "You really are special, Diane. I love you." Signed Fred Rogers.
REHMThat book sits on my nightstand and means so much to me. Now, that came to me way in my adulthood. That's different.
MCCULLOUGH JR.It's different. It's different.
REHMBut do you think the fact that he told all those little children, my children as well, that they were special...
MCCULLOUGH JR.No, I think as I end the speech, everyone is special. Everyone is important. And if you think of it that way, then it kind of nullifies the concept of specialness. You know, it's a statistical inevitability that most of us are kind of average. And there's nothing wrong with that. That's really a big part of my point. Everyone is special. Everyone is important. Let's get past that. One will judged on who you are and what you do. And one should not assume that every success and accolade will fall into one's lap simply because you're a good person. Life just doesn't work that way.
REHMThe other message contained in your, "You Are Not Special" book seems to me to be that you are equally as special as the person you are looking at.
MCCULLOUGH JR.What makes me cautious about the word special is it's become kind of a code word for superior, which no one would dare claim. So special has become a way to kind of wiggle around that. And that's what makes me concerned. In high school when I see students, so many of them are preoccupied with admission to college that they're very competitive with one another because they know, you know, only a small percentage of the kids who apply get into these prestigious schools.
MCCULLOUGH JR.And so, they are looking for any advantage they can get and they'll inflate any accolade to the remotest extreme to make of themselves an impressive candidate. And I'd love to see them get beyond that and just be confident in who you are and don't try to PR your way into something that you might not deserve.
REHMDavid McCullough, Jr., his new book is titled "You Are Not Special: ...And Other Encouragements." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." One last question before we go to the phones. Had you delivered this commencement speech to a low-income, say, underprivileged school, would it have been the same?
MCCULLOUGH JR.It would have been wildly different. No, it would not have been the same. The kids in Wellesley are hugely privileged. Many of them don't know that. All they know is the norm they see around them. One of the things I think we've lost in this country is a sense of perspective. And because the kids in Wellesley see only the kids in Wellesley around, some of the kids in the immediate area, they think it's perfectly normal. This is the way people are. Now, had I spoken in a different school, it would have been a very different speech.
REHMWhat might you have said?
MCCULLOUGH JR.Well, it depends unto whom I was speaking. One wants to see -- a commencement is a celebration of beginnings...
MCCULLOUGH JR.It's not let's applaud you for all you've done to this point. Whatever distinction a child might have earned at a commencement doesn't, to that point, doesn't matter so much. It's why we dress them all alike in the ceremonial costume. It's why the diplomas all look the same. It's why they cross the stage in alphabetical order rather than by grades or some other distinction.
MCCULLOUGH JR.It's let's talk about what's to come not what has been. I would emphasize in a community of different circumstances, life's possibilities and try to encourage in children confidence in themselves and in the receptive of the world to their efforts.
REHMAll right. We're going to open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Ellen in Greenwood, IN. Hi there, you're on the air. Go right ahead.
ELLENHello. First of all, I taught for 35 years 4th and 5th graders. And I want to give a shout-out to my English teacher from Wendell L. Willkie High School. I prayed every day not to get a D. So the other thing is, as I taught back in the '80s, it became important for us to give out certificates. And we had to turn in how many we gave each week. So that's all I have to say.
REHMWhat do you mean by certificates?
ELLENWe had to, you know, reward a child for good behavior or exceeding, excelling in math or reading or improvement. Plus, we had charts. We had up -- put little stars on, plus we mounted their best work and displayed it in the hallways.
REHMAnd, Ellen, what was your own personal reaction to doing that?
ELLENWell, it was like you got to be kidding me. But I think I made my point because we had an award at the end of -- a ceremony at the end of the year. And the year before there were so many that's got up and ran over. So I made the mistake of only giving out a few certificates. So the next year, I gave out a certificate to everyone in my room. And at the end of that session, the principal made a rule that said that next, at the end of the year, we could only give out so many there at the top.
REHMInteresting. Giving our certificates.
MCCULLOUGH JR.For what's expected. Yeah.
REHMFor what's expected, absolutely.
MCCULLOUGH JR.Every child should aspire. Every child should work hard. And everybody should enjoy the success of a job well done.
REHMAbsolutely. And we'll take a short break here. More of your email, your phone calls when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd here's another email for David McCullough Jr., a teacher of English and a writer. He wrote the commencement speech for his Wellesley High School and it went viral. So now he's written a book out of that experience. It's titled, "You are Not Special...and Other Encouragements." Here's an email from Sharon in Ravenna, Ohio. She says, "I think that 'You Are Not Special' is a rational approach. But I feel parents who justify by their drive for their children to achieve. The push is rational.
REHMTake a look at our world: no jobs for high school graduates -- wrong college major, no matter how much you love the subject, no job and debt -- rich kids getting ahead by birth legacy, tutors, elite sports camps. What is a parent to do if he wants his child to enjoy at least a comfortable middle-class life? Where you go to college provides invaluable contacts for future success. Lots of people work really hard, but with no contacts are unable to get anywhere. Who you know matters, period."
MCCULLOUGH JR.That's a very, very important question/issue, for which, alas, there is no easy answer. There are, you know, Harvard, for example, admits 6 percent of its applicants, Stanford less than 6 percent. And a diploma from Harvard or Stanford makes a difference out there in the world, absolutely. The tuition at Harvard is -- was last year $54,000 a year. Seven in ten college seniors are graduating in debt. Of course they're going to pursue the money. It's a necessity. It's a very complicated and difficult situation and lots of well-meaning, hard-working, deserving people are going to be left out. And it's not right.
REHMIt's not right, but encouraging parents could be the key to getting it right.
MCCULLOUGH JR.That's right. Absolutely. And parents just need to be careful to what degree and how they involve themselves in their children's lives. And my contention is, if they involve themselves too much or in the wrong way, they're denying their child the essential experience of handling experiences on their own.
REHMSo, but the question arises, why do you think so many parents have become these so-called helicopter parents?
MCCULLOUGH JR.Yeah. The new term one hears now is snowplow parents who are clearing the way. Why so many is because we're -- they're trying to keep up with the Joneses. It's an arms race. And if Susie across the street is going to Guatemala to paint the health clinic and she's repelling down the cliff at Yosemite and she's working at the old-people's home on weekends and she's enrolled in three different honors courses and is taking the SAT course, then she's going to get into the prestigious college, and my child won't. That's the perception.
MCCULLOUGH JR.And it's the perception because, in many ways, that's the reality. There are now, as probably you're aware, college application consultants, whom one can hire, who function as sort of a PR and marketing department for the college applicant. And they charge a lot of money, one presumes because they get results. Is it fair? No. But are the -- I don't even know if the college admission officers know which applicants have had what kind of help. I don't know the answer to that.
REHMWhat about college? Not even college -- what about high school counselors? How many are there in middling schools? How many are available for a child to go to that counselor rather than to the parent and say, I am really having trouble with A, B, C or D. How much is the trust really there?
MCCULLOUGH JR.The quick answer is there aren't enough counselors. Speaking as a teacher, I have about between 120 and 130 students a year generally. And I would love to be exactly the kind of teacher each of those students needs. But I can't. And so I just have to trust myself. Every child should have the resources he or she needs to succeed. It's not the case though for everybody. It's the case really for a few. We need to spend more money. We need to care far more than we do about how we're raising our children. Bill Russell, the great Celtic for whom I have great admiration said, "There's no such thing as other people's children."
MCCULLOUGH JR.And every educator should feel that way. To me, the measure of a civilization is not in the strength of its military or the robustness of its economy or the grandeur of its art or architecture. To me, the strength of a civilization is how it raises its children. And we need to be doing far better than we are in this country.
REHMOf course money...
MCCULLOUGH JR.It's the hugest part of it. Even well-heeled suburban school systems, there are too many students per teacher. My experience has shown me that the ideal number of students in a given class is between 15 and about 18. Beyond 20 and the learning of each child suffers. Beyond 25, and it becomes more daycare than education. And it should be that way in every school. It's irresponsible of us as a civilization to countenance the sub -- these unacceptable situations, yet we let them persist.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Troutman, N.C. Hi, Vickie.
VICKIEHi. Thank you so much. And thanks for this important topic. I wanted share a little story that I think is very complementary to this notion of what actually is encouraging. I do a lot of consulting work, have for over 20 years. And I was in an organization a couple of years ago and there was a young woman with a very plumy internship and she was on her way to graduate school. And during one of our conversations, she got very teary-eyed and said, "I'm just afraid I'm not good enough." And I looked at her very clearly and I said, "You're not."
VICKIEAnd I said, "If you are up to achieving anything really important and worthwhile, you are not. But that's not a reason not to go for it." And as you can imagine, she was stunned. She was one of those people who had been very special all of her life. And she kept in touch with me. And she ended up changing her major as a result of that conversation, pursuing something she never thought she could do, which is a writing career.
VICKIEAnd she's doing extremely well. And I have said that to people in other contexts, but for some reason, that one just stuck with me because I actually think it encouraged her in a way that nothing else had ever encouraged her, to tell her she was not good enough.
MCCULLOUGH JR.Good for you. Yeah. One hopes that as we go forward, we learn and we evolve and grow and become more capable, wiser people. That's sort of the point. You may not know enough today. That's not to say you won't know enough on Thursday.
REHMYou actually write about a recent student of yours. You call him Jack. Tell us about him.
MCCULLOUGH JR.Jack was a middling kind of student, if achievement is one's measure. He was a personably, kindly kid who would walk in and sit down and endure the class, and when the bell rang he would get up and go. And I had a couple of chats with him and he seemed perfectly content with his level of engagement. And finally he wrote a sub-mediocre paper. And so we sat down and he explained to me that, look, this is the way I want to proceed. And I said, well okay. I learned only in the very end of the school year, in May, that Jack has a true passion.
MCCULLOUGH JR.He creates three-dimensional drawings -- he will, with ordinary printer paper and pencil and scissors and scotch tape, will create these magnificent sculptures. He was doing it not to impress an adult or an admissions officer. He was not preparing for a contest down in Houston. He did purely because he thought it was fun. He would make millennium falcons and baseball hats and whatever struck his fancy. And they were beautiful. They're the Faberge eggs of little paper sculptures. And he was so excited to show them to me. I asked him to bring a few in.
MCCULLOUGH JR.And he was plainly -- this was -- is what got him going, the light in the eye. And I thought, good for you. And what I liked so much about it, it was purely his. It wasn't designed to impress anybody. He was doing it for the joy of doing it.
REHMBut how'd he get through English?
MCCULLOUGH JR.He got through. He got through. And I leave it to an 18-year-old to regulate his own engagement in my classroom. And, in part -- part of a teacher's job is to be interesting. And if I can't ignite an interest in a child, then that's, in my way, my fault. I want them to work hard. I want them to take their responsibilities seriously. But passion for the subject, I don't expect. Passion is caught, not taught anyway. And generally I'm having so much fun with the material anyway, that I'm not really paying too close attention to how my audience is receiving me.
REHMYou and I both have sons named David. And you write about Davey and his history paper assignment. What happened?
MCCULLOUGH JR.He was taking an AP U.S. History course, his junior year of high school, which is one of those teach-for-the-test courses, about which I have grave misgivings. And he soldiered through admirably. Was a little disappointed by some of it. The teacher was frustratingly slow in returning homework, you know, written papers and things. They took the test in early May, but they still had six weeks of class left. And so the teacher gave the kids a big research assignment. And Davey procrastinated, and hemmed and hawed, and scratched his head, and came up with nothing to write about.
MCCULLOUGH JR.And finally I suggested Benny Goodman's performance of "Sing, Sing, Sing" at Carnegie Hall in 1938.
MCCULLOUGH JR.It's such a cool thing in my view.
MCCULLOUGH JR.For me, yeah.
MCCULLOUGH JR.And I knew he liked music and I knew he knew little about music. And I thought maybe it might right -- and the other thing, it was about the 47th suggestion. So it wasn't like I swooped in and said you write about this.
MCCULLOUGH JR.And he listened to the piece and he read a little bit about it and he became suddenly a man possessed. And that enthusiasm for that particular piece, "Sing, Sing, Sing," led to a wider appreciation of swing, which led to a wider appreciation of jazz. He got, via jazz, interested in Woody Allen and Woody Allen movies and Woody Allen standup routines that he found online. He'll tell you today, this is now a couple of years later, he'll tell you now that Ella Fitzgerald is his favorite singer.
MCCULLOUGH JR.And all of this he found on his own, purely through the Benny Goodman assignment. The teacher -- the kids handed in the paper with a few weeks of school left. And they waited for the return of the paper with the grade on it and it never happened. And as the school wound down, the teacher said, okay, I haven't gotten them graded yet. I'm sorry. Please give me a self-addressed, stamped envelope and I will mail them to you over the summer. Well, the paper never came back.
REHMOh, my heavens.
MCCULLOUGH JR.And so when school started, Davey went to see him and said, hey what about my Benny Goodman paper? And the teacher said, I'm sorry. I like that. I think that's good because the experience wasn't about the grade. It's not about the grade. It's about his new enthusiasm for all things jazz. When you put a grade on something, suddenly the endeavor becomes about the recompense rather than the experience itself.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." But didn't the teacher have an obligation to at least say, I'm sorry. I couldn't get to all the reading I needed to do. Your paper was fine. You handed it in on time. You did what you were supposed to do.
MCCULLOUGH JR.Yes. Yes, that's my opinion. However, Davey's the one in his classroom. And that would be, from my point of view, an issue for Davey to advocate, not his parents.
REHMNot for you to do. All right. One last quick call from Emil in Washington D.C. You're on the air.
EMILHi, Ms. Rehm. Huge fan. First of all, I wanted to tell a short anecdote from my (word?)
REHMVery quick. Very quick.
EMILHere, in the Washington University, one of my students failed to accomplish work that my private-studio students accomplish at age 10. So, first of all, what is that doing in a university? Feeling like I didn't want to besmirch her records, I have the student a B plus. I then was engaged in a furious and lengthy diatribe, via text, over why I have the student the B plus, instead of the expected A. The conclusion I drew from this is that, first of all, it's not just a sense of entitlement, it's a loss of the sense of what success or failure actually means.
EMILSo, first, we're doing no good service to the students by giving them automated A's. And secondly, and more importantly, we're also shortchanging them because they don't actually have the experience of success. If everything is success, then nothing is.
MCCULLOUGH JR.I agree. I agree. Also, children are no longer allowed to define success for themselves. Success is for many kids pleasing the authority figures in their lives or impressing people, rather than feeling satisfied with a job well done.
REHMI wish that you and I had more time to talk.
MCCULLOUGH JR.I do, too.
REHMLots to say here that I think is so important and so valuable for both parents and children and teachers to hear. Thank you, David.
MCCULLOUGH JR.Thank you, Diane. I've enjoyed this very much.
REHMDavid McCullough Jr. He's a high school English teacher at Wellesley High School near Boston. His new book is titled, "You are Not Special...and Other Encouragements." And, by the way, May 28, our reader's review will be "The Secret History," by Donna Tartt. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.