When I was sitting at my graduation in Grade 13 (remember the days when there was still such a thing?), I knew even then that I had completed a truly meaningful era of my life. My high school experience was more full of intellectual challenge, emotional growth, and lasting friendships than I would receive during my upcoming university education at one of Canada’s top institutions.
And if during my commencement, I had to listen toa middle-aged man smugly spouting platitudes about leading “unique” and “extraordinary” lives while telling me I’m not “special”, I’d have been very glad to have a few ripe tomatoes on hand.
I have no contention with the entitlement argument; how could I? In my late 20s, and wanting more creativity in my life, I went on a couple of dates with a 35 year old artistic type who quit working lucrative contracts in animation because they were boring and used only 5% of his potential. He was now stretching his wings as a film director. What had he directed, or what was he working on? Well, nothing – but it was just a matter of time. Until then, how did he pay for his himself and his spacious apartment? His aging, immigrant Chinese parents helped out as needed with savings from their former convenience store, although they were rather a nuisance, not understanding his need for creative expression and all. Hot, no?
At the same time, David McCullough, Jr.’s commencement speech bothered me. How does purposely embarrassing a large group of people celebrating a key milestone further the cause against the special snowflake? Those students are people, not all of whom are obnoxious, lazy, and talent-less. It seemed to me an example of how it’s acceptable to treat young people with less respect than other people. I couldn’t help thinking that the commencement speech was less about trying to inspire nobler sentiments in young adults than it was about someone trying to make a distinctive speech, basically at the expense of a silenced group of people who could not do much about it. And there seemed more than a little irony that this missive was coming from the school system which, with its standardized tests, and rewards and punishments for a pre-determined, inflexible curriculum, is probably not especially conducive to nurturing creative and independent individuals.
Whatever useful message lies in that speech needs to be given to parents, educators, and the villages that are raising children to over-inflate themselves while under-achieving. The answer can’t be to mock them once our own shortcomings in raising them start to take form.
I watched both the video clips on view for this month’s At Issue topic. I laughed at the comedic sketch because, well, it was funny. But there were real people on the end of that commencement speech, at least some of whom will better our world in more and less obvious ways, and I can’t help feel like they deserved more kindness than they received.