You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality—we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point—and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole. No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it… Now it’s “So what does this get me?”(ed note: That's the part they're cheering...here's what they missed)
If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning. You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness. (Second is ice cream… just an fyi) I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning. It’s where you go from here that matters.
As you commence, then, and before you scatter to the winds, I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance. Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about, lest you too find yourself on the wrong side of a Baltimore Orioles comparison. Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages. And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it. Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself. Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might. And do so, please, with a sense of urgency, for every tick of the clock subtracts from fewer and fewer; and as surely as there are commencements there are cessations, and you’ll be in no condition to enjoy the ceremony attendant to that eventuality no matter how delightful the afternoon.
The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer. You’ll note the founding fathers took pains to secure your inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—quite an active verb, “pursuit”—which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots rollerskate on Youtube. The first President Roosevelt, the old rough rider, advocated the strenuous life. Mr. Thoreau wanted to drive life into a corner, to live deep and suck out all the marrow. The poet Mary Oliver tells us to row, row into the swirl and roil. Locally, someone… I forget who… from time to time encourages young scholars to carpe the heck out of the diem. The point is the same: get busy, have at it. Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands. (Now, before you dash off and get your YOLO tattoo, let me point out the illogic of that trendy little expression–because you can and should live not merely once, but every day of your life. Rather than You Only Live Once, it should be You Live Only Once… but because YLOO doesn’t have the same ring, we shrug and decide it doesn’t matter.)
McCullough's not telling everyone to back off, to stop thinking of themselves as special. He's telling them to BE special, because right now they are not, but they can be.
Contrast that with the conservatives who want to stop public education (which McCullough not only implies an endorsement for, but waxes poetic about the rapture of learning for learning's sake...could you imagine a student learning to learn and not to memorize?) and decertify teachers' unions and dismantle any program that doesn't lead to a bigotry of soft expectations.
In other words, conservatives cheer the very thing McCullough is mocking!