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Tough-love commencement speech highlights deeper problems

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
The English-teacher son of a Pulitzer Prize winner gave a much-ballyhooed commencement speech recently to students graduating from an American high school that one might categorize as privileged. David McCullough Jr., a teacher at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts and the son of the Pulitzer-winning historian David McCullough, began by comparing the "great forward-looking ceremony" to another kind of ceremony, weddings, before promptly dismissing both as overhyped. It was the first sign that the speech would turn out to be one big reality check.

While to some, McCullough might have come across a misanthropic jerk, he barely scratched the surface of Western societal problems that are growing increasingly and worryingly prevalent, and the reasons why this is occurring.

I don't care what Dr. Benjamin Spock and all the recent purveyors of self-esteem psychology say: There's no greater motivator in life than being convinced that you can do better, as opposed to believing that you're already sufficient. And there's no better way to build self-confidence than by making a kid -- or an adult, for that matter -- earn something after spending considerable time failing to attain it.

This is done by placing them in a position of losing and making them clamber their way to the top, whether it be in sports or academics. Socially, this can be achieved not by keeping kids in a bubble with selected friends who think they're "OMG! Sooooo amazing!" but by making them interact with a wide variety of people, many of whom believe strongly in their inadequacy. Then perhaps they won't be so shocked when they graduate and don't have an employer knocking at their door with a $250,000 annual contract in hand, and maybe their self-worth won't be built on a dodgy foundation largely dependent on shoring-up from outside forces.

Being genuinely special is a lot like being sane, in the sense that the ones who truly are constantly question whether that's indeed the case.

I was fortunate enough to believe that success was something to be earned and proven. My own high school graduation was such a non-event that one of my classmates played a song on his guitar during the ceremony, and one of my best pals disappeared halfway through only to come back with an armful of Super Big Gulps to pass around. I can't say that my university commencements were any more meaningful. I left halfway through the ceremony for my first degree because I had to run off to a postgraduate class. And I skipped my graduate-school commencement entirely because I was already busy working out of the country.

In short, I always knew that I needed much more than ceremonies and accolades to believe myself valuable in any meaningful sense. It had to come from measurable accomplishments rather than from the mere potential thereof.

It doesn't help that the ego-massage tools available today are far more powerful than any that have previously existed. These days, kids can socially engineer their own behind-kissing universe, adding Facebook "friends" who "like" every thought, while casting off or "unfriending" those who don't fit a kid's self-perception.

No one in this little universe of a kid's own creation will even so much as criticize their horrible spelling, because this virtual universe will ultimately come to reflect who that person perceives himself to be, and his level of intelligence or lack thereof. No one who's a flake in real life has Facebook friends who'll ever impose critical thinking upon him. The person will see himself reflected positively in a tranquil virtual sea of blissful ignorance and mediocrity.

This is how the world has come to be flooded with overconfident uselessness -- with the kind of people who demand that the "one percent" spread the wealth while refusing to take the harder road of identifying their own talents and finding ways to prove their own worth, never mind what the "one percent" happen to be doing with their own lives. As far as these self-absorbed souls are concerned, the world simply has yet to recognize their greatness in the same way their parents and Facebook friends have done -- and that's mostly Wall Street's fault.

Some critics of McCullough's speech have said that telling kids how unspecial they are before they enter the real world is just mean, because they're bound to discover their lack of uniqueness very quickly when they emerge from their protective bubble.

Wrong. It's not like they're going to have some sort of epiphany. They'll just find someone else to blame.

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