This is the commencement address delivered at my high school graduation by David McCullough Jr., son of historian David McCullough Sr. As I was about to post this, I tried to find this speech online to check for copyright and permission to republish. It used to be hosted on Wellesley High School’s website. Since then they seem to have taken it down, and I’m not able to find it online anywhere. So for posterity, here it is.
“GO” 2006 Commencement Address – David McCullough
Dr. King, Mrs. Mirkin, Mr. Keegan, Mrs. Jablonski, friends and families of the graduates, members of the Wellesley High School class of 2006, for the honor of the invitation to speak this afternoon I am very grateful. Thank you.
The occasion is commencement, a beginning. Let us not, therefore, spend too much time looking backward. Suffice to say you spent four useful and, I hope, happy years in that lovely pile of bricks, that you now know the difference between Dickens and Dickinson and recognize a pythagorean theorem when you trip over one, that you can conjugate an unAmerican verb or two and navigate most regions of the periodic table. You know, I hope, something of history and its particulars, and you understand it is (present tense) populated with people, every bit as real and vital as you are, with loves and wishes and apprehensions just like yours. I hope in that building and on its green fields you learned the indispensability of passion and practice and teamwork, that you felt both victory and defeat, that you learned something of the connection between dedication and achievement, between effort and results. You enjoyed, I hope, the peace of mind of knowing you tried your best.
But more important than any of that–and all of that is of course enormously important–I hope your experience taught you how to learn… and, more important still, why to learn–not just for the more productive and fulfilling life it will bring you, but also to help you meet your responsibilities as citizens of the planet.
As maybe you’ve noticed, the human body is designed for forward motion… eyes, ears, feet, knees, hips, all of it engineered not just to meet the future, but to stride into it, every step a leap of faith in our capacity to handle whatever we might encounter in a universe rife with opportunity and peril. We’re at our best, we human beings, moving forward. Lying around, stasis, these are a misuse of the machine, an abuse really, as unhealthy for the spirit as for the body–and no good either for the rest of us who stand to benefit from your good deeds. I’m reminded of one of those illustrated evolutionary charts in a sixth grade life science textbook, monkey to man, the full parade, a hunched little gibbon-looking thing’s first tentative steps becoming eventually Homosapien’s confident suburban power walk, each moving–compelled by instinct–into a future as unknown to him as ours is to us. But now the whizzes over in Cambridge tell us genetic evidence suggests it wasn’t necessarily such a linear forward march after all, not such clean break from our monkey forebears. There were, apparently, trial separations then… reconciliations. Of a tranquil moonlit evening, somewhere in the suddenly inappropriately named Rift Valley, it appears man and monkey reunited, looked longingly into one another’s eyes and… perhaps there was champagne… made beautiful music together… and, it seems, bouncing baby, uh, primates. “Look, mom, there’s something weird floating in the gene pool!” Which, as much as anything can, explains my brother in law.
No, our trek across the millennia has been neither direct nor without misstep. We’ve strayed, we’ve blundered, we’ve done terrible things to ourselves and our planet. But that’s looking backward and I said we wouldn’t do that. It’s now X:XX p.m., Friday, June 2, 2006 AD. You are, or will be momentarily, high school graduates–and rather than a vague abstraction waiting for you somewhere next month or next year, the rest of your life is already barreling right along. As of course it always has been. I hope you’ve learned that, too. And you have by now, I hope, developed wisdom and backbone enough to resist the seductions of comfort, of leisure, of easy satisfactions, and the thick, shiny catalogue of pop culture idiocies. You have the resolve, I hope, to make shoulds and shouldn’ts wills and won’ts. And you have enough regard for yourself to define who you are not by what you have, but by what you do. And believe me, there’s plenty to be done.
On that note, last week American Idol’s Taylor Hicks received more votes than the chief executive of the world’s preeminent democracy. At first glance this is of course disturbing… but you have to remember Mr. Hicks is at least pretty good at something. Still, we don’t need Simon Whatshisname to tell us the world is a mess. The polar ice caps are melting. Glaciers are receding faster than Barry Bonds’ integrity. Blistering heat waves, catastrophic hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts… they’re happening with increasing frequency, intensity and devastation–and we know why; yet still we’re chugging fossil fuels like frat boys on spring break and the current administration appears more concerned about Exxon-Mobil and friends than the environment. Disease, starvation, poverty, racism, political and economic oppression, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, wars of dubious intent and otherwise, religious crackpots rampaging right and left, drug abuse, human trafficking, illiteracy, exploitation, pandemic greed, small-mindedness and incivility… Ours is a seriously afflicted planet. And this, I’ll remind you, is your world. It belongs to you as much as it belongs to anyone.
Your world in all its parts. Your, for example, Africa… where nearly half a million children are dying of AIDS every year… where in 2010, the year most of you will graduate from college, the United Nations projects there will be 40 million children orphaned because of AIDS, 40 million–that’s the population of Massachusetts times six. Today in Zimbabwe life expectancy is all of 33 years. In Sudan, an Arabic word meaning “land of the blacks,” Arabs are, with their government’s encouragement, systematically killing tribal blacks because they find them inconvenient, from infants to the elderly–and in just two years the death toll is approaching 200,000. In Congo we’re witnessing the bloodiest human conflict since World War II. An estimated 1,250 Congolese are dying every day, with totals in eight years of war approaching four million. Now this is not National Geographic-Animal Planet-Tarzan movie-click-change-the-channel-who-cares Africa. This is, again, your Africa, everyone’s Africa, the only Africa we have. These are human beings (see if this sounds familiar) every bit as real and vital as you are, with loves and wishes and apprehensions just like yours, with, I’ll add, human rights every bit as valid and compelling as yours. And if anything is going to be done about these eminently preventable crises, these outrages, those in a position to help have to step forward and do it. I nominate you.
In The Great Gatsby, which all of you read… were assigned …F. Scott Fitzgerald laments the despoliation of the American continent and the corruption of the founding fathers’ noble ideals. Now, today, it’s worse, even, than in those sunny summer days in the Eggs: Time magazine tells us, for example, for the first time since the depths of the Depression we Americans are spending more than we earn. Today it’s life, liberty and the pursuit of stuff, the pursuit of prestige, the pursuit of whiter whites and rock-hard abs and an understatedly spectacular shingled Robert Stern rambler on a breezy Nantucket heath and in the purple-and-white crushed quahog-shell driveway a Mercedes-Benz G500 Grand Edition SUV, silver preferably, with a 4,966 cubic centimeter, 24 valve, 90 degree V8 engine and variable-focus halogen headlights with heated high-pressure washers, and multicontour premium leather seats with pneumatic side bolsters, and, in case we get lost, a GPS navigational system with an in-dash 5″ color LCD screen. And when at last we can no longer amuse ourselves and wish the alarmist, party-pooping nags would just go away, when the GPS navigational system with an in-dash 5″ color LCD screen cannot help us, we must deal with the consequences of how we’ve chosen to conduct our lives. “…gradually,” Nick Carraway tells us in a reflective moment at the end of the novel…
I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes–a fresh green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate with his capacity for wonder.
And a few lines later, this pessimistic conclusion: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
A lovely mournful passage, poetic, and a provocative thought–but Nick is wrong. He’s wrong 10,958 times a day. (That’s the daily average number of births in this country.) You see, Nick Carraway had no children. Nick Carraway did not have the privilege of knowing you, of seeing you in action in the classroom and on those fields and in this community. The last time in history? Every child surpasses mankind’s capacity for wonder, and every freshly minted high school graduate, too. For in each of you is the surpassing beauty of immeasurable promise, a percolating life spirit close to overflowing, boundless energy, superlative ability. Each of you represents mankind’s great hope to redress grievances, counteract stupidity, rectify injustice, relieve suffering, to lead humanity forward. In each of you is great work yet to be done, ignorance to be enlightened, malefaction to be set right, beauty and utility to be created… and, of course, in time, children of your own–and it starts all over again.
Over the next few years of your lives the focus of your education will become narrower, deeper and more specialized, and the paths you’ll follow will become clearer. Along the way work hard always. Resist, please, the temptations of exclusionary self-interest, and be careful not to confuse fulfillment with satisfaction. If you can manage it, earn your living in something you’d do for free. In everything persevere. Prize integrity. Cultivate interests. More than nice, be kind, be courteous, be respectful. Try to control your use of the word “like.” And when someone thanks you, respond with something other than “No problem.” Go easy on the salt. Watch less television. Read. Get outside. See Italy. Dream big. Love your family, even when… especially when… they make it difficult. Carpe the heck out of every diem, remembering it is your world to take care of, yes, but also to explore, to enjoy.
And, since democracies tend to get the governments they deserve, please vote… in political elections, that is. Let American Idol get along without you.
In the last of his “Four Quartets,” T.S. Eliot, a contemporary of Fitzgerald’s not noted for his optimism, wrote,
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
At the end of your exploring you will find, I hope, a world improved for your having been there, and a better understanding of where and with whom and for what reasons you began. And I’ll remind you now you began in one of the finest public school systems anywhere… public: that means paid for by a community that believes in you …a public school system charged two hundred and twenty-eight years ago by John Adams (maybe you’ve heard of him) in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to “countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity… and all social affections and generous sentiments among the people.” Please think about that.
A school, says an old adage, is four walls with tomorrow in it. Today, here, one diploma at a time, we throw open the doors and let tomorrow free. Borne back ceaselessly into the past, Nick? No way. From this place you’ll stride forward. And where your eyes and feet and imagination take you, go. Where need beckons, go. With quiet confidence worn lightly and the courage of honorable purpose, go. With our abiding affection and admiration and every good wish, go.
David McCullough Jr
Wellesley High School Commencement
June 2, 2006