BY CHRIS ULIAN
Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough, Jr.’s You Are Not Special… and Other Encouragements book launches today, April 22. Wellesley High senior Chris Ulian, who hasn’t had McCullough as a teacher but is well aware of his good reputation as an instructor, kindly volunteered to review it for us:
To a cynic, David McCullough, Jr.’s new book might look like little more than an unashamed bid to make money off of whatever fluke of the Internet brought his WHS graduation speech to international attention two years ago. Of course he was going to write a book after that — just like the band behind ‘What Does the Fox Say?’ is writing a book, Mr. McCullough wrote a book. But to open You Are Not Special… and Other Encouragements is to enter a deeply intellectual and thought-out analysis of the forces that shape modern teenage life, both at home and in the classroom. Writing informally, with commas and paragraph-long sentences galore (as well as extensive use of words like “galore”), McCullough delves into everything from athletics, college admissions, and parent-teenager relations to race, grades, and economic status. Throughout, he focuses on the problem of “conspicuous achievement,” a term he uses to refer to resume-oriented “achievement” — the proverbial service trip to Ecuador, the token membership in Key Club.
While McCullough’s tone of dire urgency can seem slightly unnecessary (at times there’s a sense that he might just be nostalgic for a “simpler age”), his ideas are well-supported by anecdotes, near-constant references to works from the high school literary canon (Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, Walden), and the unmistakable authority lent by nearly 30 years of teaching. Unsurprisingly, the book is strongest when McCullough focuses on teachers and classroom dynamics. In all, You Are Not Special is a wide-ranging commentary on the way children grow up today. It is a work that ought to hold special relevance in the Wellesley community — here we have unadulterated input from a man who knows our schools and kids better than almost anyone else. Even if you didn’t agree with McCullough’s speech, this is essential reading.
RELATED: Newsweek reviews the book