David McCullough's commencement address, in which he informs the graduating students of Wellesley High that they are not special, has received much attention. There are those who commend him for telling a pampered generation that they are spoiled and there are those who attack him for weakening the necessary positive self-image of a young, student population. What caught my attention, though, was one of his last lines: "you're not special because everyone is." I was actually considering this very idea as I listened to his speech. The real issue is not whether one is special or not. The real challenge is knowing what it means to be special.
The Talmud states that saving the life of an individual is comparable to saving an entire world -- the underlying message: one individual is equal to the entire world. What the Talmud is actually directing us to consider is the distinction between, what I would term, a qualitative and quantitative view of human life. Quantitatively, we work in objective, hard numbers and of course, two is greater than one -- yet can numbers alone truly and accurately reflect an essence of a human being? It is easy to compare one person with another when applying a quantitative yardstick; and it is also easier, then, to render a supposed evaluation of each one's relative worth. The specialness and uniqueness of our being, however, should truly be measured by a qualitative yardstick of which there is no comparative value, a ruler by which each individual is equal to a whole world and by which we are all special.
The difficulty which I believe Mr. McCullough is addressing concerns pronouncements of specialness based solely upon quantitative yardsticks. Applying such standards, the way that someone stands out -- and, thus, is defined as special -- is through a high score in some quantified measurement. In the attempt to allow everyone to declare themselves as special, our modern response is, thus, to simply make it possible for everyone to receive the highest score. The problem is that this will still ultimately fail to bolster everyone's self-image for, in the end, it is the comparative nature of the quantitative yardsticks that are its focus. Any declarations of such universal specialness will, thus, eventually be lost in the equality. Specialness demands uniqueness and we cannot all be special if we all are the same -- even it means we all have the same highest scores. Trying to promote a positive self-image through such a declaration of specialness will simply fail.
There is, however, a further problem with declaring this type of broad specialness based on quantitative factors. There is also the potential for the advancement of mediocrity. In the various quantitative realms, there are distinctions between individuals which, for the benefit of the self and the community, do need to be enunciated. There are quantifiably special people who are unique in these quantifiable ways. Trying to universalize such a standard through all scoring the highest can eventually translate into a lack of excellence. Those who could truly advance to greater heights would not be so identified. The truth is that we are all not special in every realm of quantitative measurement and, no matter how good it may make us feel, it is simply a lie, and detrimental to all of us, to declare that we all are. There is a need to distinctly mark the quantitatively special - and this must be done even if it results in others suffering a loss of no longer being described as special in this manner. The greater problem, though, is declaring the quantitative yardsticks the only, or even the major, evaluators of human specialness.
The more important realm is actually that of the qualitative and, within that realm, the truth is that we are all actually special for we are all actually unique. I am the only one who can be me - the only mixture of human traits that forms the gestalt of my specific personality. I am the only one who can perform my life tasks in my specific manner; the only one who can live life in my unique and special way. This is not just rhetoric; achieving this goal also demands toil, thought and direction. The challenge that we face is that, even qualitatively, it is not enough to just declare someone special. What must be further transmitted is the responsibility to actualize this uniqueness of each individual. Each of us is a whole world because each of us is a unique creation who is the only person able to live our life with that specialness that is our singular and distinct personality.
A task of education must be to further the development of whatever quantitative skills we may possess - and that is a most important undertaking. But that is not what makes all of us special and to base a recognition of individual uniqueness and specialness on it is not only a falsehood but injurious. A further task of education must be to develop our qualitative distinctiveness, to further the positive development of the uniqueness that is me. And in that regard, all of us would be able to proudly declare that we are, each one of us, special.