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'You're not special' graduation speech: David McCullough spins it into a book

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(Read caption) David McCullough Jr.'s 'You're Not Special' speech
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Last year, in a bust-your-chops commencement address to Wellesley (Mass.) High School graduates, English teacher (and, yes, namesake of his historian dad) David McCullough told students something mot modern parents would consider sacrilegious:  “You are not special.

This year, he is on sabbatical and is preparing more words for the American audience via a new book spun out of last year’s speech. He's at work on a “philosophical” memoir of his 20-year teaching career. Rather than making this an anecdote-heavy tome, Mr. McCullough says his focus is on the theories behind the practices of learning and teaching. The working title for his book, “The Chief Element,” has its genesis in a line from his 2012 commencement speech: “You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness.”

 The YouTube video of McCullough’s speech has had 1.9 million views, a number of them from literary agents and publishers, he told me during a recent phone interview in which he projects the sense that, while he’s a nice guy, you wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of his judgment on grammar, punctuation, or parenting.

“The book is really about my experiences as a teacher over the past 20 years and not the speech,” McCullough says. “I address the kinds of things I’ve experienced, such as how students approach the educational system to see what they need to study in order to look good to a university, instead of from the standpoint of the exhilaration of learning for learning’s sake.”

He adds: “Instead of looking at learning as a glorious gift, they see it as just a step to something else that they must complete, and move on.”

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