The cult of exceptionalism, like celebrity worship, is draining us of our humanity and joy, suggests high school teacher McCullough, whose expertise comes from having nearly three decades of teaching experience and four children of his own.
The author, son of the acclaimed historian, moves through the world with his eyes open, willingly empathetic to those deserving and dedicated to doing the right thing in all cases. In this book, an expansion of a 2012 commencement speech, he writes with crisp precision and light humor (“this was before Al Gore invented the Internet”). McCullough discusses the importance of authority figures’ butting out, letting kids govern their engagement with life and learn through trial and error. As he notes, we all fail, but we must get up and get back into the scrum, not allowing our expectations to cripple us. “Parents, you see, are people, subject to self-doubt, who don’t always have every answer, who are doing the best they can,” he writes. “And we are only as happy, generally, as our least happy child, only as successful as our least successful child.” McCullough ably conveys his genuine love of teaching, as well as its ups and downs, and demonstrates the significance of encouraging independence and the impulse to explore and take risks and discover those things that touch you deeply. He also digs into the perils of technology, “the breathless infatuation with hi-def, 3D, 5G, glued to the hand, glued to the ear, twenty-first-century cyber gee-whizzery.” The author tackles big issues, such as gender and race, with searching sincerity, open-heartedness, and a deft, light touch. “I like to imagine,” he writes, “[parents and teenagers] putting [this book] down…and reaching for another book, then maybe another, and, before long, getting up, heading out, taking great happy lungfuls of air, eager to do some good.”
Neither sage nor curmudgeon, McCullough is a thoughtful pre-Socratic without a schadenfreude-soaked bone in his body.