That Wasn’t So Special, Dan

Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Dan Johnson reading Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough, Jr.'s “You Are Not Special” speech as though it was a letter he had written to his daughter at the 2013 Arcata High School Commencement Ceremony. Submitted photo

Dan Johnson reading Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough, Jr.’s “You Are Not Special” speech as though it was a letter he had written to his daughter at the 2013 Arcata High School Commencement Ceremony. Submitted photo

Eye Staff Report

ARCATA – If the Oyster Festival still has people chattering, so does the Arcata High School Commencement Ceremony at Humboldt State’s Redwood Bowl June 13.

For the commencement address, speaker Dan Johnson called his daughter, an AHS student, up to the stage and told her he was going to read a letter he had written to her – but that she had never seen before.

Johnson then read without attribution a piece, most of which, attendees say, was lifted from the famous “You Are Not Special” speech given by Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough, Jr. to that school’s class of 2012.

Many of the students recognized the speech, as they had done a rhetorical analysis on it for their AP English class last year.

One “disgusted” AHS student was struck by the “the irony that we get in trouble for copying a peer’s homework, and a boardmember gets away with stealing an entire graduation speech.”

Calls placed to Johnson, NHUHSD School Board President Mike Pigg, Superintendent Chris Hartley and AHS Principal Dave Navarre weren’t returned.

Letter to the Editor: Painful betrayal

When Mr. Dan Johnson, member of the Northern Humboldt Union High School District Board of Trustees, took the podium at the Arcata High School graduation in Redwood Bowl on Thursday, June 13, he announced his intention of sharing a letter he had written to his daughter.

Instead, he read aloud marginally altered excerpts from a commencement speech which Mr. David McCullough Jr. delivered to the graduating class of Wellesley High School, Massachusetts, in June, 2012.

Perhaps Mr. Johnson thought that nobody would notice his plagiarism, despite the fact that a video of Mr. McCullough’s address has registered more than two million viewings on YouTube.

If so, he was mistaken. Several of Arcata High’s seniors had studied Mr. McCullough’s speech during the preceding school year and were therefore painfully aware that their graduation ceremony was being marred by a supposedly respectable authority figure laying claim to something that rightfully belonged to somebody else.

Having taught at Arcata High for 18 years, I know that my colleagues and I repeatedly stress to our teenage students that merely altering the occasional phrase or omitting the occasional paragraph does not change the fact that one is lying and stealing when, without attribution or acknowledgment, one presents someone else’s work as one’s own.

Mr. Johnson betrayed the very principles of academic integrity that Arcata High seeks to instill and uphold. He owes an apology to all who attended this year’s graduation, especially the graduating class of 2013.


Iain Macdonald 


Letter to the Editor: The cheater must apologize

Thank you for casting the Eye on Dan Johnson’s plagiaristic oration. Since my son Aidan  graduated last week, I was in the audience. I wasn’t sure what the point of Mr. Johnson’s rather overlong speech was, but had to give the man credit for being one very clever writer. Immediately after the speech one of Aidan’s friends informed us that the man didn’t write the speech at all.

Going online with “you are not special” I found that Mr. Johnson lifted about three quarters of his speech verbatim from a teacher named McCullough – who wrote it last year for a commencement in Massachusetts. It had been widely covered by pretty much all the national news outlets, from Fox to the Times to NPR.

All of which raises some serious questions about Mr. Johnson’s judgment, especially as it applies to his representing the Northern Humboldt High School District School Board.

Right off the bat, asking his daughter, without warning, to come and stand silent on center stage while he read “his” lengthy and rather preachy letter to her – in front of a couple thousand people… Well, let’s just say I know my boys wouldn’t have appreciated me putting them in that situation. It seems a severe misreading of what it is to be a teen.

Then, of course, what was he thinking? That maybe no one else had access to the Internet, or even TV? Given today’s circumstances, he might have been safer doing the Gettysburg Address.

And there is the matter of acknowledgement. He owed it to Mr. McCullough to give the man the credit he deserves. Period. I would never expect someone to buy one of my paintings and then sign it with his own name and give it to someone else.

But the big question is, what kind of message does the school board want to send to its students? My own kids have been dinged for just one or two paragraphs borrowed a bit too liberally from an online source. When they have an assignment, they’ve learned that they have to think for themselves – and they have to put in the time and the work that an original product requires.

Mr. Johnson, quite frankly, didn’t do his work. In the process, he has sent students the message that cheating and cutting corners are OK.

Whether or not Mr. Johnson believes those means should be employed in writing, or any other work, they are definitely not principles that should be tolerated by the school board from one of its members. At the very least he owes some public apologies all around — to the students, to the school board and to Mr. McCullough.

Alan Sanborn



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