Richard Stengel Speaks at Commencement

Richard Stengel, the managing editor of Time magazine, speaks at Wheaton’s 176th Commencement and is awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. His evocative speech grappled with the difference between information and knowledge, as well as the necessity of determination. Towards the end of his speech, Stengel implores the Class of 2011 to “be in the world. Try to make it better in every way you can. Stand for something more than yourself.”

Read his commencement address below:

Class of 2011, how are you? [Cheering] Louder!

So, basically, I’m the only thing standing between you and your diploma. Okay, so listen up.

So, graduation day. Fantastic! You’re here with your parents. You’ve been away for four years, but you know what? You’re going to get to know each other a lot better now, right? Because the Department of Labor says 85 percent of you are moving home.

Before I give a really important speech like this, I like to consult with colleagues of mine in the media. So I Googled Ann Curry and then I called her. And I said I’m going to talk about the media today and I wanted to talk to her about it. And we’re talking for a bit and she was weirdly uninformed about what I wanted to talk about, and I told her so. And she said, ‘Well, I’m Ann Curry from Springfield, Illinois. I’m an insurance claims adjuster.’

Well, imagine my surprise. The wrong Ann Curry.

So you know what I’m talking about. By the way, she gave a great speech last year. And she is a friend of mine. But what I really want to talk about is what happened there because it’s the difference between information and knowledge. And that is what you’ve really spent the last four years trying to figure out, which is the difference between information and knowledge. There has never been a time in human history where information was more easily accessible than it is now. And you saw what happened last year, because all information is not created equal.

And what I try to do every day in my job—and what I hope that you’ve learned over the last four years—is how to sort out the signal from the noise, how to separate the wheat from the chaff, how to separate information from knowledge and, even more importantly, what you need to do going forward is how to create knowledge out of information.

So what do I mean by that? A lot of this comes from Wikipedia, too.

Information is that the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919. Knowledge is how it is still influencing the Arab Spring of today.

Information is that a sonnet is a 14-line poem with a couplet at the end; but knowledge is that John Donne’s Holy Sonnets are as much about earthly love as divine love.

Information is the ingredients in a recipe; and knowledge is how to bake a soufflé.

Information these days is a commodity. It’s everywhere. You can’t get away from it.

Once upon a time, back in 1835 when Wheaton was founded, information was books. He who had the most books had the most information. Books were scarce; they were valuable. But information today is not. It’s not scarce. It’s not particularly valuable and it’s available to everybody equally by wireless Internet and with a few keystrokes on your computer or mobile device.

Knowledge is something different. Knowledge is understanding. Knowledge is how to put that information in context. Knowledge is the difference between knowing what and knowing why. And that’s what I hope you all learned over the last four years and that is what’s going to make you able to leave mom and dad’s house in a couple of years, I hope.

Now, in the world that I live in people always think they’re right. Now, I know that’s probably true of a lot of worlds, and maybe it’s even true of the faculty here. But part of what happens—ooh, that got a little bit of a … [laughter], that’s why they’re sitting behind the students—there’s a premium placed on opinions. There’s a premium placed on being outrageous, on being provocative—not necessarily having opinions that are rooted in reality and rooted in fact, but opinions that will get people’s attention. To me, that’s not very valuable.

The great New York senator, Pat Moynihan, once said, you’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts. Now, I couldn’t agree more, but that has become a quaint notion in our society because even though there is more information available than there has ever been in history, people are basically inventing their own facts—and they’re using specious information to justify it. And that’s why—I have it right here—I brought my long-form birth certificate [laughter] to show that I was born in America.  [Applause and laughter]

At the same time, there is what I think of in my world and I think in American politics on the left and right, there’s an epidemic of certainty — people who are absolutely sure that they know that they’re right.  And I find this a little irksome. And those of you who have studied science know that modern neuroscience tells you that certainty is a state of mind; it’s not an appraisal of the state of the world. It’s some temporal lobe stimulation, some synapses firing in your brain, that gives you that feeling of knowing that you’re right. It doesn’t necessarily correspond to the world. The brain creates that feeling of rightness, not the world itself.

And of that, I am almost certain.

In fact, one of the things I am certain about is that certainty and democracy don’t go together. If you look at the leaders of the last 100 years who have had ironclad certainty, who are they? Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi. Totalitarianism is the place for certainty, not democracy.

I worked, as President Crutcher said, with Nelson Mandela over many, many years. He’s godfather to my two sons over there. And he’s not a man of self-doubt, by any means. But I would say there was only one thing about which he was absolutely certain, and that was that he needed to bring freedom and democracy to his people. After that, everything was up for grabs. I remember him saying many times I don’t know about you, but when circumstances change, I change my mind. That’s a great motto going forward.

Learned Hand was a great jurist in the 1940s, and he gave a speech in Central Park on the eve of World War II. And he said, ‘The spirit of liberty is the spirit that’s not too sure it’s right.’

‘The spirit of liberty is the spirit that’s not too sure it’s right.’

Democracy is based on doubt. It’s based on wondering. It’s based on questioning: Are we doing the fair thing? Are we doing the right thing? Are we doing the just thing? It’s not about certainty. So I’m telling you today: Beware of certainty.

Beware of ideas and theories that cannot be tested.

Beware of people who know that they’re right.

So, let’s see, how much of a downer has this speech been so far? [Laughter] Right? You were expecting all those fantastic commencement platitudes, like: Follow your bliss. You can be whatever you want to be. Never give up. That same Google search showed that those are the three most common things said at all commencements.

Because look. You know it already, right? You can’t always be whatever you want to be. Not everybody can. There are all kinds of obstacles and roadblocks and sometimes you do have to take a turn that you don’t want. And sometimes you do have to give up.

But here’s what I will tell you. Be in the world. Try to make it better every way you can. Stand for something more than yourself. Be kind — because kindness, every act of kindness, is an act of strength. Do the work. Get in the game.

Which reminds me of an old story. There’s a young recent graduate of a four-year liberal arts college, and he’s standing on the Brooklyn Bridge. He’s disconsolate. His name is Max. He’s praying and praying, ‘Oh, God, please let me win the lottery, please God, let me win the lottery.’ Over and over.

And then he hears someone say, ‘Max, Max.’

And he says, ‘Who’s that?’

‘It’s God.’

Max says, ‘Come on, get out of here, I learned that you don’t exist, in college.’ [Laughter]

‘Max, look, I’m trying to help you.’

But Max says, ‘Please, God, let me win the lottery. Please let me win the lottery.’ Over and over.

And God says, ‘Max. Meet me halfway. Buy a ticket.’ [Laughter]

So that’s my advice for you today, which is: Buy a ticket for life. Meet me halfway. Go for it. You won’t regret it.

Good luck to you all. Thank you very much.”