Ted Koppel: 'Your Challenge Is to Turn Information Into Knowledge, and Knowledge Into Wisdom'

From the commencement address given by Ted Koppel at Syracuse University on May 14, 2000


If you have not already discovered it, you will find that from here on in, life is a precarious balancing act between your conscience and your baser instincts. Between, in other words, what you ought to do and what you want to do.

To a certain extent, you've known that since puberty. What may surprise you somewhat is how little support in the outside world you'll find for following the dictates of your conscience. The world is full of people ready to help you rationalize away your more troublesome principles. It is compromise that lubricates the machinery of our civilization, and people of genuine principle, reluctant to compromise, are frequently seen as obstacles rather than role models.

We have just left behind a century that glorified efficiency. The greatest struggle for most of these past 100 years was between and among fascism, communism, and a form of democratic capitalism, with each system portraying itself as doing the most for the greatest number. That competition for efficiency gave us some of the greatest benefits and the most horrific evils that the world has ever known.

The world is full of people ready to help you rationalize away your more troublesome principles.

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We live longer, we eat better, we've made enormous strides in health care, we can travel more swiftly and more comfortably than at any time in history. We can communicate instantaneously no matter how distant we may be from one another physically. We can assemble entire libraries on a silicon chip the size of a fingernail.

But we must also acknowledge that during our 20th century, humankind slaughtered and brutalized and imprisoned more people than at any other comparable time in history. Twenty or 30 million killed in China under Mao. A similar number under Stalin in the Soviet Union. Six million under Hitler in Germany and throughout Eastern Europe. The atrocities of Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan, where only a couple of million or a few hundred thousand were murdered, became merely footnotes of the horrors of the 20th century.

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