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

BY: Ted Koppel

 

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But in our eagerness to achieve material success and personal gratification, we seem to have overlooked a disturbing reality. Are Americans really happier today than they were 20 or 50 years ago? And if not, why not? Could it be that we spend so much time focusing our energies on acquiring and achieving that we are losing a little of our humanity?

We are richer as a nation than we have ever been before, and yet there is no enthusiasm whatsoever for foreign aid. We are richer individually and corporately than at any time in recent memory, and yet our charitable contributions across the board are down. Our children have access to more information than ever, and yet most of them know less than our grandparents did when they were the same age.

A couple of generations ago, long before the ubiquitous computer, T.S. Eliot warned us against the confusion of information, knowledge, and wisdom. "What wisdom is lost in knowledge," he wrote, "what knowledge is lost in information." We are these days drowning in information, very little of which is translated into knowledge, almost none of which evolves into wisdom.

We who have so much seem to feel that affluence, good health, and global influence must somehow be the product of our own singular efforts.

Our scientists and engineers have performed brilliantly. They have delivered to us capabilities undreamed of throughout the span of man's existence, and nowhere is that more true than in my own field of mass communications. Where we have failed is in the creation of material worthy of our new media, in the intelligent application of disciplines and standards that acknowledge old verities even as they adopt the realities of a new world.

The new technologies are all geared toward speed. Speed has always been an important part of my profession, but not to the exclusion of other standards. Traditional journalism requires a sorting out of good information from bad, of the important from the trivial. That sort of commitment and expertise may be out of fashion, but the need for it is greater than ever before. And what is true in my field will also be true in yours, be it law or medicine, business or education. Standards, ethics, morality are an essential part of our lives; we ignore them at our peril.

I've done a great deal of traveling in my life, and it's been my observation that in the poorest, most deprived parts of the world, people cling most to tradition and God. The traditions vary, as do the interpretations of the Almighty, but it seems that those who have the least are the most attached to their faith. It may be that because they have so little that they have no option but to believe. But we are in danger of proving the obverse, we who have so much seem to feel that affluence, good health, and global influence must somehow be the product of our own singular efforts.

Some of you surely remember George Santayana's famous observation that those who ignore the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them. Power ebbs and flows. Empires come and go. The Mongols, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Romans, the Greeks, the French, the Germans, the Soviets--they've all had their moments at the center of the world stage, and for some those moments lasted centuries. Eventually, though, power inevitably passes. The question is always, how did those in power use it while they had it?

Voluntarily tithing our wealth is as appropriate today as it was in biblical times.

That is true of nations, and it is true of individuals. You are privileged to live in a time when the United States is the most influential and certainly the most powerful country in the world. But with that influence and power comes responsibility. That too is true of individuals as well as nations. Because we have the means and the tools to help the least among us here at home, we should do it. Not because the government extracts money from us with more taxes, but because voluntarily tithing our wealth is as appropriate today as it was in biblical times.

There is enough food in the world to feed every man, woman, and child; no one should be starving to death. We have not yet found a cure for AIDS, but we surely know how to prevent its spread. Parts of Africa, South Asia, and Russia are in the grip of an AIDS pandemic; that is unacceptable.

If we worry only about ourselves, we will become irrelevant. Your challenge is to turn information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom. You can know what is happening in every corner of the world, and with your particular skills and talents, with the wealth and technology and influence available to you at this time and in this place, you can be a force for good. What a challenge, what a joy. Now go do it.

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