2016-06-30
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.

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.

How did our generation and our parents' generation rationalize their inaction, even their silence, in the face of all this evil? And anyway, what does all of this have to do with any of you on this occasion?

The voices of reason and compromise will whisper soothing and seductive questions in your ear: "Why is that an American problem? What do they expect us to do about it anyway?"

"We didn't know," we said, and they said. We didn't know what was going on in China or in the Soviet Union; we didn't find out until much too late what had happened during the Holocaust. It wasn't a really convincing excuse, but it was the best we could come up with.

Your generation won't even be able to take refuge in that. If satellite television doesn't inform you, the Internet will. You will know. And then the voices of reason and compromise will whisper soothing and seductive questions in your ear: "Why is that an American problem? What do they expect us to do about it anyway? Shouldn't we be more concerned about resolving our problems here at home?"

My concern for you as you leave this place has nothing to do with the quality of your education or the anticipated comfort level of your lives. By most of the standards that can be applied uniformly to most people around the world, you will do well. You have the freedom and the means to travel as no previous generation has done. You have access to more information. Your lifespan should be longer, your health should be better. You have more choices available to you in your leisure time, and because you are educated men and women you are better equipped to compete in the flourishing marketplace that awaits you.

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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