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Embrace uncertainty

Stengel urges graduates to acknowledge doubt but get in the game

At a time when any kind of information is just a few clicks away, critical thinking is more crucial than ever, Richard Stengel, the managing editor of Time magazine, told the Class of 2011 during Wheaton College’s 176th Commencement.

In today’s mass media and across the spectrum of American politics, Stengel said he sees “an epidemic of certainty: People who are absolutely sure that they know they are right and I find this a little irksome,” he said. “One of the things I am certain about is that certainty and democracy don’t go together.”

History is filled with leaders who know they are right, he said. “Who are they?  Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi. Totalitarianism is the place for certainty, not democracy.”

Advising the 376 graduates to beware of ideas and theories that cannot be tested or evaluated, Stengel encouraged them to continue to value knowledge, which is more than a collection of easily accessible information.

“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?” he said.

“I’m telling you today: Beware of certainty. Beware of ideas and theories that cannot be tested. Beware of people who know they are right.”

Instead, the journalist and author urged his audience: “Be in the world, Try to make it better in every way. 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.”

Stengel graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University and won a Rhodes Scholarship to study English and art history at Oxford. He began writing for Time in 1981, served variously as national editor, culture editor, and managing editor of Time.com, and became the magazine’s top editor in 2006. He has also written for The New Yorker, The New Republic, Spy and the New York Times.

The editor collaborated with Nelson Mandela on Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, and is author of Mandela’s Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love and Courage and other volumes.

Stengel received an honorary degree during the ceremony, as did Wheaton alumnae Wyneva Johnson ’71, an assistant U.S. attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office; Susan Stampler Paresky ’68, senior vice president for development at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston; and Hope Hamilton Pettegrew ’61, co-founder of Cobblestone, a history magazine for children and a former Wheaton trustee.

The editor and author’s address was sprinkled with humor throughout. In an allusion to Ann Curry’s case of mistaken Wheaton Colleges at last year’s graduation, he began by joking that he had called the anchor to discuss the changing state of the media today and was surprised that she was so uninformed.

“She said, ‘Well, I’m Ann Curry, from Springfield, Illinois. I’m an insurance claims adjuster.' So, imagine my surprise: the wrong Ann Curry.”

After the applause died down, Stengel said Curry’s mishap exemplified the distinction between information and understanding. “Knowledge is the difference between knowing what and knowing why, and that’s what I hope you learned over the last four years.”