Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Embrace uncertainty

Richard Stengel

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, managing editor of Time magazine, told the Class of 2011 during Wheaton’s 176th Commencement in May.

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.... 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. “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…. Do the work. Get in the game.”

His message was well received on an overcast morning that was a relief after a full week of rain prior to the ceremony.

Wyneva Johnson ’71 Doctor of Humane LettersSusan Stampler Paresky ’68 Doctor of Humane LettersHope Hamilton Pettegrew  ’61, P’87, P’89 Doctor of Humane LettersDuring Commencement, Stengel received an honorary degree, 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.

More than 600 alumnae/i and guests, hailing from 30 states and many countries, were on campus for Commencement Reunion Weekend.

In his speech to the students and guests, President Ronald A. Crutcher noted that the graduates already are changing the world through their energy, acumen and compassion.

“Stay connected,” Crutcher encouraged them. “The relationships you have formed by living, learning and working together can last the rest of your lives. The ways in which you have encouraged and pushed each other can be a positive force long after we leave here today.”

Photos by Keith Nordstrom