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Burns: “Do something that will last and be beautiful”

Ken Burns addresses the Class of 2006.

In a speech much like the award-winning documentaries he creates, filmmaker Ken Burns weaved together tales about Abraham Lincoln, playwright Arthur Miller and The Beatles into an exhilarating speech that exhorted the 1,758 graduates at Lehigh’s 138th commencement to “do something that will last and be beautiful.”

The simple credo was the lesson that Burns learned from the late Miller, when Burns interviewed him years ago at the playwright’s Connecticut farm for his documentary The Brooklyn Bridge.

“It doesn’t have to be a bridge—or a symphony or book or a business,” Burns told Lehigh’s graduating class. “It could be the look in the eye of a child you raise or in a simple garden you tend. Be on guard and do something that will last and be beautiful.”

The central theme of Burns’ commencement speech was a repeated warning to be “on guard” against what he sees as the growing forces of intolerance in this country after Sept. 11, 2001 as well as an “arrogance and belligerence that more resembles the ancient and now fallen empires of our history books rather than a modern, compassionate nation.”

He drew on Lincoln, who he called “the best (president) we have ever had, I believe,” for inspiration, recalling Lincoln's first inaugural address in which urged Southerners not to start a civil war by saying: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

In addition to admiring the sentence’s poetic language and structure, Burns discussed its implicit message about how it’s important to focus on what stitches us together rather than what divides us.

(To read the full text of Burns' commencement speech, click here.)


Honorary degrees given

Lehigh President Gregory Farrington, left, congratulates Burns on his speech.

During the commencement ceremony, held on a blustery but sunny morning, Burns was one of four dignitaries who were presented honorary degrees—joining outgoing Lehigh president Gregory C. Farrington (who presided over his final commencement ceremony at Lehigh and quipped that it was the only one during his tenure where people in the stands needed “blankets”); Joseph R. Perella ’64, a Lehigh University trustee and the former chairman of the Institutional Securities and Investment Banking Group at Morgan Stanley; and The Right Reverend John Shelby Spong, former Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, N.J. who delivered the Baccalaureate address on May 21.

Farrington steps down as Lehigh’s 12th president on June 30. Farrington’s eight-year tenure was marked by an academic revitalization, campus improvements, and financial stability—accomplishments that were recognized by two of the day’s speakers: James R. Tannenbaum, chairman of Lehigh’s board of trustees, and Michael Psathas, the president of Lehigh’s Class of 2006. Farrington will soon move into a new role as University Distinguished Service Professor.

Alice P. Gast, vice president for research and associate provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was named earlier this month to succeed Farrington. Gast starts on Aug. 1.

In introducing Burns, Farrington praised the award-winning filmmaker and joked that students would recognize him as the man behind “the Ken Burns Effect,” the technique pioneered by Burns of incorporating still images in video by slowly zooming in on subjects and using a slow fade to pan from one image to another. He is world renowned for his style in documentary filmmaking, in which he makes use of period photographs and blends them with film, music, authentic sound effects, remarks by historians and other scholars, and narration. Some of his most popular documentaries include Jazz, Baseball, The Civil War and Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery.

Words to live by

Burns, who has devoted the past three decades of his life to making historical documentaries, also offered the following 10 nuggets of practical advice to the new Lehigh graduates:

• “As you pursue your goals in life, that is your future, pursue your past. Let it be your guide. Insist on having a past and then you will have a future.”

• “Keep involved with your school. It needs your attention as well as your money to keep this wonderful machine perpetually moving.”

• “Do not descend too deeply into specialism in your work. Educate all your parts. You will be healthier. Replace cynicism with its old-fashioned antidote, skepticism.”

• “Do not confuse success with excellence. The poet Robert Penn Warren once told me that ‘careerism is death.’”

• “Travel. Do not get stuck in one place. Visit Yellowstone or Yosemite or Appomattox, where our country really came together. Whatever you do, walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. Listen to jazz music, the only art form Americans have ever invented, and a painless way, Wynton Marsalis reminds us, ‘of understanding ourselves.’”

• “Give up addictions and habits. Try brushing your teeth tonight with the other hand. Try even remembering what I just asked you.”

• “Insist on heroes. And be one.”

• “Read. The book is still the greatest manmade machine of all—not the car, not the TV, not the computer, I promise.”

• “Write. Write letters. Keep journals. Besides your children, there is no surer way of achieving immortality. Remember, too, there is nothing more incredible than being a witness to history.”

• “Serve your country. Insist that we fight the right wars. Convince your government that the real threat comes from within this favored land. Governments always forget that. Do not let your government outsource honesty, transparency, or candor. Do not let your government outsource democracy. Insist that we support science and the arts, especially the arts. They have nothing to do with the actual defense of our country—they just make our country worth defending.”

Burns closed his commencement address with one last piece of advice—that the graduates listen to the last line of The Beatles’ Abbey Road album—a line that Burns calls “the best single line in all of music … It too will help you be on guard. It too will get you through the darkest of times. It too will help to repair anything that is broken. It too will help you remember the memories created here (at Lehigh).”

The lyric?

“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make,” quoted Burns.

Then the filmmaker concluded: “So we come to an end today—and for you a beginning. God speed to you all. Go out and make.”

--Bill Doherty

Photos by Theo Anderson

Posted on Wednesday, May 24, 2006

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