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Full text of Ken Burns speech

Ken Burns repeatedly challenged Lehigh's Class of 2006 to "be on guard."

President Greg Farrington, Chairman Tanenbaum, Provost El-Aasser, distinguished faculty, and staff, proud and relieved parents, calm and serene grandparents, distracted but secretly pleased siblings, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, graduating seniors, good morning, and thank you for this great honor. I am also deeply honored that you have asked me here to say a few words at this momentous occasion, that you might find what I have to say worthy of your attention on so important a day.

Let us be warmed on this chilly day by the fuel that is our fellowship this morning.

I have now had some experience with giving commencement speeches, but I will always remember with dread the first one I gave nearly 20 years ago. As I was preparing my remarks a few days before the ceremonies, an official of the college accidentally let it slip (rather cruelly, I thought), that I was their third choice for a speaker. I was devastated. Who were the other two I asked, swallowing hard? Woody Allen and Roger Clemens, the man said. I thought about this for some time and then later assured my undoubtedly despairing audience that they had nothing to worry about, that, in fact, I possessed the blinding fastball of Woody Allen and the existential angst of Roger Clemens.

I am in the business of history. It is the avocation I have chosen to practice my craft of filmmaking. Over the many years of practicing, I have come to the realization that history is a not a fixed thing, a collection of precise dates, facts and events that add up to a quantifiable, certain, confidently known, truth. It is an inscrutable and mysterious and malleable thing. Each generation rediscovers and re-examines that part of its past that gives its present, and most important, its future new meaning and new possibilities.

I am interested in that mysterious power of history, and I am interested in its many varied voices. Not just the voices of the old top-down version of our past, which would try to convince us that American history is only the story of Great Men. And not just those pessimistic voices that have recently entered our studies, voices which seem to suggest that our history is merely a catalogue of white crime. I am interested in listening to the voices of a true, honest, complicated past that is unafraid of controversy and tragedy, but equally drawn to those voices, those stories and moments, that suggest an abiding faith in the human spirit and particularly the unique role this remarkable and sometimes dysfunctional Republic seems to play in the positive progress of mankind. That, quite simply, has been my creed, my mantra, the lens through which I have tried to see our shared past, to understand its stories, for more than 30 years.

It may seem paradoxical, as you stand looking forward toward an unknown future today, that history might be for you all an important ally and guide in the years to come, that it might offer you choices and exemplars that will help you negotiate the difficult passage you have committed to, poised as you are to start a new and challenging chapter in your own life’s history. But it is so; history, I have learned over the last thirty years of practice, is the greatest teacher there is. The question becomes for you, then, this new next generation: what will you choose as your guiding light? Which distant past events or individuals will provide you with the greatest help, the most comforting solace, the best examples of wisdom and leadership? As the echoes of this almost inexpressibly wise past reverberate in your own lives, what warnings will you heed, what strength will you gather to slay the dragons of despair and disappointment that will inevitably invade even the most cheerful and controlled and controlling among us?

The superb preparation this extraordinary school has given you; the rich experiences that you have accumulated here; the friendships and trusts you have built here; the knowledge—and the ability to synthesize that knowledge into real understanding—you have gained here; the memories that have accrued here, almost imperceptivity, like the layers of a pearl, will stay with you for the rest of your lives, influencing all that you will become. Soon all of this will be history and it will be important for each of you here to have a place in your minds and in your hearts to keep this history alive and useful.

So, this morning I would like to talk briefly about history and memory and responsibility. And despite my seeming professional reliance on images and pictures, I am, like most of you, in the business of words and stories. So permit me a few minutes to tell you, with some words, some stories that might have some meaning, that might have some relevance for you this special day.

A story. Early in 1861, at his first inauguration, on a cold and blustery March day in Washington, D.C., when he still hoped somehow to keep his country together, our sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln, implored the mostly Southerners in his audience not to go to war. “We must not be enemies,” he pleaded. “We must be friends. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” But then this remarkable poet-president, the best we have ever had, I believe, went on in a final sentence so magnificently constructed, so eloquently structured, that it comes down to us as one of the greatest sentences ever written in our English language, a sentence that speaks to us today of themes that go way beyond the tragedy that was about to befall Lincoln’s country, a tragedy even these stunning words of his could not stop. A tragedy, I am sorry to say, that we are not completely free of today, a tragedy that can and will repeat itself if we—you graduating seniors specifically—do not heed its implicit message, its deep and timeless warning.

Recalling the glorious and much celebrated Revolutionary past those in the South still shared with their Northern brethren, Lincoln uttered these now to me immortal last words of his address: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field 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.” It is a truly astonishing sentence. The “better angels of our nature.” I love that; so certain as it is of our essential goodness and the perfectibility of these so obviously flawed creatures who like to call themselves human beings. And the “mystic chords of memory.” Another great phrase, don’t you think? Those “mystic chords,” ladies and gentlemen, were not c-o-r-d-s, cords of some rope that would bind us by force together, but c-h-o-r-d-s, musical chords, signifying some celestial harmony that would unite us through all time in common purpose-- in a common anthem, if you will.

Lincoln’s optimistic words resonate with us today precisely because they are so forward looking, so positive in the face of the harsh realities of human existence: the collective cruelties we have visited on each other across the time and space of our shared past. He offers a vision, an utterly American vision I think, that confidently swims upstream against the currents and treacherous undertows in the stream of human history.


And yet buried in his inspiring words is an essential worry that we human beings too often stray from our pursuit of happineally relented again and said, "Okay. Perhaps, I can give you something. Come with me." Now, I had been planning to set up an elaborate interview around a favorite chair in his house, to take several hours to adjust the lighting, to film several rolls, but Miller directed me to his back yard where the late afternoon shadows of a perfect fall day were lengthening. "Let's go—now," he said, and we all knew he meant it. Clearly, in his mind, this was not going to waste any more of his time than need be—and we weren't going to be staying long either.

We scrambled to take a quick light reading, and put the 16mm camera up on the tripod. There was only a few minutes left on the roll of film that was still in the magazine from the morning's shoot. The sound man fumbled with his reel to reel tape recorder, checking the levels. But now, Miller even refused to sit down. He would do it standing up or not at all and we scrambled to find an apple crate I could stand on to approximate his height—but of course never his stature. “Let’s go—now,” he said again, clearly impatient with our, in retrospect, utter ineptitude. And we were completely flabbergasted; we had never done an interview where the subject wasn't quietly posed in some study or living room. My heart was pounding out of my chest; I can remember to this day the nausea I felt.

To this day I do not remember what feeble question I asked him to get him to speak. It doesn't really matter now I suppose, but Arthur's few sentence answer constituted the sum total of the interview and it has stayed with me, like the panic, the rest of my life. I know it by heart. He said: "You see, the city is fundamentally a practical utilitarian invention and it always was. And then suddenly you see this steel poetry sticking there and it's a shock. It puts everything to shame and makes you wonder what else we could have done that was so marvelous and so unpresumptuous. It carries its weights, it does what it's supposed to do and yet...I mean they could have built another Manhattan Bridge and [Roebling] didn't. He really aspired to do something gorgeous. So it makes you feel that maybe you too could add something that would last and be beautiful."

That was the whole interview. "Maybe you too could add something that would last and be beautiful." Those words became the final words of my very first film and in a way they became, like the declaration of principles the young and still idealistic Charles Foster Kane tacks to the wall in Orson Welles' great masterpiece “Citizen Kane,” my guiding principle as well.

I am not sure how well I have been able to live up to the creed Arthur Miller so generously gave to me that afternoon, but I could not help but think of his words again as we all gather together to celebrate your spectacular achievement. Do something that will last and be beautiful. It doesn’t have to be a bridge—or a symphony or book or a business. It could be the look in the eye of a child you raise or in a simple garden you tend. But be on guard: do something that will last and be beautiful.

So what do we make of all this? Let me speak directly to the graduating class.

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 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.

Don't 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 even 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.

Write: write letters. Keep journals. Besides your children, there is no surer way of achieving immortality. Remember, 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 defense of the country -- they just make the country worth defending.

Finally, one last short story. One of my own daughters, Lilly, is just where you were three, four years ago—starting her college experience. On one of her applications last year a prospective college asked a short essay question, “What will you bring to our campus?” That is to say, what qualities and values would the applicant bring? In her utterly appealing, clever and devilish way, Lilly wrote that she would bring the Beatles’ album “Abbey Road.” I loved that, too. The school, by the way, thrilled to her insouciance (as nearly everyone does) and accepted her at once; one over-eager administrator even commented on looking forward to listening to the album with her when she came in the fall.

Well, Lilly didn’t go to that school, but her choice of music couldn’t be better. It was by the way the most popular album when I was a senior in high school. In the last real song on the album, there is the best single line in all of music, a line good enough for Lilly, good enough for me and I’m pretty sure good enough for all of you. It’s about the “more” I was speaking about earlier; the mysterious building block of the universe. Go home and listen to it when you can. It too will help you be on guard. It too will help you get 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.

The lyric goes: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

So we come to an end today—and for you a beginning. God speed to you all. Go out and make.

Ken Burns
Walpole, New Hampshire

Posted on Tuesday, May 23, 2006

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