I recently had the opportunity to hear Ken Burns speak while he was traveling in Alaska. If you ever get a chance to see him, go! He is articulate, thoughtful, and a gift to our country. (Can you tell he’s one of my heroes?)
Ken Burns spoke mostly about his films on the National Park Service, and the value of the parks. But he also took questions from the audience. I was too enthralled to take notes, so I will paraphrase here. When asked about the importance of history, he said that American history is about understanding who we are as a people, not about memorizing isolated facts. And he talked about helping people understand history by telling stories. That resonated with me because that’s always been my approach to history. Thanks to my parents and some wonderful teachers, history has always been about stories of real people, who have the same strengths and weaknesses, the same hopes and desires that we all do.
Ken Burns’ films touch us personally because they are forms of art, not just recitations of facts and figures. He’s more eloquent than I am, so I will quote from an essay I found online. As he put it in “Sharing the American Experience,”
I have to admit that I have, in many ways, made the same film over and over again. Each production asks one deceptively simple question: who are we? That is to say, who are we Americans as a people? What does an investigation of the past tell us about who we were and what we have become? Each film offers an opportunity to pursue this question, and while never answering it fully, nevertheless deepens the question with each succeeding project.
Deepens the question. Who are we? American history is a loud, raucous, moving, exquisite collection of noises, that in the aggregate often combine to make the sweetest kind of music I know. And we have tried to listen to this “music” as much as we can in putting together the films we have made. It is a kind of emotional archeology that we are attempting, listening to the ghosts and echoes of an almost inexpressibly wise past.