Defending the Humanities

Ken Burns, in the Jefferson Lecture, champions fields that are under attack -- and speaks of the value of narratives.

May 10, 2016
Ken Burns

Ken Burns, the documentary maker who brought the Civil War, the histories of baseball and jazz, and the biographies of the Roosevelts to film, had a chance Monday night to honor the National Endowment for the Humanities, which supported much of his work. He praised the NEH for both its grants and its standards, and thanked the endowment for naming him to deliver this year's Jefferson Lecture, the nation's highest annual honor in the humanities.

Burns used the lecture to defend the humanities from its many attackers, to describe how those who work on issues of race (as he has done in many projects) face particular criticism and to champion the art of the narrative as a tool to advance history and promote a common understanding of society.

In his talk, Burns repeatedly said the humanities -- by helping us understand such a broad range of different topics and perspectives -- in fact promote unity through understanding. But he freely admitted that the denigrators of the humanities don't see it that way.

"In a larger sense, the humanities help us all understand almost everything better -- and they liberate us from the myopia our media culture and politics impose upon us. Unlike our current culture wars, which have manufactured a false dialectic just to accentuate otherness, the humanities stand in complicated contrast, permitting a nuanced and sophisticated view of our history, as well as our present moment, replacing misplaced fear with admirable tolerance, providing important perspective and exalting in our often contradictory and confounding manifestations," he said in the prepared version of his talk. "Do we contradict ourselves? We do!"

Yet Burns said he worried that so many people don't see value in contradictions that are informed by knowledge and perspective. "Somehow, in recent times, the humanities have been needlessly scapegoated in our country by those who continually benefit from division and obfuscation. Let me make it perfectly clear: the United States of America is an enduring humanistic experiment," he said.

Slavery and Racism

In his films, Burns does not just tell the stories of the presidents and generals, and of the days of triumph. He details the struggles of ordinary people -- including the horrors of slavery and its lingering impact, and the prevalence of racism to this day.

In his talk, he said it was important to acknowledge the roots of many institutions -- including colleges and universities -- in racist ideas and practices.

"At least one of my ancestors owned other human beings, and some of our most important academic institutions -- the places where the humanities are articulated and presumably preserved -- are complicit, too, tainted by the stain of slavery," Burns said. "My own work is suffused with its presence and horrific, seemingly unending half-life. I don’t necessarily go looking for it. It’s there. Everywhere."

Citing the shootings of young black men, he stressed that issues of racism are not from the past, but very much from the present.

"Like the amputated limb felt long after it has been cut off, I miss Trayvon Martin; I was once a 17-year-old who wore a hooded sweatshirt walking through unfamiliar neighborhoods, but I was never gunned down. I am a privileged white man," Burns said. "I could never know what it was like to walk in his shoes. I miss Tamir Rice, too; I was 11 once and played with plastic guns, but no cop ever shot me. We are missing many hundreds, if not thousands, of African-Americans, lost only because of the color of their skin … in just the last decade. Henry Louis Gates told me recently me of a Jim Crow museum at Ferris State University in Michigan, where too many ugly, vile, demeaning, beyond-the-pale items characterizing President Obama and his innocent family are on display, piling up along with a century of other immortalized hatred." (Information about the museum may be found here.)

Telling the stories of black people means that Burns, too, has experienced a form of the hatred faced by many -- a hatred that many hoped (naïvely, Burns said) would have disappeared by now.

"I have since the Civil War series received what I guess you could call hate mail, fellow citizens denigrating my approach, second-guessing my inclusion of African-American narratives, spewing forth a steady stream of racial invective I bet you thought we had outgrown," Burns said. "It continues to this day, now unfettered by the anonymity of the Internet. Critics, friends and even scholars griped, too, and were later all certain that when Barack Obama was elected, I would finally stop bringing it up. 'Whew!' they proclaimed. 'Now we’re postracial! Will you shut up about race now?' I shook my head: 'You have no idea what kind of toxicity is about to be unleashed.'"

Why Narrative Matters

Burns was not uncritical of the humanities and specifically of some historians and their trends in recent decades.

Too many scholars assumed in the years after World War II that some new approach must replace "the old narrative form of history."

"First came a Freudian worldview, then a Marxist-economic determinant view, as historians tried to figure out a bottom-up alternative to old-fashioned top-down storytelling. From there we gyrated through a series of baffling new perspectives -- fashions every one -- trying to come to terms with our collective past," he said. "There was semiotics, symbolism, deconstruction, postmodernism, etc., etc. Each new school of thought suggested that there was only one true lens through which that past was to be seen and refracted. They all came up short, of course, like the blind describing only one part of the elephant."

It's not that those perspectives have nothing to offer, Burns said. But human stories need to be at the center. And for those who watched documentaries by Burns and found themselves listening with care to the narrator reading a letter or diary entry from a nonfamous person and then somehow felt a connection, it's not surprising that this was the emphasis Burns outlined.

Toward the end of his lecture, after noting all the movements that led scholars away from the narrative, he said he was pleased by a more recent shift.

Said Burns: "I’m pleased to say that some sanity has been restored in recent years, and we have begun to re-embrace an energized, inclusive narrative that’s able, lo and behold, to sometimes encompass all of those other perspectives."


Back to Top