In commencement address Ken Burns says human nature doesn’t change (more or less)

Historians in the News
tags: Ken Burns



Ken Burns has been making documentary films for more than 35 years. 

Chancellor Wrighton, members of the Board of Trustees and the Administration, distinguished faculty, Class of 1965, hard-working staff, my fellow honorees, proud and relieved parents, calm and serene grandparents, distracted but secretly pleased siblings, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, graduating students, good morning. I am 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 at this remarkable institution.

It had been my intention this morning to parcel out some good advice at the end of these remarks -- the "goodness" of that being of course subjective in the extreme -- but then I realized that this is the land of Mark Twain, and I came to the conclusion that any commentary today ought to be framed in the sublime shadow of this quote of his: "It's not that the world is full of fools, it's just that lightning isn't distributed right." More on Mr. Twain later.

I am in the business of history. It is my job to try to discern some patterns and themes from the past to help us interpret our dizzyingly confusing and sometimes dismaying present. Without a knowledge of that past, how can we possibly know where we are and, most important, where we are going? Over the years I've come to understand an important fact, I think: that we are not condemned to repeat, as the cliché goes and we are fond of quoting, what we don't remember. That's a clever, even poetic phrase, but not even close to the truth. Nor are there cycles of history, as the academic community periodically promotes. The Bible, Ecclesiastes to be specific, got it right, I think: "What has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun."

What that means is that human nature never changes. Or almost never changes. We have continually superimposed our complex and contradictory nature over the random course of human events. All of our inherent strengths and weaknesses, our greed and generosity, our puritanism and our prurience parade before our eyes, generation after generation after generation. This often gives us the impression that history repeats itself. It doesn't. It just rhymes, Mark Twain is supposed to have said... but he didn't (more on Mr. Twain later.)

Over the many years of practicing, I have come to the realization that history is not a fixed thing, a collection of precise dates, facts and events (even cogent commencement quotes) that add up to a quantifiable, certain, confidently known, truth. It is a mysterious and malleable thing. And each generation rediscovers and reexamines that part of its past that gives its present, and most important, its future new meaning, new possibilities and new power. ...




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