As a part of Brandeis University’s 73rd undergraduate commencement, acclaimed director Ken Burns received an honorary Doctorate of Creative Arts and gave an address to the Brandeis class of 2024. Burns is well-known for his historical documentaries and television series, which cover a wide range of topics in United States history. He is especially well known for his documentaries “Civil War,” “Baseball,” “Jazz” and “The U.S. and the Holocaust.” Over the course of his career, Burns has won a plethora of awards, including two Oscar nominations, 17 Emmy Awards and two Grammy Awards. In 2022, Burns was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. 

Burns began his speech by contextualizing his work in the business of history. He recognized the current challenges in addressing history on college campuses, “particularly when forces seem determined to eliminate or water down difficult parts of our past.” While many parts of history are difficult to process, Burns explained that it is his job to embrace the power of the past and to use it to interpret “our dizzying and sometimes dismayed present” using storytelling. In his work, Burns has strived to maintain a conscious neutrality, allowing his work to speak to as many of his fellow citizens as possible. 

In context of popular beliefs and phrases, Burns went on to examine the nature of history as repetitive. He highlighted the specific saying, “we are not condemned to repeat what we do not remember.” Burns, while recognizing the poetic qualities in the phrase, went on to detail why it is false. He pointed out that while “no event has ever happened twice,” the inherent strengths and weaknesses of humankind have permeated generations upon generations. In other words, history does not repeat itself, “it just rhymes.” 

Burns stated that as an interpreter of these “rhymes,'' he is interested in “listening to the many varied voices of a true, honest, complicated past, that is unafraid of controversy and tragedy, but equally drawn to those stories and moments that suggest an abiding faith in the human spirit.” To the class of 2024, he suggested these voices might help them make sense of the trajectory of their lives today.  

Building on the importance of using voices from the past, Burns chose to highlight an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum Address

“Shall we expect the approach of danger? … Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the Earth and crush us with a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years … If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through time, or die by suicide.” 

As a part of his analysis of Lincoln’s address, Burns pointed out the fundamental optimism in Lincoln’s “extraordinary and disturbing” impression of 1838 American society, especially considering that Lincoln would go on to preside over the U.S. during a time when the country was the most divided it has ever been. Burns’ choice to point out this context conveyed his hope that the graduating class will be able to adopt a nuanced understanding of the world around them despite a current state of heightened division. 

Balancing his analysis, Burns pointed out that in describing America as a geographically isolated body, the Lyceum Address also serves as precursor to less beneficial patterns. Burns specifically mentioned “our devotion to money and guns and conspiracies,” “our certainty about everything” and “our own exceptionalism blinding us to that which needs repair” in addition to other other modern vices.

Burns’ interpretation of the Lyceum Address underlined the importance of recognizing the infinite nuance that is present in recorded human history. He went on to bring up a quote from journalist I.F. Stone, “history is tragedy, not melodrama,” referring to the fact that melodramatic characters have little depth and are characterized as entirely virtuous or entirely villainous. According to Burns, our nation exists in a state of melodrama. He described how “everything is either right or wrong, red states or blue states, young or old, gay or straight, rich or poor, Palestinian or Israeli, my way or the highway.” In other words, we have over-embraced binary labels. 

Burns then brought up an interview he had with writer James Baldwin who views this adherence to binary labels as a form of self-imposed slavery. As Burns puts it, “‘There is only us. There is no ‘them.’ Whenever someone suggests to you, whomever it may be in your life, that there is a ‘them,’ run away. Othering is the simplistic binary way to make and identify enemies, but it is also the surest way to your own self imprisonment.” This dedication to nuance is incredibly important in the documentary process, and has been a hallmark of Burns’ career as a storyteller. 

Burns proceeded to comment on the upcoming presidential election, a brief pause to his promise of neutrality. “There is no real choice this November,” he said. “The Presumptive Republican nominee is the opioids of all opioids.” Burns posited that in choosing this nominee, “you end up re-enslaved with an even bigger problem, a worse affliction and addiction, a bigger delusion.” He implored his audience, “do not be seduced by easy equalization. There is nothing equal about this equation.” Burns encourages the graduates to use their vote to preserve the United State’s resistance to militant ideology. 

Next, Burns addressed the class of 2024 directly. First, he encouraged the graduates to “be curious, not cool.” He explained that insecurity “makes liars of us all,” and gave a harrowing reminder that “none of us will get out of here alive.” He further explained that “grief is a part of life, and if you explore its painful precincts, it will make you stronger,” encouraging the graduating class to handle life’s challenges with introspection and sensitivity. 

Burns also advised the graduates to engage fully with the world around them. “Do good things to help others,” he encouraged. “Leadership is humility and generosity squared … the kinship of the soul begins with your own at times withering self examination.” Additionally, he advised the graduates “do not confuse success with excellence,” and “do not get stuck in one place. Travel is fatal to prejudice,” he illustrated. 

Burns also encouraged the graduates to engage with nature, “where nothing is binary” and to “at some point, make babies,” describing the process of raising children as “liberating and exhilarating.” He also encouraged the graduates to choose “honor over hypocrisy,” “character over cleverness” and “sacrifice over self-indulgence.” He asked the graduates to “denounce oppression everywhere,” to “insist that we support science” and to never lose their enthusiasm. 

Burns concluded his address with a quote from Justice Louis D. Brandeis stating that “the most important political office is that of the private citizen,” emphasizing the power of voting. To end his speech, he wished the class of 2024 “good luck. And godspeed.”