Ken Burns tells BC grads to revisit history

Historians in the News

Speaking of "history and memory and possibilities," award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns asked Boston College graduates yesterday to mind the past, while encouraging them to draw inspiration and guidance from it at a time of seemingly daunting problems.

"History is not a fixed thing, a collection of precise dates, facts, and events that add up to a quantifiable, certain, confidently known truth," Burns said. "It is an inscrutable and mysterious and malleable thing. Each generation rediscovers and reexamines that part of its past that gives its present - and, most important, its future - new meaning and new possibilities."

On a cool, drizzly morning at Alumni Stadium, Burns recounted the "cold and blustery" day when Abraham Lincoln gave his 1861 inaugural address. Calling to mind the founding of the union as he tried to prevent its fracture, "this remarkable poet-president" delivered what Burns called one of the greatest sentences ever written: "The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield 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."

That line, Burns said, was imbued with optimism even as Lincoln recognized the crude instincts and undercurrents of human nature and history that produced slavery and war.

"We have counted on Abraham Lincoln for more than a century to get it right when that undertow in the tide of human events has threatened to overwhelm and capsize us," said Burns, whose documentary on the Civil War drew 40 million viewers to PBS when first broadcast in 1990. "We return to him constantly for a sense of unity, conscience, and national purpose."...

Read entire article at Boston Globe

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