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History matters

UCCS guest Ken Burns weighs in on the America we know


Chances are, you not only know who Ken Burns is, you've learned more about American history from him than you did any high school or college lecturer. Burns, creator of more than 20 historical documentaries, will deliver the UCCS "Reach Your Peak" Lecture Series address on Sunday, Aug. 27, at the Pikes Peak Center.

In "Sharing the American Experience," Burns plans to discuss American identity through his film trilogy, The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz. Though currently at work on three new documentaries in various stages of production, Burns took time to talk with the Independent from his New Hampshire home.

Indy: What is a documentarian's role in society?

Burns: I think, essentially, we distinguish the documentary as stories based on fact as opposed to stories based on fiction. And so, the first obligation of the documentarian must, in some ways, be to try to get the facts right. But there are many documentarians for whom the whole aspect of telling the story is about the Rashomon of truths, that is to say, how many varieties of truths there are.

Indy: Do you see your documentaries as a call to action? That is, do you expect those who view your films will become more involved in current events that are creating tomorrow's history?

Burns: I've found in the course of my life, while not actively trying to get people to do anything, it's enough to get people to watch films and devote the amount of attention that I demand of them ...


You want people asking questions, and I think that's mainly what it's all about. An interesting life is a life of inquiry. There was a great judge named Learned Hand. Isn't that a great name? Learned Hand said, "Liberty means never being too sure you're right.' It just means that in certitude, in certainty, is really stagnation. We know what that it is. It's when we see people from the left or the right so absolutely certain of the righteousness of their cause. We know that life is much more complicated.

Indy: How do you feel about the current state of the world?

Burns: I think that the world is in very serious and dire straits. [It's] discouraging that three major religions, all of which have at their heart an essentially nonviolent core, find themselves engaged on one front or another with each other, producing unspeakable violence that is in direct contradiction to the soul of all three of these teachings.

Indy: Does the U.S. have a tendency to be myopic about its and the world's history?

Burns: Absolutely, because we have this promise. Abraham Lincoln called it "the last, best hope of Earth.' In some ways, we have an aspect [that] is still true. We tend, therefore, to not learn about the other, and we do so, as we've discovered in the last five years, at our extreme peril. We continue to make the mistakes of ignorance and myopia.

Indy: Do you think this is specific to the U.S., or common throughout the world?

Burns: It's really hard to know, when human nature is the same everywhere. I'm always appalled when I'm told, "All Muslims are this way.' It just isn't true. It's like, all Americans aren't one way. Human nature is the same across the world: good, bad and indifferent.


But, yes, a part of being a human is being, essentially, egocentric and ethnocentric. And that is the great job which we ironically invented religions to help us with. And it seems so sad that those very religions have often become the balls and chains that have kept us from the true growth and advancement we need to escape our particular circumstances.

Indy: Can you think of any themes you've encountered in all three documentaries you'll talk about in Colorado Springs?

Burns: I think the question of human freedom is at the heart of the American experience. How that manifests, in all its permutations, all its different points, all its advances. This is the stuff of American history.

Historians are always warning us that we get too close to the idea of what they call the "myth of exceptionalism" about America. But there is something very special about us, or there can be something very special about us if we bring to the discussion what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" ...

I'm trying to identify what those better angels of our nature might be in various circumstances.

Indy: Can you talk a little about your upcoming projects?

Burns: I'm almost done with the film called The War, which is a 15-hour film on the history of the American experience in the second World War. It's the biggest thing I've ever done. I'm just beginning editing a massive history of our national parks. And I'm beginning developing work on a history of Prohibition. So, how about that for diverse topics?


Indy: Have you worked on three documentaries at the same time before?

Burns: Yeah, that's my problem. I've always got something I'm shooting, something I'm editing, and something I'm developing and promoting.

Indy: You've said that you're interested in the healing power of history. How do you see these upcoming works as participating in the healing process?

Burns: Let me just say that in The War ... we're not just focusing on the big names, the generals and the presidents and the dictators. We're dealing with ordinary Americans, so-called ordinary Americans, people you could have had Thanksgiving dinner with. We've come to understand the ultimate theme of ourselves told by these magnificent people: that there are no ordinary lives.

Indy: Why are these films important now?

Burns: When you watch this film on the war, you feel like almost every moment could be a current situation. And that's what history should do. It's not just about the past. History is the question we ask of the past. It is as informed by who we are as the thing we are seeking to understand in the past. It speaks volumes about who we are now. That's ultimately the liberating power of history.


UCCS "Reach Your Peak" address: Ken Burns

Pikes Peak Center, 190 S. Cascade Ave.

Sunday, Aug. 27, 7:30 p.m.

Tickets: $30-50; visit the Pikes Peak Center box office or

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