Social Studies

Filmmaker Ken Burns Talks Civics and Taking Deep Dives Into History

By Liana Loewus — November 24, 2014 2 min read
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It was fitting that filmmaker Ken Burns’ keynote address, which more than 1,000 social studies educators attended, took place on a Sunday morning. “I’m here with my congregation,” he told the crowd. “You are my people. You are the reason I make these documentaries.”

Burns has written, directed, and produced many documentary films about U.S. history over the past 35 years, including an 11-hour TV mini-series titled “The Civil War"—now a staple in many history classrooms. He’s also done projects on baseball, the national parks, Prohibition, jazz, and most recently, the Roosevelts.

“Everyone in this room knows that if you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t possibly know where you are, or more importantly, where you’re going,” he told the packed auditorium Nov. 23.

“For so long we’ve told the history of Great Men—capital G, capital M,” Burns went on. “I’m interested in the stories of a true, honest past that’s unafraid.”

People respond to the process of doing a deep dive into a single historical subject, he said, because “we live in a society in which our information cascades onto us and buries us in an avalanche without meaning. ... The one way we negotiate that avalanche of information and synthesize it is we take one thing and look at it on our own for as long as we can.”

Burns made a plea for teaching civics—"the glue,” he said, that holds all other disciplines together. “No amount of STEM or no amount of STEAM [i.e., science, technology, engineering, arts, and math] will work unless you’re given the operating manual, and that’s civics.”

He also asked teachers to have their students memorize the Gettysburg Address. He started an initiative around the 150th anniversary of the Civil War to encourage people to record themselves reciting the speech.

A teacher stood up toward the end of the talk to give what she called a “thank-you note” to Burns. “I became a teacher of early U.S. history the same year the Civil War series came out,” she said. “And I remember someone saying this is going to change the way we teach the Civil War. And for me it became the way I taught the Civil War.”

On any given school day around the country, “The Civil War” is playing in about 2,500 classrooms, Burns noted.

He’s now working on upcoming films about cancer, Jackie Robinson, the Vietnam War, and Ernest Hemingway.

Afterward, walking out of the ballroom, the educators were overwhelmingly in awe of the filmmaker.

“He was fabulous. But I knew he would be,” one told me. Below are a couple other responses.

And some tweet quotes:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.