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Posts Tagged ‘Ken Burns’

This evening my wife and I spent an hour with filmmaker Ken Burns in the company of 300 other individuals, most seemingly well educated and literate. (I wonder how many other history teachers were in the audience.) We sat in the front row as he read from the introduction to his book, but the true passion came forth in the question and answer period that followed. Then he burned with the intensity that comes from the conviction that you know you are right and that your work has amounted to something because IT MATTERS. (I recall his impatience at one particular comment or question, saying “All you have to do is visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC and see the canisters of Zyklon B, and become aware of  the millions of pages of documents kept by the Germans themselves, to allay any question about the magnitude of the Holocaust”.)

For me, and clearly for him, it has never been about “my country, right or wrong” or even the idea of a “Greatest Generation”… during the Second World War, some very courageous people followed their convictions not to kill and instead became social pariahs and /or incarcerated individuals. (Read John H. Abbott’s “Reflections on Machismo” interview in Studs Terkel’s The Good War.) For me, teaching history is about teaching the kids what happened by letting the stories unfold, to engage or to repel. We learn that history is never black and white because life is not, and has never been.

What motivated and pushed him to work on this film on the Second World War boiled down to two things- the fact that this generation is fading very quickly, but more importantly that our nation’s collective memory of what happened sixty-odd years ago seems to be dying faster than those men and women are. One the one hand, we feel unabashed gratitude. On the other, we feel sheer outrage at the fact that what’s become standardized ( besides test, test, test, or more likely, because of it) a kid can graduate high school with honors and still not know that much about the context of his own history… I’ve been outraged for a long time, but I’d like to think that in sharing some of this outrage with my students, they can pick up on its importance… Burns and I have been on the same page for a long time. I’ve been conducting these oral histories for almost my entire career in the classroom. Thank God his work is starting to raise awareness among educators to the point that it is becoming almost fashionable.

At the book signing I was a bit disappointed because it became immediately clear that he had to get through this ritual as quickly as possible to satisfy the line of people who had paid their 55 dollars for their 30 seconds with him. Laura and I were nearly the first persons in line and it was a little nuts, he wasn’t too relaxed, but I can’t blame him. (Getting 20,000 hits on our ww2 website on a single weekend and equivalent of 67 pages of guestbook posts/emails reading about dads, uncles, granddads who fought in the war was an honor, but a bit overwhelming- I can only imagine what it is like for him…) Still, in my Ralphy “Christmas Story” fantasy-world I got to tell him what we have been doing at our school, making sure that none of our students graduates as ignorant as the average American is about his own history. I got to tell him that he was one of my heroes and he got to tell me that no, we were his heroes…

But honestly, that’s not really important. I did manage to get my books signed, one for my student Sara, and slip him the DVD of the Holocaust Survivor-Liberator Reunion that my class brought about. While he hardly looked at it before tucking it under the table, if he’s true to his passion, and he obviously is, he will be curious enough to watch at least part of it. He’ll see that there’s at least one school whose students KNOW the importance of history. Thanks, Ken, for a great evening.
In the video post below he expresses some of his outrage. (It’s also cute because if you listen closely, you can hear my wife ask me if I understand him…)
Amen, brother.


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