Ken Burns Defends the Humanities and Storytelling

Ken-Burns-photo-3-06-Cable-Risdon-1-610x397Last night documentary film-maker Ken Burns used his National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture to defend humanities and the art of storytelling.

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed reports:

Ken Burns, the documentary maker who brought the Civil War, the histories of baseball and jazz, and the biographies of the Roosevelts to film, had a chance Monday night to honor the National Endowment for the Humanities, which supported much of his work. He praised the NEH for both its grants and its standards, and thanked the endowment for naming him to deliver this year’s Jefferson Lecture, the nation’s highest annual honor in the humanities.

Burns used the lecture to defend the humanities from its many attackers, to describe how those who work on issues of race (as he has done in many projects) face particular criticism and to champion the art of the narrative as a tool to advance history and promote a common understanding of society.

In his talk, Burns repeatedly said the humanities — by helping us understand such a broad range of different topics and perspectives — in fact promote unity through understanding. But he freely admitted that the denigrators of the humanities don’t see it that way.

“In a larger sense, the humanities help us all understand almost everything better — and they liberate us from the myopia our media culture and politics impose upon us. Unlike our current culture wars, which have manufactured a false dialectic just to accentuate otherness, the humanities stand in complicated contrast, permitting a nuanced and sophisticated view of our history, as well as our present moment, replacing misplaced fear with admirable tolerance, providing important perspective and exalting in our often contradictory and confounding manifestations,” he said in the prepared version of his talk. “Do we contradict ourselves? We do!”

Yet Burns said he worried that so many people don’t see value in contradictions that are informed by knowledge and perspective. “Somehow, in recent times, the humanities have been needlessly scapegoated in our country by those who continually benefit from division and obfuscation. Let me make it perfectly clear: the United States of America is an enduring humanistic experiment,” he said.

Read the rest here.

One thought on “Ken Burns Defends the Humanities and Storytelling

  1. In his talk, Burns repeatedly said the humanities — by helping us understand such a broad range of different topics and perspectives — in fact promote unity through understanding.

    However, in the current crisis, it’s just the reverse when only one perspective is taught.

    Nicholas Kristof MAY 7, 2016
    http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/opinion/sunday/a-confession-of-liberal-intolerance.html?_r=0

    The scarcity of conservatives seems driven in part by discrimination. One peer-reviewed study found that one-third of social psychologists admitted that if choosing between two equally qualified job candidates, they would be inclined to discriminate against the more conservative candidate.

    Yancey, the black sociologist, who now teaches at the University of North Texas, conducted a survey in which up to 30 percent of academics said that they would be less likely to support a job seeker if they knew that the person was a Republican.

    The discrimination becomes worse if the applicant is an evangelical Christian. According to Yancey’s study, 59 percent of anthropologists and 53 percent of English professors would be less likely to hire someone they found out was an evangelical.

    Jonathan Haidt, a centrist social psychologist at New York University, cites data suggesting that the share of conservatives in academia has plunged, and he has started a website, Heterodox Academy, to champion ideological diversity on campuses.

    “Universities are unlike other institutions in that they absolutely require that people challenge each other so that the truth can emerge from limited, biased, flawed individuals,” he says. “If they lose intellectual diversity, or if they develop norms of ‘safety’ that trump challenge, they die. And this is what has been happening since the 1990s.”

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