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.