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Ken Burns, H’24 Keynote Address to Brandeis University's 2024 Graduates

Ken Burns discusses his view on electing Trump.

Is America making the same mistakes many nations have before us?

Will we destroy our nation in a way we cannot imagine now by electing Trump?

Listen to what Ken Burns has to say.

Ken Burns, H’24 Keynote Address to Brandeis University's 2024 Graduates

"Ken Burns, H’24 delivered the keynote address to the 2024 undergraduate class during the 73rd Commencement Exercises." from the video introduction

Undergraduate Commencement Address by Ken Burns
Descriptive Transcript

SCENE: Ken Burns, in a black academic robe with a white hood, speaks at a podium in front of a large blue banner with Brandeis University and the university logo. Also on the stage are other faculty members and distinguished guests wearing academic robes.


Brandeisian, love it.

President Liebowitz, Ron, Chair Lisa Kranc, and other members of the board of trustees, Provost Carol Fierke, fellow honorees, distinguished faculty and staff, proud and relieved parents, calm and serene grandparents, distracted but secretly pleased siblings, ladies and gentlemen, graduating students of the class of 2024, good morning.

I am deeply honored and privileged that you have asked me here to say a few words at such a momentous occasion that you might find what I have to say worthy of your attention on so important a day in all of your lives. Thank you for this honor.

Listen, I am in the business of history. It is not always a happy subject on college campuses these days, particularly when forces seem determined to eliminate or water down difficult parts of our past, particularly when the subject may seem to sum an anachronistic and irrelevant pursuit, and particularly with the ferocious urgency this moment seems to exert on us. It is my job, however, to remind people of the power our past also exerts, to help us better understand what's going on now with compelling story, memory, and anecdote. It is my job to try to discern patterns and themes from history to enable us to interpret our dizzying and sometimes dismaying present.

For nearly 50 years now, I have diligently practiced and rigorously tried to maintain a conscious neutrality in my work, avoiding advocacy if I could, trying to speak to all of my fellow citizens. Over those many decades I've come to understand a significant fact, that we are not condemned to repeat, as the saying goes, what we don't remember. That is a beautiful, even poetic phrase, but not true. Nor are there cycles of history as the academic community periodically promotes. The Old Testament, Ecclesiastes to be specific, got it right, I think. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun. What those lines suggest is that human nature never changes or almost never changes. We continually superimpose that complex and contradictory human nature over the seemingly random chaos of events, all of our inherent strengths and weaknesses, our greed and generosity, our puritanism and our prurience, our virtue, and our venality parade before our eyes, generation after generation after generation. This often gives us the impression that history repeats itself. It does not. "No event has ever happened twice, it just rhymes," Mark Twain is supposed to have said. I have spent all of my professional life on the lookout for those rhymes, drawn inexorably to that power of history. I am interested in listening to the many varied voices of a true, honest, complicated past that is unafraid of controversy and tragedy, but equally drawn to those stories and moments that suggest an abiding faith in the human spirit, and particularly the unique role this remarkable and sometimes also dysfunctional republic seems to play in the positive progress of mankind.

During the course of my work, I have become acquainted with hundreds if not thousands of those voices. They have inspired, haunted, and followed me over the years. Some of them may be helpful to you as you try to imagine and make sense of the trajectory of your lives today..." Descriptive Transcript

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