Over my professional life, I have come to the realization that history is not a fixed thing, a collection of precise dates, facts and events, but a mysterious and malleable thing, constantly changing, not just as new information emerges, but as our own interests, emotions and inclinations change. Each generation rediscovers and reexamines that part of its past that gives its present new meaning and new possibility. The question becomes for us now—for you graduates especially—what will we choose as our inspiration?Ken Burns Universityof Pennslyvania Commencement
The goal of a graduation address is to impart hard-won wisdom to those men and women ostensibly now prepared to step into their vocations. Ken Burns does a splendid job of it. Since Burns completed his documentary, Franklin, in April of this year, it was fitting that he give the commencement address for this year’s graduates of the University of Pennsylvania.
Using Benjamin Franklin as the cornerstone of his talk, Burns makes excellent and memorable points.
Like this one:
…at this moment, on this memorable day for you, you sit here all potentiality and wonder. Franklin had only two years of elementary education. As his biographer H. W. Brands understood, schools teach you what you’re supposed to know, but also what you don’t have to know. “With Franklin,” Brands said, “he never knew what he didn’t have to know, so he assumed he had to know everything.” That’s the key to Franklin. He was always searching: Nature, art, society, politics, science, faith, himself, looking for ways to improve in all those arenas—especially himself, for he understood deeply and painfully that he was a mass of contradictions and limitations. Just like the rest of us.”
Burns smiles slightly at the interviewer’s remark about Franklin being a complicated human being. And says, “When you say complicated human being?” He pauses long enough to get her attention. And then, “You’re being redundant.”
I’ll wager that Ken Burns regarded his audience of new graduates with the same expression of ironic poignancy with which he looked at that television host when he declares,
“…This wouldn’t be so bad if we were just wasting our own lives, but our future as a democracy depends on you making things better. ‘A Republic, if you can keep it,’ as Franklin challenged us 235 years ago.
“Let me apologize.
“We’ve nearly broken this Republic of ours, but somehow you’ve got to fix it. You’re going to have to initiate a new movement, a new Union Army, that must be dedicated above all else—including your career and personal advancement—to the preservation of this country’s civic ideals. You’ll have to learn, and then re-teach the rest of us that equality—real equality—is the hallmark and birthright of ALL Americans. Thankfully, you will become a vanguard against the separatism that seems to have infected our ranks, a vanguard against those forces that, in the name of our great democracy, have managed to diminish it. I know you can do it. But it requires your civil—not cynical—energies…”
If you’d like to read Burns address in its entirety—a three-minute investment of your time, read more.
Reading, then rereading this well-regarded historian’s address to the graduates of an ivy league college in 2022 fills me with hope. Burns’ total absence of cynicism and his determined optimism, better said, faith, in the next generation is instructive, is it not?
And the method with which he transforms the inanities of our current culture into stark reality is not just arresting with its lack of rancor but cleansing.
It’s June: the month of graduation speeches. This one is worth more than a cursory read.
Reading Burns’ remarks of the days of ‘potentiality and wonder’ evokes our own college graduations. Maybe even to recall teachers and classes that still affect us decades afterward. Especially those of us for whom the undergraduate degree was earned by working our way though.
We value things very differently when we must earn them.
My introduction to the Greek and Roman philosophers—especially the Stoics, during my undergraduate years had profound influence on my life and decisions. To my delight, decades later, Aurelius, Seneca, and Stoicism draw a surprising number of followers. Ryan Holiday’s trilogy of stoicism: The Ego is the Enemy, Obstacles are the Way and Courage is Calling, are Amazon best sellers. The fact belies the negative narratives about us so relentlessly hammered in by the media and much of our politics.
The book Meditations by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was a lifeline for me during the confused, chaotic years of college. Hence reimmersing myself in the minds of these great thinkers was pure pleasure while writing I, Claudia and My Name is Saul, -even though hard work. Perhaps because the correlations between Stoicism and Christianity are impossible to miss.
In his translation of Meditations, editor Gregory Hays writes this:
…we must see
things for what they are (here the discipline of perception is
relevant) and accept them, by exercising the discipline of
will, or what Epictetus calls (in a phrase quoted by Marcus)
“the art of acquiescence.” For if we recognize that all events
have been foreseen by the logos and form part of its plan,
and that the plan in question is unfailingly good (as it must
be), then it follows that we must accept whatever fate has in
store for us, however unpleasant it may appear, trusting that,
in Alexander Pope’s phrase, “whatever is, is right.” This
applies to all obstacles and (apparent) misfortunes, and in
particular to death—a process that we cannot prevent, which
therefore does not harm us, and which accordingly we must
accept willingly as natural and proper.
Together, the three disciplines constitute a comprehensive approach to life…
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not.”
These miracles unite us with our Jewish brothers and sisters.
To facilitate these unifying prayers, EWTN has created a beautiful E-Book: Corpus Christi.
Another great writing. Inspires me to read of all of Ken Burns speech and to watch “Franklin”. Always love your though provoking thoughts.
Thank you my friend thank you!