Media Resource

2016 Jefferson Lecture: Ken Burns

"I have in many ways here described the perfect hell on earth we have indeed created for ourselves. But if it is the obligation of the artist to explore that hell, it is equally true that there is an obligation to try to describe the way out of it."

—Ken Burns, 2016 Jefferson Lecture

Ken Burns delivered the 2016 Jefferson Lecture on May 9, 2016. In it, he discusses the importance of the humanities to civil discourse, mutual understanding, and civic responsibility. Taking listeners back to his childhood in the early 1960s, Burns recounts a moment when he spurned the affection of Mrs. Jennings, an African American woman who had become like a second mother to Burns while his mother battled terminal cancer. The shame he felt about that moment remains present for him, just as the events he depicts in his best-known documentary, The Civil War, remain present for the United States to this day. In a society like ours, "beset by discontinuity and disagreement," Burns believes that history can become "a table around which all of us can have a civil discourse and try to evoke those 'better angels of our nature.'" The full text of his lecture is available here.

About Ken Burns

Ken Burns, a documentary filmmaker, released his first major film in 1982. It was a one-hour documentary about the Brooklyn Bridge. In the decades since, he has created films about wars, musical genres, sports, and famous individuals. Instrumental in his growing renown was his nearly 12-hour-long documentary series on the American Civil War, titled simply, The Civil War. This simplicity, characteristic of the names of Burns's films, belies the rich polyphony that is a hallmark of his distinctive style. Blending archival documents, photographs, first-person testimonials, interviews with scholars and historians, and voiceover narration, Burns's films are collages of history that have exposed enormous audiences to a vision of the past they had never seen or imagined.

Learn More

Read and view an interview with Ken Burns and NEH Chairman William Adams.

Read more about Ken Burns's documentary The Civil War.

Read more about Ken Burns's documentary Prohibition from Michael A. Lerner, an historian who consulted for the film.

Classroom Connections

EDSITEment has created a number of resources to help teachers bring documentary films into the classroom and to work with Burns's films in particular.