May 16, 2015

I'm a huge Ken Burns fan. His ability to bring history to life via his films is unique and inspiring, as was his commencement address to graduates at Missouri's Washington University.

“We are still playing out, sadly, an utterly American story,” Burns told approximately 15,000 graduates, parents, friends and family members gathered in Brookings Quadrangle. “The same stultifying conditions that brought on our Civil War are still on vivid display today,” he said. “Today! There is nothing new under the sun.”

And so Burns, recognizing the significance of delivering a Commencement address just a few miles “as the crow flies” from Ferguson, Mo., where racial tensions exploded last year, told the Class of 2015 that, sitting at the crux of history, they had no choice: “You’ve been called up. You’re drafted.”


And when it came time for, as Burns said, the advice part of his speech, he led off with the words that garnered his first standing ovation:

“Remember: Black lives matter!”

When the applause died down, he said, “All lives matter. Reject fundamentalism, wherever it raises its ugly head. It’s not civilized.”

Among Burns’ other noteworthy pieces of advice:

“Do not descend too deeply into specialism.”

“Replace cynicism with its old-fashioned antidote, skepticism.”

“Don’t confuse monetary success with excellence.”

“Be curious, not cool. Remember, insecurity makes liars of us all.”

“Listen to jazz. A lot.”

“Serve your country.”


“Be about the unum, not the pluribus.”

And words that got even more applause: “Insist that we support science and the arts, especially the arts. They have nothing to do with the actual defense of our country — they just make our country worth defending,” he said.

Burns closed with an anecdote he brought up earlier in his remarks about the pivotal moment in Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” where Huck makes the moral decision not to turn on his friend and traveling companion Jim.

Once in awhile, it's nice to focus on the good guys instead of the jerks.

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