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2016 Jefferson Lecture

William D. Adams, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Washington, DC
United States

May 9, 2016

Introduction of Ken Burns
by William D. Adams

The Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Monday, May 9, 2016

Good evening. On behalf of the National Endowment for the Humanities, I’m proud and excited to welcome you to the 2016 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.

I want to begin by thanking those who’ve made tonight’s lecture possible. We are grateful to The Carnegie Corporation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations—all good friends of NEH, admirers of Ken Burns, and major supporters of this event. I also want to acknowledge the continuing support of the National Trust for the Humanities and of Roger and Vicki Sant.  Finally, I’d like to express our appreciation to the staff members of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the staff members of NEH for their excellent work in planning and staging this important event.  

This is the 45th year of the Jefferson Lecture, the highest honor bestowed by the National Endowment for the Humanities. This free, public lecture is also the Endowment’s most widely-attended event, in keeping with the charge expressed in our founding legislation—that the humanities “belong to all the people of the United States.”

As many of you know, our founding legislation was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on September 29th, 1965—just a bit more than 50 years ago. It was an extraordinary moment in an extraordinary period of legislation, locating the humanities and the arts at the very center of President Johnson’s vision of the Great Society.

As we planned for the celebration of this significant anniversary, we knew that this year’s Jefferson Lecture would present a special opportunity to say something significant about our history and the importance of that history to the country. It didn’t take us long to settle on Ken Burns. For no one’s work speaks more eloquently or meaningfully to the relevance of the humanities to our national well-being.

The relationship between NEH and Ken Burns goes all the way back to January of 1979, when the agency made a grant of $25,000 in support of Ken’s very first documentary film, Brooklyn Bridge.  In the intervening years, NEH has supported 14 more Ken Burns films: The Shakers, Huey Long, Thomas Hart Benton, The Civil War, Empire of the Air, Baseball, The West, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jazz, The War, Prohibition, The Dust Bowl, and The Roosevelts. Last fall, the agency made a special Chairman’s grant to Ken’s much anticipated film on the Vietnam War, which will be aired by PBS in the fall of 2017.

As our commitment to Ken’s work developed, our commitment to the field of documentary filmmaking developed along with it. Over the agency’s fifty-year history, we have funded over 800 documentary films, with grants totaling more than $300 million. Films made with these grants have garnered many awards, including 25 George Foster Peabody Awards, 39 Emmys, 12 Erik Barnouw Awards, recognizing outstanding television programming in American history, and one Oscar.

Even within this stellar company, Ken Burns’s films have been exceptional for their quality, their impact, and public recognition. Ken’s films have won 12 Emmy Awards and two Oscar nominations, and in September 2008, Ken was honored by the Academy of Arts and Sciences with a lifetime achievement award. Meanwhile, public reception of Ken’s work has been nothing short of astonishing.

Over the first week it was shown on PBS, The Civil War attracted nearly 39 million viewers; its rebroadcast in 2002 attracted 32 million. In 1994, Baseball became the most watched documentary in public television history, with an audience of over 43 million. In its first week in September 2014, The Roosevelts attracted nearly 34 million viewers.

Ken’s remarkable body of work touches on two other important dimensions of NEH’s grant-making portfolio. Like all historians and documentary filmmakers, Ken relies on vast quantities of archival material—documents, film clips, sound clips, objects of all kinds, and photographs—lots of photographs.  Preserving those materials and making them available to scholars and the general public have been core elements of our work for the past 50 years. By way of examples, Ken’s most recent film, Jackie Robinson, used film clips from the Fox Movietone Collection at the University of South Carolina and audio clips from New York Public Radio’s collections. Country Music, another film in production, will use photographs from the John Edwards Memorial Collection at the University of North Carolina and from the Country Music Hall Fame. All of these collections and institutions, and many, many more, have been supported by NEH preservation grants.

Like other documentarians, Ken also relies on fundamental research, especially historical and biographical research. This, too, has been a core commitment at NEH. The Endowment has made 30 grants to the Bancroft Library’s Mark Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley. We have supported the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, the Papers of Andrew Jackson, The Selected Papers of John Jay, the Papers of George Washington, The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, The Complete Works of Thomas Wyatt the Elder, the Complete Letters of Willa Cather, the Melville Electronic Library, The Annotated Edition of Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, the biography of Cesar Chavez, the Papers of William F. (Buffalo Bill) Cody, The Almanacks of Mary Moody Emerson, The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, the Margaret Sanger Papers Project. And on and on. If Ken hasn’t gotten to all of these resources yet, I’m sure he will before it’s over. Well, maybe not The Complete Works of Thomas Wyatt the Elder.

No one would have seen a single frame of Ken’s wonderful films on public television were it not for the three important public broadcasting entities which, alongside NEH, have been committed to his work from the outset: the Public Broadcasting Service, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and WETA. I know that there are representatives from these organizations here tonight, including their leadership, and in this important and distinguished company, I want to acknowledge their long and fruitful partnership with Ken and with NEH. I also want to say how important these entities have been, are now, and will continue to be to our national well-being. 

Ken Burns is above else a filmmaker, and his artistic vision and technical prowess have influenced filmmakers around the country and, indeed, around the world. But it’s terribly important that Ken’s more or less constant subject has been American history—its great events and some of its most important and intriguing public figures. I have no doubt that Ken’s influence as a filmmaker would have been just as great had he turned his talents to other subjects. But the public influence and importance of his work are inextricably connected to his extraordinary ability to turn the lives of history’s actors and events into stories at once profound and accessible.  

Understanding history has always been one of the core requirements of democracy and the preservation of a vibrant democratic political culture. That’s not so much because knowing the past means that we avoid its mistakes, but much more importantly because we can’t understand where we are unless we know where we’ve been and how we got here. William Faulkner had it exactly right: “The past is never dead,” he said; “it’s not even past.” The issues we confront as democratic citizens, the things we have to sort out in our communities both large and small, come to us through time. We have to know the story to understand who we are and what we must do.

I’m not the first to observe that we are living in a precarious time with respect to our understanding of our history.

Several weeks ago, the day that Ken’s most recent film, Jackie Robinson, aired on PBS, John Yang of the NewsHour interviewed Dusty Baker, the manager of the Washington Nationals. Yang asked Baker if today’s baseball players appreciate the legacy of Jackie Robinson. Baker answered, “Probably not. I don’t think it’s necessarily the . . . players’ fault. . . . I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of . . . passing along history, not only of Jackie Robinson. . . . In America, it seems like what people spend the least amount of time studying is history.” 

Dusty Baker’s point—and I’m sure Ken Burns would agree—is not just that we are insufficiently aware of what Jackie Robinson had to confront and what he achieved, though that is certainly true. It’s that many, perhaps most, of the obstacles that Robinson confronted are still here, deeply embedded in our experience. Of course, some things have changed, as Ken’s film demonstrates, but other things, perhaps many things, have not changed. And so as the past 18 months have so clearly and painfully reminded us, the challenge of race relations remains one of the deepest, most persistent, and most vexing challenges of our national life.

Ken Burns’s work reminds us why history matters. But as history, it also renews our acquaintance with things we’ve forgotten or introduces us to things we never knew. And so we are empowered to pick up the threads again and to see ourselves and our current situation in a different light—the light that radiates from the arc of our common and uncommon narratives. 

History is in many ways the very heart of the humanities. Over the last 50 years, NEH has supported many great historians, and many great histories, and we are extremely proud of that record and of what it has contributed to our self-understanding. But it’s hard to imagine a better standard-bearer for history, and for the humanities generally, than Ken Burns, whose extraordinarily ambitious project has fascinated and engaged so many Americans over the last four decades. One can only imagine the impact of the things yet to come.

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming the Jefferson Lecturer for 2016, Ken Burns.