Ken Burns Doesn’t Believe History Repeats Itself, Just That Human Nature Never Changes

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Photo: Ken Burns
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns receives this year's Wallace Stegner Award for his significant contributions to the West.

He's a documentarian with a style so distinct, he has a film editing effect named for him. Filmmaker Ken Burns has explored many facets of American history. On Oct. 2, he'll be honored with the Wallace Stegner Award at CU Boulder for his "sustained contribution to the cultural identity of the West." Stegner was a novelist and environmentalist, and previous recipients of the award include Sandra Day O'Connor and Ted Turner.

Burns talked to Colorado Matters about his relationship to the American West, as well as his favorite chapter of American history, why the National Park Service was the country's best idea and what he thinks of the state of the nation today. This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

On What The West Means To Him, And Everyone

"I think the West, and the West of imagination, and the West of mythology as well as the West of fact, provide us all, Easterners as well as Westerners, with a chance to experience what one observer of the National Parks said was our 'atomic insignificance.' I've experienced it many, many times, in and out of the Park, in the gigantic vistas of the West, in which you realize you are but the tiniest, tiniest drop in an ocean.

And that atomic insignificance, as this observer said, has a funny way of connecting you to everything else, and inspiriting you, making you feel bigger. Because the egotist in our midst is always diminished by his or her self regard."

Why He's Still Fascinated By The Lewis And Clark Expedition

"It’s funny you know. It is almost in a way a classroom cliche. We think we know about it, but I don’t think we really fully appreciate, or many people don’t, what it meant.

This amazing mission, not dissimilar to the moon mission. Only we were out of touch with mission control for just a few minutes on the other side of the moon. Here, Jefferson didn’t hear anything for year while Lewis and Clark and their men, and then the French trader Toussaint Charbonneau and his wife Sacagawea and their baby, all trekked across the country, intersecting with native people. Many many nations who would forever be completely changed by the contact with Lewis and Clark and the world they were ushering into this continent."

Why The National Park Service Was America's Best Idea

"To set aside, for the first time in human history, land. Not for the benefit of loyalty, not for the benefit of the very rich, but for everybody and for all time.

We set in motion this utterly American thing, and it's an amazing journey that isn’t just landscape and waterfalls and canyons, but it's about a species’ diversification and saving species.

When Jefferson said all men are created equal, he meant all white men of property free of debt. We don't mean that now. We've expanded it. And what you find in the Parks, is that the Park idea evolves, beyond scenery beyond even species diversification to history. And we’re the only country on Earth that saves evidence of a darker side."

On The State Of The Country Today

"Historians make pretty lousy prognosticators of what's going to happen. But we bring a kind of optimism I believe to the present, in a way that we’ve seen it all before. Not in precisely this way, history doesn't repeat itself, we’re not condemned to repeat what we don’t remember.

Human nature doesn’t change. That's the thing we all have to understand. So we will be confronted with greed, but also generosity. With puritance, but also puritanism. And we're in a constant flux with how to relate and to deal with all of those things.

For those who feel discouraged right now, you can point to the Civil War, the Vietnam era, to many other places in American history where there were similar sorts of things. They’re not exactly the same. And so our challenges and our fragility remain, but I think that we can see these things as great tests. Abraham Lincoln said, 'The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.'

I’ve spent my entire professional life trying to speak to 'unum.' I don’t have a political point of view or an axe to grind in my films. I’m interested in sharing our common stories."