The Orfalea Foundation, along with UCSB Arts and Lectures, brought the acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns to speak at San Marcos High School on Monday, May 24. He shared some of the wisdom he’s gained over the years, and offered advice to the students on pursuing whatever drives them.
An evidently extremely intelligent and driven man himself, Burns challenged educational conventions as well as conventional values, and urged people to work hard for their passion.
On its website, the Orfalea Foundation says it is “committed to improving and enriching early childcare, educational programs, and other community services, [and] actively seek[s] innovative and effective programs that meet our goals to assist underserved populations in our community.” Roughly 200 students from surrounding high schools attended the event in the high school’s auditorium.
“If your only measure is the bottom line,” Burns told the students, “you’re seriously [limiting] yourself.” He said that he holds all of his films, even the obscure ones, close to him.
He admitted that he was the most fortunate documentarian, perhaps in the world, in terms of the level of exposure his films receive. But in addition to luck, he attributed much of his success to the self-initiative cultivated at an experimental film school, which ran counter to a career ladder. He said he learned to be self-driven, not driven by rewards, which steeled him for the unique independence that characterizes artists. From the way he spoke of his work, one could tell he was in love with it, and truly inspired.
“I actually think I have the best job in the country,” he said, and then wished for everyone else to be able to say the same about their chosen professions, though he also said, “Careerism is death.” Burns argued that a career implies a track that you follow, a set of rules and guidelines that leads to specialization, whereas he opts for learning and expansion unlimited by a track.
In this talk as in his films, Burns offered an alternative way to learn and consider the lessons of history—a way which is emotionally engaging and perhaps more effective. He pointed out that events are not limited to themselves but are symptomatic of larger social currents, and that lessons never die, and mistakes live on. For instance, he used baseball, caught up in strikes, steroids, and spectacular performances, as a prism through which to view American society in a bottom-up manner.
Burns is currently working on, among other things, a film about the devastation that was the Dust Bowl, comparing it to environmental abuse that continues today. He spoke of the Civil War and the story of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxer, as part of the still-living legacy of racism in the country. He said he uses history to explain the present.
Burns has been criticized in some academic circles. He responded to that fact by saying that they are speaking from a certain system of thought: Academia is extremely political, spinning off into various trends and theories which are accepted and built upon to the exclusion of others. Burns argued that academics often keep fact dead and rational on the page, whereas he brings it to life by telling a story. He said he does consult leading scholars in whatever area he’s focusing on, for their critiques, all along the way. In making a film, he said, his approach is an “emotional archaeology” which gives life and movement to fact, and helps him reach as many people as he can—usually 35-45 million who tune in when his film is aired on PBS.
He also indicated that history changes depending on the people who study it. For instance, he said that in the 19th century B.C.E., people knew all about the life of the nation’s first president, George Washington. But as time passed, interests shifted. He also discussed the way in which the public’s view of President Harry S. Truman has shifted from negative, when Burns was a student, to positive.
Originally, Burns wished to make feature films. However, he eventually discovered that subtle and complex beauty and art of a documentary offers more avenues of exploration. He says he doesn’t choose his topics. Rather, they seek him out and he follows.
Students seemed to feel encouraged by the dedication and love of work Burns conveyed. They said that it’s easy to be discouraged, and swept into following what is safe and convenient; but to see a living, breathing success reinforced the value of following one’s true passion. Lilli De Voto, an aspiring young filmmaker, said his relating of his personal experiences was particularly inspirational.
Currently, Burns is working on six projects; he joked that he has his next ten years laid out in front of him. He says that his bottom line is “to tell a good story…and to say something about what kind of people we are.” He noted the irony of the fact that we’re so divided by color, race, and class—and yet the country’s motto is E Pluribus Unum, meaning out of the many, one. A sense of commonality is what he wishes to share, he said, with the citizens of this country.