Filmmaker tells Stanford grads to appreciate the power of history

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns told graduates at Stanford’s 125th Commencement to discover the wisdom of history and understand how it shapes their lives today.

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Video by Kurt Hickman

Highlights of 2016 Commencement

Documentary producer Ken Burns told Stanford graduates of the Class of 2016 that history is a powerful force in our lives today, and urged them to not be complacent with their futures. He is renowned for his documentaries on the Civil War, baseball, and jazz, among other subjects.

Stanford’s 125th Commencement was also a farewell for outgoing President John Hennessy, who began the ceremony with moment of silence for victims of sexual violence and Sunday morning’s mass shooting in Orlando, Florida. Hennessy received a standing ovation for his tenure at the helm at the university, and he acknowledged the vast contributions of Provost John Etchemendy as well.

“One hundred twenty-five years – wow!” said Burns, who directs and produces historical documentary films that have won several major awards. His most recent project was the 2016 documentary Jackie Robinson, and he has an upcoming film on the Vietnam War.

Citing such historical figures as Abraham Lincoln, Burns told the audience that history has a wide-ranging impact in our lives today.

“It’s tough out there,” he said. “It’s so beautiful, too. And history can prepare you.” Burns noted how Lincoln once said, “We cannot escape history,” and he implored students to remember the Civil War era president’s famous quote, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

“You are required to rise,” he told the students, like, Lincoln did, to the occasion and face standing against tragedy, inhumanity and know-nothing thinking.

Burns also said that history is a natural detective, and can separate fact from fiction – and lately, there is a lot of fiction in American politics. For example, Burns touted what the federal government has done to make the lives of Americans better on many fronts, saying that the country’s superficial political discourse hardly refers to this history.

He implored students to vote and spent considerable time in his speech discussing falsehoods and negativity that dominate the current presidential race.

A father of four girls, he urged everyone to “listen” if a young woman says she has been sexually assaulted. Addressing gun violence, Burns said disavowing a culture of violence and guns is an “American issue” that should concern everyone, regardless of their political orientation.

And while history may not be the most popular subject on a college campus, Burns said it still offers a roadmap to understanding the present. “It is my job to remind people of the power that the past exerts,” and how patterns and themes can point a nation and community in the right direction.

History is not about facts and dates, he said, but more of a “mysterious, malleable thing” that is constantly changing in how we understand it.

Each generation has an opportunity to rediscover the past. “What will we choose to be our inspiration?” he asked.

While some may think they can “create” their lives in an isolated manner, Burns said, “you actually don’t design your life,” due to the course of events and history that precede all individuals. “Hard times and the vicissitudes of life will visit everyone,” he said.

Yet optimism can overcome the occasional negativity associated with historical currents, Burns said. After all, events and challenges shape our character, and so, history offers an “illuminated, clear-headed perspective” that can relieve the anxiety we experience when we worry too much about our specific circumstances, rather than thinking broadly and with a big picture of society in mind.

“Feed your soul every day,” he said, noting that “careerism is death” and that it’s critical to seek out mentors, embrace new ideas, visit places like national parks, be wary of wrongheaded wars and demagogues, and support science and the arts.

Presidential farewell

The ceremony was the last over which Hennessy will preside. Prior to introducing Burns, Hennessy, who is stepping down this summer after serving at the helm of the university for 16 years, asked graduates and the audience to join him in observing a moment of silence for victims of sexual violence and for those who were killed and injured in the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, that had taken place just hours before Commencement.

Remarks by Stanford President John Hennessy at the 2016 Commencement ceremony

Introduction of Commencement speaker Ken Burns, and concluding remarks honoring Provost John Etchemendy

He noted that Stanford seeks to make the world a better place. “We must all work to make that vision a reality.”

Hennessy’s reference to sexual violence followed recent developments in the case of former Stanford student Brock Turner, who was convicted of three felony counts of sexual assault and sentenced by a judge to six months in jail. Earlier this week, the university issued a statement about its commitment to preventing sexual violence and another with specific reference to Turner’s case. At Commencement some students carried signs decrying sexual assault, and a plane flew over the stadium with a banner condemning the judge who handed down the sentence.

In his remarks Hennessy praised the two Stanford graduate students, Peter Jonsson and Carl-Fredrik Arndt, to a burst of applause; the two heroically stopped the January 2015 sexual assault in progress.

Looking ahead, Hennessy noted the importance of approaching challenges with fresh perspectives. “Universities must be bold as they contemplate the future.”

Hennessy said commencements like Stanford’s are an opportunity to congratulate and celebrate graduates and to honor parents, family members and friends for their roles in student success. In a gesture that has become a Stanford Commencement tradition, Hennessy asked graduates to turn to the stands and acknowledge their loved ones for their support.

John Etchemendy rising from his seat on stage as he is honored

Provost John Etchemendy, right, stands to receive a round of applause after he is given a warm tribute by President John Hennessy. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Each year during his tenure, Hennessy has used the latter portion of his Commencement remarks to champion the work of a historical figure. In the past he has singled out the legacies of such alumni as U.S. President Herbert Hoover, the late university trustee and U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Pamela Ann Rymer and Peter Bing, a Stanford benefactor and former trustee. This year, his surprise remarks were dedicated to Provost John Etchemendy, PhD ’82, whom he lauded for his work and achievements on behalf of the university. Hennessy outlined how Etchemendy had protected the best interests of students and the university after the 2008 financial crisis and the ways in which he had built the faculty and boosted academic programs.

For his part, Etchemendy described Commencement as a “graduation” of sorts for Hennessy, and the crowd rose to applaud the outgoing president.

Degrees at a glance

At Commencement, the university conferred 1,775 bachelor’s degrees, 2,357 master’s degrees and 1,056 doctoral degrees.

A full recording of the Commencement webcast is available on YouTube.