2004 Commencement Yale Class Day Speech, by Ken Burns

Ken Burns makes some excellent points in this speech, I’ve picked out some highlights – click here to see the entire text (in PDF).

Now more than ever we in the western world should heed speakers like this. Ken speaks of a United States that has inspired many over the years. It would be a pity to see the US become that which it hates, forgetting it’s history and what has made it a great nation.

Nothing could be more dangerous than this arrogant belief, brought on and amplified as it is by a complete lack of historical awareness among us, and further reinforced by a modern media, cloaked in democratic slogans, but dedicated to the most stultifying kind of consumer existence, convincing us to worship gods of commerce and money and selfish advancement above all else.

Now we are poised to fight that war again, and perhaps again and again, this time culturally, where the threat is fundamentalism wherever it raises its intolerant head. The casualties this time will be our sense of common heritage, our sense of humor, our sense of balance and cohesion. The ultimate stakes, though, are just as great as those Abraham Lincoln faced–the Union and very survival of our country.
* * * * *
So, I ask those of you graduating tomorrow, male or female, black or white or brown or yellow, young or old, straight or gay, to become soldiers in a new Union Army, an army dedicated to the preservation of this country’s great ideals, a vanguard against this new separatism and disunion, a vanguard against those who, in the name of our great democracy, have managed to diminish it.
* * * * *
So what do we make of all this? Let me speak directly to the graduating class. (Watch out, here comes the advice.)

As you pursue your goals in life, that is to say your future, pursue your past. Let it be your guide. Insist on having a past and then you will have a future.

Do not descend too deeply into specialism in your work. Educate all your parts. You will be healthier. Replace cynicism with its old-fashioned antidote, skepticism.

Don’t confuse success with excellence. The poet Robert Penn Warren, who taught here at Yale for many years, once told me that “careerism is death.”

Travel. Do not get stuck in one place. Visit Yellowstone or Yosemite or Appomattox, where our country really came together. Whatever you do, walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. Listen to jazz music, the only art form Americans have ever invented, and a painless way, Wynton Marsalis reminds us, “of understanding ourselves.”

Give up addictions. Try brushing your teeth tonight with the other hand. Try even remembering what I just asked you.

Insist on heroes. And be one.

Read. The book is still the greatest manmade machine of all — not the car, not the TV, not the computer, I promise.

Write: write letters. Keep journals. Besides your children, there is no surer way of achieving immortality. Remember, too, there is nothing more incredible than being a witness to history.

Serve your country. Insist that we fight the right wars. Convince your government that the real threat comes from within, as Lincoln said. Governments always forget that. Do not let your government outsource honesty, transparency, or candor. Do not let your government outsource democracy. Steel yourselves. Steel yourselves. Your generation will have to repair this damage. And it will not be easy.

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.

Do only, as Emerson suggests, whatever “inly rejoices.” Do not lose your enthusiasm. In its Greek etymology, the word enthusiasm means, “God in us.” Remember, most of all, that only love multiplies.
Ken Burns – Walpole, New Hampshire

From: 
Yale Office of Public Affairs