Ken Burns talks Civil War, jazz, baseball at Kent State appearance

Drew Jones

American documentarian Ken Burns said in his Tuesday night speech in the Memorial Athletic and Convocation Center that his films seek to discover who humans are and how the past determines people’s futures.

“When they study American civilization 2,000 years from now — and 2,000 years is an awfully long time — Americans will be known for only three things: the constitution, baseball and jazz music,” Burns said.

Burns, who is known for his PBS documentaries, spoke to an estimated 2,700 people in the M.A.C. Center as part of Kent State’s Presidential Speaker Series.  

Burns, whose speech was titled “Sharing the American Experience,” said at a press conference before his speech that his address was covering all three of his major film works.

“It’s essentially looking at the trilogy of films that I spent 17 years of my life working on: ‘[The] Civil War,’ ‘Baseball’ and ‘Jazz,’” Burns said. “It’s essentially putting my arm around those three topics and those three experiences for me as a filmmaker and trying to offer up some larger sense about the democratic promise, the democratic challenges, the democratic ideas that are sort of present in all of those subjects. They are discrete, one would agree, but in some way, utterly and ultimately American.”

Burns’ speech won over the crowd as they gave him a standing ovation as he walked off the stage. Coleman Mahler, a senior English major and self-proclaimed Burns fan, was in attendance Tuesday night, and he was said he was impressed by the speech.

“I thought he was a really good speaker,” Mahler said. “I’ve seen most of those documentaries that he mentioned, but I liked how he worked everything together. When you bring up Abraham Lincoln, your speech will practically write itself.”

Burns concluded this year’s Presidential Speaker Series and also kicked off the 2014 Symposium on Democracy, with his speech acting as the keynote address. The symposium will run from April 22 to April 24, with multiple events occurring each day.

Contact Drew Jones at [email protected].