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Thursday, May 28, 2015

The 'greatest' manmade machine


“You have no choice, you've been called up, and it is your difficult, but great and challenging responsibility to help change things and set us right again.   Let me apologize in advance to you. We broke it, but you've got to fix it.” – Ken Burns (in a commencement speech to the 2015 graduating class at Washington University in St. Louis)

Ken Burns has created wonderful documentary and historical films, including of course The Civil War and The Roosevelts. Now, add speechwriter and deliverer to that resume’ as he gave perhaps one of the best graduation speeches of this year’s cycle.  The 20-minute speech was riveting and, I think, will long be remembered and quoted. 

And, while it is great throughout, as a writer I was especially taken with his closing remarks.  These, he said, were his final instructions to the class: 

“Read. The book is still the greatest manmade machine of all – not the car, not the TV, not the computer or the smartphone...

“Do not allow our social media to segregate us into ever smaller tribes and clans, fiercely and sometimes appropriately loyal to our group, but also capable of metastasizing into profound distrust of the other...

“Convince your government that the real threat, as Lincoln knew, comes from within. Governments always forget that, too. Do not let your government outsource honesty, transparency or candor. Do not let your government outsource democracy...

“Insist that we support science and the arts, especially the arts. They have nothing to do with the actual defense of the country – they just make the country worth defending.”

 
Ken Burns


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