The 2018 Ambassador S. Davis Phillips '61 Family Lecture was held on Tuesday, February 20, at 7:30 p.m. in the Paul Mellon Arts Center and simulcast to Getz Auditorium. This year's guest speaker was American storyteller and filmmaker Ken Burns.
A graduate of Hampshire College, Ken Burns has been making documentary films with several of his Hampshire classmates for almost 40 years. Since the Academy Award nominated Brooklyn Bridge in 1981, Burns has gone on to direct and produce some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made, including The Civil War; Baseball; Jazz; The National Parks: America's Best Idea; The Roosevelts: An Intimate History; Jackie Robinson; and, most recently, The Vietnam War. The latter premiered on PBS last September, marking 1967 as the 50th anniversary of what historians, veterans, and journalists recall as a pivotal year that changed both the direction of the war and America.
Burns discussed his work as a documentarian, the ever-evolving nature of truth, and how his documentaries continue to remain culturally relevant in the face of unchanging human nature. Interviewed by Ananya Karanam '18 and Elliot Sawyer-Kaplan '18, Burns spoke about the ways history does not so much repeat itself as rhyme, and illuminated the importance of being able to re-evaluate historical events. In examining facts, Burns spoke of encountering a tension of negative capability, "where a truth and its opposite are both true." Burns commented that his own work has been based on continuously asking the same questions, and always approaching the answers from different paths. He encouraged students to do the same.
Earlier in the afternoon, Burns' digital curator, Don MacKinnon '86 previewed a new iPad-exclusive app of Burns' best work for history and digital video classes. MacKinnon and Burns attended a student reception with Q&A in the Sally Hart Lodge & Alumni Center followed by a dinner with Head of School Alex Curtis, Dr. Beth Fecko-Curtis, members of the History, Philosophy, Religion, and Social Sciences department, and invited guests of honor, Ambassador Phillips and his daughter Lucy Phillips Yared '01.