Ken Burns on “doing history” with Jon Stewart

Ken Burns was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart last night, promoting his new history of World War II: The War, currently airing on PBS.  [See the interview, after a short ad, here.]

By digging through the archives, over a period of six years, Burns found footage that had never been seen before.  And it had been shot in colour.

The Second World War has been so draped bloodless… myth; you know, it’s the Jon Wayne War.  And when you see colour, it’s no longer at arm’s length.  It’s right there and it’s the worst war ever.  Not the “good” war.  It killed sixty million people.  And that’s what we were trying to do: to just tell the story from the bottom-up, with so-called “ordinary people” and what they experienced.

He speaks, in other words, about the value of archival work.

We went and found that footage and brought it alive, so all of a sudden this is an unmediated war.  It’s no longer something that’s safe.

He also makes some interesting comments on what it means to “do history.”

Every time you change a degree from that moment, every part of your perspective changes.  And that’s important.  But the most important thing is to endow the past with the same richness that we have.  Our arrogance is to think that because we survived we’re somehow smarter.

This might be a useful clip to show in introductory history courses….


About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.