Commentary

What’s So Bad About Ken Burns?

October 03, 2017

Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Ken Burns speaks at the Summer 2017 Television Critics Association Press Tour, in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Historians aren’t very happy with Ken Burns. He’s a simplifier; we complicate. He makes myths; we bust them. And he celebrates the nation, while we critique it.

That’s the party line, anyway, among my fellow academics. And while I agree with some of their attacks on the recently concluded TV series about the Vietnam War that Burns co-created and co-edited with Lynn Novick, there’s something else at work here.

It’s called sour grapes. Put simply, Burns has managed to engage a huge public audience. And that makes him suspect among members of our guild, who write almost entirely for each other.

We pretend we don’t envy his fame and fortune, but of course we do. We’re like high-school kids who don’t get asked to the prom, then say they never wanted to go in the first place.

That’s the only way to understand the dismissive, vituperative tone of our profession’s reaction to Burns’s and Novick's series. Several scholars praised Burns for including multiple voices — especially Vietnamese ones — in his interviews. But most historians in the blogosphere took him to task for distorting the conflict, especially with regard to his quest for a shared national narrative that can bind Americans together.

We pretend we don't envy his fame and fortune, but of course we do.
That’s been Burns’s key theme since his blockbuster 1990 series on the Civil War. And yes, it can lead him astray. As many historians observed, his Civil War series seriously underplayed the ways that the postwar "reconciliation" reinforced white supremacy.

It also portrayed the nation’s most cataclysmic war as a kind of tragic mistake, which wiser minds could have avoided. And we see the same flaw in his portrayal of the Vietnam War, "begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings," the narrator declares.

That probably wouldn’t pass muster around a university seminar table, given what we know about the lies that led up to the war. So what? Surely, these documentaries have engaged millions of Americans in dialogues about their past. And isn’t that what history is supposed to do?

A century ago, when the modern historical profession was born, its leading lights assumed that informing the broad public was central to their job. Charles Beard, Carl Becker, and James Harvey Robinson all wrote monographs and textbooks that sold hundreds of thousands of copies. "Research will be of little import except in so far as it is translated into common knowledge," Becker told the American Historical Association in his 1931 presidential address. "The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world."

After World War II, academic historians wrote popular books that punctured America’s Cold War facade of righteousness and invincibility. In The American Political Tradition, which sold a million copies, Richard Hofstadter argued that the Founding Fathers feared democracy, that Abraham Lincoln was a crude opportunist, and that Theodore Roosevelt coddled big business.

The civil-rights and feminist movements brought women and scholars of color into the historical profession, which started to examine previously neglected topics like slavery, immigration, and family life. This "people’s history" provided us with much more layered, sophisticated portraits of the past than earlier interpretations, which had focused mainly upon white men.

But what if you gave a people’s history party, and nobody came? Although they added immeasurably to our understanding of America, the new accounts lacked the strong narrative arc that would attract popular audiences. For the most part, then, people’s histories were read by small handfuls of specialists rather than by everyday people.

That ceded the popular turf to amateurs like David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin, who continue to sell millions of books. And it opened up a space for Ken Burns, of course, whose documentaries tell compelling stories about the making and meaning of America.

It’s almost too easy to take potshots at this romantic, highly stylized version of the national past. It’s much harder to substitute a better one, especially when you have been trained to write for a tiny group of fellow experts.

"I believe you have failed and lost touch absolutely in the communication of history to the public and that it has fallen to the amateur historians, if you will, to try to rescue that history," Ken Burns told the Journal of American History — the flagship publication in our field — in 1994. "I would hope that the academy could change course and join a swelling chorus of interest in history for everyone."

That never happened. To be sure, a small number of academic historians — think Eric Foner, or Jill Lepore — have published books that attract wide readerships. And many others have entered the public sphere via blogs and social media, as the reaction to the Vietnam series illustrates.

At almost every institution, however, historians are still evaluated and promoted based on their peer-reviewed scholarship rather than by their public engagement. If anything, writing for lay audiences counts against them. When I was a junior professor, a senior colleague advised me to stop publishing op-ed columns. They marked me as a glib and unserious scholar, she said, or even — gasp! — as a journalist.

Until our academic reward system changes, Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and their fellow popularizers will dominate the history that Americans actually consume. That makes historians jealous, and — even worse — it makes us irrelevant. Our research won’t matter until it becomes common knowledge. And the history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author, with Emily Robertson, of The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Correction (10/4/2017, 2:10 p.m.): An earlier version of this essay failed to include Lynn Novick’s role as a co-creator and co-editor of The Vietnam War. That has been corrected.