Monday, May 5, 2014

Addressing the Issue

Rebirth in Ken Burns's The Address

As a recent extra credit opportunity for my students, I encouraged them to watch and consider the most recent of Ken Burns PBS documentaries entitled The Address.  With me teaching a class on the Battle of Gettysburg and its innumerable legacies, the program was extremely timely in its debut and offered considerable food for thought.  In the film, focus is given to a group of students who attend the small Greenwood School in Putney, Vermont--an institution that aids young male students with learning needs and behavioral issues.  These pupils do not face mental challenges.  In fact, their IQs are superior to most public school students.  Their main obstacle is their difficulty in effectively expressing their words and talents.

To allow these students the opportunity to prove themselves in front of their parents and fellow classmates, the Greenwood School initiated an annual tradition in which these young men must learn, interpret, practice, and recite the Gettysburg Address.  Enter filmmaker Ken Burns, based out of neighboring New Hampshire.  In a documentary unlike any he has ever produced, Burns chronicles the transformation and edification of these students with subtlety and respect.  The immense personal challenges of these boys to memorize a two and a half minutes speech is contrasted in vignette form with the even greater dilemmas confronted by Abraham Lincoln and the nation in 1863.

In occasional snippets narrated by the students themselves, the audience is transported to the more traditional mode of Ken Burns storytelling featuring panning shots of black and white photos coupled with background sound effects.  For the vast majority of the film, however, we do not see the front line of combat.  We begin to see and comprehend the front lines of education in America.  As a result, we gain a new sense of profound appreciation for these students and their teachers alike.

In a narrative that rather brilliantly coincides with the universal definitions of the Gettysburg Address, the major theme apparent is the notion of rebirth.  By understanding and memorizing a 150 year old speech, these young adults prove something to themselves, redefining their world outlook amidst their transitions into adulthood.  Their adolescent perspectives are remade against the backdrop of the nation's greatest self-making speech.  In its embrace of all theses social and historical themes, the finale of the film makes for a highly emotional and thought-provoking moment.  (The equally moving end titles feature the trademark song "Ashokan Farewell" from Burns's 1990 film The Civil War.)

One of the most unique elements of this documentary is the promotional and educational campaign that coincides with it.  In a nationwide initiative entitled Learn the Address, all Americans--but especially educators and their classrooms--are encouraged to memorize and recite Lincoln's words.  To serve as models of inspiration, Burns acquired a wide assortment of impressive examples including presidents, comedian Stephen Colbert, and ESPN talking heads.  I find this a wonderfully engaging means of encouraging citizens to reflect upon words still so resonant to the world.

The Address is undoubtedly Ken Burns's most contemporary film in regard to current social commentary.  As the film states at the outset, the Greenwood School is a final refuge, a place of last resort for students and families who have tried all other learning options.  Many of the boys featured in the film openly discuss their inability to blend into public school settings because of constant harassment from their fellow schoolmates who neither understood or cared about their condition.  While I was watching The Address, I felt as if I was viewing the sequel to the equally dramatic documentary Bully--which chronicles the endemic bullying and oppression in America's schools.  As both that film and The Civil War reveal to us, there seem to be few limits to the extent of human cruelty.  In this sense, too, historical parallels serve as a means of recognizing and confronting dilemmas we face in the present--whether they be education or bullying.  Do not these factors fall within the long term scope of Lincoln's "unfinished work" as well?

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