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Ken Burns Wants You To Learn, And Recite, The Gettysburg Address

Group photo of Greenwood School students with Ken Burns.

Ken Burns’ new film "The Address" debuts Tuesday, April 15, on KLRN. I caught up with Burns to find out what the film was about. While his focus is often on huge subjects, "The Address" is, in a way, about a very small one. Across the Connecticut River from Burns’ New Hampshire home is the tiny Greenwood School in Putney, Vermont.

“It’s a boarding school for kids very young, 11 to 17, who suffer from learning differences like dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD, a whole alphabet soup of learning issues,” explained Burns.

Each year this little school has their students tackle their disability by doing this amazingly difficult thing:
“They’ve asked their kids to memorize, but most importantly, publicly recite in front of hundreds of people, the Gettysburg Address,” said Burns.

Lincoln’s address was delivered to consecrate a national graveyard at the site of the battle where nearly 8,000 died. Burns, while stuck in the edit suite, was struck by the beauty of the words and their odd power to tug at his American heartstrings. He had a revelation.

“Why not challenge the whole country to memorize the Gettysburg Address?” he said.

So he has asked us all to memorize what he calls some of the most beautiful words ever spoken. And he explained why in a way that only Burns would.

“We yearn for the kind of unum in the E pluribus unum and we live in a time when there’s too much pluribus,” he said.

I asked him if it's an old-fashioned civics lesson in a sense.

"Well I think it is. This is the most important speech, arguably, in American history" he said. "It’s Lincoln doubling down on the Declaration of Independence, kind of offering a 2.0 version to Thomas Jefferson’s 1.0, and it’s the operating system we Americans still use.”

He wants you to record your own version of the Gettysburg Address and upload it to his website, www.learntheaddress.org. All the living presidents have, along with Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow, Nancy Pelosi and Marco Rubio.

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii