It seems like every week there's a new article about the negative effects of Internet culture on American society. We're cautioned that the Internet is making us more isolated, more divided, and less empathetic; or that Twitter and Facebook are eroding our already limited collective attention span and capacity for sustained, nuanced discussion. Some have even questioned whether the Internet may ultimately spell the end of "deep reading."
Our latest American Experience project, News & Then, takes a more optimistic view: that digital media can be a powerful tool for connection and engagement, and can deepen our understanding of the world we live in and the historic struggles that have shaped it.
Every middle schooler who passed through Mr. Bement's eighth grade social studies class in Ellington, Connecticut learned two things. (Well, to be fair, we learned more than just two things. But these two really stuck.) The first, and more debatable of the two, was that Willie Nelson is a musical genius and the greatest country singer ever to grace the airwaves. The second, and more relevant to this conversation, was that the Gettysburg Address is one of the most powerful and important speeches ever delivered, and is worthy of learning top to bottom. So it was that scads of 13-year-olds in the small town where I grew up could recite Lincoln's famous words. Many of us still can today.
The challenge went out each year -- put your hands on a copy of the Address (which, pre-Google, likely meant photocopying it from the library's World Book Encyclopedia), learn each word, and recite it before the class.
In the interest of authenticity, I skipped the library and used a reproduction of the Address printed on parchment -- the sort an overeager student might pick up on a family vacation to Washington, DC. I dutifully studied the cursive words on the "aged" paper. I looked up what a "score" is and wondered why Lincoln couldn't just have said 87 years. I tried to figure out how you could consecrate ground. I mean, I had grown up Catholic so I knew the word consecrate. But I figured that word was reserved for church. I also looked up the word "hallow." Was that sort of like "hollow"? (No, as it turns out.) I repeated the 272 words in my head and aloud. To my parents and my sisters. And finally to the 20 pairs of adolescent eyes looking back at me in front of the classroom. Challenge completed. Lesson learned.
Twenty years (or should I say "one score") later, I find myself working for PBS's preeminent history series. And now I've thrown down the gauntlet, asking people from across the country to send videos of themselves reciting the Address. People responded with gusto.
See, as smart as Lincoln was, he made one major miscalculation. About halfway through his address, he humbly purported that "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." Boy was he wrong. And we have the videos to prove it.
But as wildly inaccurate as Lincoln's statement turned out to be, it's worth thinking about. Lincoln suspected that the Battle of Gettysburg would be indelibly imprinted on the hearts and minds of Americans. After all, how could a battle that left a staggering 51,000 men dead, wounded, captured, or missing recede into the shadows of our memory? How could the turning point of the deadliest war fought on American soil be forgotten? How could his words loom larger in history books than the battle that inspired them? Pondering those questions, it's easy to understand why Lincoln may have misjudged.
So now I put forth another challenge -- a challenge I feel would do Mr. Bement proud. Read the Gettysburg Address. Memorize it. But more importantly, learn what it means. Find out what happened on that battlefield in Pennsylvania. Understand what each side was fighting for, even if you disagree. What was so important to those 51,000 Union and Confederate soldiers, and the thousands more who got out unscathed, that they willingly put themselves in the line of fire? I remember Mr. Bement asking those questions. But it took me 20 years to realize that the answers were more important than the task at hand.
Calling all history buffs: We need your help this week -- and your videos! This month marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's delivery of the Gettysburg Address. Help us honor the occasion by sending us a video of you, your students, or your child reciting the Address. We need your videos by NEXT WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 13!! If your video is selected, it will be one of many featured on the American Experience website and social media sites.
Here's what we need:
-- Videos of individuals or groups reciting all or part of the Gettysburg Address. We'd love it if you have the whole Address memorized, but we know that's a tall order. So fee free to stop and start, or to send us a video of you reciting just part of it.
-- We expect most people will be filming on their smart phones -- that's great! Just be sure that you're in a quiet space where we can clearly hear the audio.
-- Videos should be shot HORIZONTALLY.
-- People on camera should be centered in the frame, fairly close up (from the chest up,) and looking at the camera.
-- Videos should be submitted as .mov files, if possible. (If you don't know what kind of file you have, send it to us anyway! We'll figure it out.)
Submit your video via email to email@example.com with the subject line Gettysburg Address. In the email, be sure to include your first and last name and the first and last names of anyone who appears in the video. Attach your .mov file to the email.
We can't wait to get your videos! Remember, the deadline is NEXT WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 13!
IMPORTANT! Terms and Conditions:
Note: American Experience is no longer accepting Gettysburg Address videos, but you can still submit your video to the Ken Burns "Learn the Address" project.
This fall American Experience is celebrating 25 years on the air. We have celebrated with a staff spirit week (we each dressed up as our favorite American Experience documentary) and we just finished a Best Film Ever bracket (winner: Abraham & Mary Lincoln, though so many people complained that their favorite was not included that we may just have to do another!)
To date, we have produced 287 documentaries, over 399 hours and 428 nights of original television programming. In this 3-minute video retrospective, our longtime editor has collected some of our best, most moving, and most controversial film moments.
Which is your favorite?
Over the past 25 years, American Experience has produced close to 300 films and nearly 400 hours of television. If you were to sit down in front of the television tonight and decided to watch one of our films each night, it would take you nearly a YEAR to consume our entire body of work (probably longer, because we have several five and six-part films)! Which one would you start with first? Which of our 287 films (and counting) do you tell your friends and family they MUST see first? We certainly couldn't choose, but somehow we whittled it down to a much more manageable 16, representing the different genres of films we've produced since 1988. Now YOU can help us determine which AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is the best by voting in our Best of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE bracket. Each round lasts four days, and by October 18, we will have a champion! Vote now!