Higher Education Public Enemy #1: Ken Burns

Ken Burns has been making films for so long, it’s high time someone made a multi-part PBS historical documentary about Ken Burns. He has birthed an entire style, giving life to still photographs via slow zooming and panning. Apple’s iPhoto, iMovie, and Final Cut Pro applications now offer a “Ken Burns effect” for photos. In his films, the effect is perfected by haunting violin melodies, as well as actors reading doleful letters by or to the pictured individuals, typically describing bleak conditions and referencing archaic names like Eustice, Bethiah, and Zebediah.

The most famous Burns letter was from his masterpiece The Civil War, a nine-part series that first aired on PBS in 1990. Sullivan Ballou was a Rhode Island soldier who wrote his “very dear Sarah” from Camp Clark, Washington, predicting his own death just one week before perishing at the First Battle of Bull Run. The trope of pathos-laden Burns letters has become so well known that in the summer of 2018, when conspiracy theorist/raving loony Alex Jones announced that Democrats were preparing to launch a second civil war on July 4 to unseat President Trump, it gave rise to a social media phenomenon: #secondcivilwarletters. My favorites: “Dearest mother, After the Prius Infrantry’s batteries died we have sought shelter in Chipotle where morale is low, as we are forced to wait days for the avocados to ripen. There is word that they are coming for us with their gluten. Pray for me.” And “Our espresso machine is broken and our supply of Starbucks singles is running thin. Our avocado ration is cut in half and there’s a 10-minute wait for a charging port. Sherman was right: War Is Hell.”

For American higher education, the most important Ken Burns letter of recent years was one sent by the new President of his alma mater, Hampshire College, to all Hampshire students and alumni heralding Burns’ leadership of the college’s new capital campaign. This historical letter wasn’t from Zebediah (it’s from Ed Wingenbach), but it has as much nostalgia and pathos as any of Burns’ greatest hits.


Exactly one year ago, an earlier pathos-laden letter from an earlier President of Hampshire warned the world that “the challenges we’ve faced as an under-endowed institution” might keep the school from enrolling new students in the fall of 2019. “Tough financial trends facing institutions similar in size to Hampshire have materialized… and we’re not immune to them” the President wrote in explaining why the trustees had decided to search for “a strategic partnership.”

The uproar was immediate and included yet another letter in the New York Times from alumnus Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air. What Krakauer was into here, apparently, was dropping the names of other famous Hampshire alumni who “have been honored with Fulbright scholarships, Pulitzer and Hillman Prices; Peabodys, Grammys and Emmys, and at least four Oscars”: Lupita Nyong’o, Liev Schreiber, Jon Krakauer himself, and of course, Ken Burns. Krakauer noted that Hampshire’s financial issues may be a short-term problem, because “the oldest [alumni] are only 66 or 67 years old [and] haven’t started dying yet.” Lack of mortality aside, this letter had as much nostalgia as any Burns letter, reminiscing about classes that were “lively, challenging and intimate,” where “creative problem solving was emphasized” and “professors encouraged us to consider the big picture and the long view, and embrace risk as a life strategy.” “Whatever success I’ve had,” concluded Krakauer, “is rooted in those lessons.”

Panning back to Burns in a Washington Post profile, we find similar nostalgia. If he hadn’t gone to Hampshire, Burns told the journalist, “You and I wouldn’t be talking. You wouldn’t know who I am. I wouldn’t know who I am.” (He stopped short of saying he wouldn’t know who the journalist was.) Burns loved Hampshire’s film and photography course, and not unlike Sullivan Ballou charging the confederate line again and again, took it “over and over.” “I don’t recognize the skinny, scared 18-year-old who came into Hampshire in September 1971 and the person who came out,” said Burns, perhaps hinting that we might expect an emotional documentary about Hampshire with haunting 1970s arena rock anthems accompanying pans and zooms over photos of skinny young white men and women in bell bottoms.

Ken Burns is America’s King of Nostalgia. But his nostalgia for college represents a major roadblock to necessary change in American higher education. To be fair, it’s not just Ken Burns. Many of us – myself included (see Janet Napolitano’s displeasure at “the unnecessary stories about pranks [I] pulled as a Yale undergraduate”) – have a nostalgia “bump” for our bright college years. Researchers believe that the nostalgia bump “has biological and cognitive roots, reflecting the basic workings of autobiographical memory” i.e., “our power to encode lasting memories is strongest at this stage of life.” Whatever the reason, a nostalgia bump for the years after high school is incredibly common.

The nostalgia bump for one’s alma mater is higher education’s fundamental attribution error: attributing one’s successes to the traits of the specific college you attended rather than recognizing that young adulthood is transformational for everybody, and that if you’d spent those years at a different college (or perhaps a faster + cheaper alternative), you’d feel the same way.

This fundamental attribution error is at the core of higher education’s business model. In Hampshire’s case, it resulted in the resignation of the President two months after she wrote her ill-fated letter. (Unlike Sullivan Ballou, her letter didn’t predict her own demise, but it did lead directly to loss of her office due to a student sit-in – a nostalgia-producing event for participating students.) So despite the fact that Hampshire enrolled all of 13 new students last fall, and that total enrollment in the last year fell from 1,100 to about 750, Hampshire’s ultimate response was to announce Ken Burns’ leadership of a new $100M capital campaign to preserve the school. Although the original letter’s vision for a strategic partnership, perhaps with nearby UMass Amherst, could have provided an innovative template for hundreds of other struggling colleges, Hampshire is now off into the wild – or more accurately into thin air – on a fundraising odyssey.

Hampshire is a case of history repeating itself; the first occured closer to Civil War battlefields. In 2015, Sweet Briar College – a school in rural Virginia, far from all jobs outside the equestrian industry –announced its closure, only to be rescued by nostalgic alumni. Last year Sweet Briar had a total enrollment of 322 students and accepted 93% of applicants. Since its letter predicting its own demise, Sweet Briar managed to pry enough cash from alumni to raise its bond rating for the last three years, including $18.5M in 2019. Alumni continue to give millions of tax-deductible dollars to sustain institutions students are no longer interested in attending, preserving them like museum pieces that require annual charity drives to remain on display. Given the multiple crises facing American higher education, is this the best use of private and public resources?


There are so many letters in this saga, I can’t resist one more:

Dearest Bethiah,

I again take up the pen to write you a few lines. We are camped not far from where General Crow, General Daniels, and General Sorrell tell us the battle for the future of American higher education will occur. Although our tents are cold and wet, today we were surprised to learn that many of us are going hungry, at least according to surveys taken by Sarah Goldrick-Rab. At night we hear the boom of cannons from faculty who are more interested in delivering lectures on the canon than preparing students for good jobs. To perpetuate the current stalemate, we hear the enemy has conceived a new weapon called free college. We fear for the future.

I shall always be near you, Bethiah, always, always. And if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it’s not an authorized U.S. Department of Education student loan debt collection agency, but rather my spirit passing by.

Remember me to the USC women’s soccer coach. I still owe her a payment.

Your darling Zebediah

Hampshire, Sweet Briar, and hundreds of other colleges and universities require dramatic innovation in order to make sense for today’s students, particularly for first-generation and underrepresented minorities. Sadly, alumni nostalgia is keeping innovation at bay. Unlike Clayton Christensen, I don’t believe thousands of schools will close. But I’m certain that thousands of schools need to be transformed – including developing and deploying radically different pathways and credentials – in order to better serve and attract the students who desperately need the economic and social mobility promised by college. The sooner alumni recognize this, the sooner their alma mater will be on solid ground.

My Dearest Ken Burns,

Higher education’s future is being held hostage to its past. I know it’s especially hard for you, but enough with the nostalgia.