This winter term I have been teaching a class on the American Civil War. Today, my students, all seniors, videotaped themselves reciting the Gettysburg Address. We divided the speech into 11 parts so that they could each read a sentence. Fortunately, one of the students is a very talented “techie”; he’s worked as part of the technical crew at the NEO and is my go-to person when some part of my classroom technology doesn’t work. It took two or three attempts before we were happy with each of the student’s reading—now we need to edit the individual videos into a single, fluid reading of the address. I am looking forward to seeing the finished product.
We want to post it to a website that Ken Burns, the filmmaker, and past Loomis parent, has set up called Learn the Address in celebration of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s address at the commemoration of the cemetery at Gettysburg. Burns asked President Barack Obama—as well as former presidents George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton—to read the address along with many, many others. Civil War historians Eric Foner, whose text book on American History the students had used last year, and Harold Holzer, as well as comedian Stephen Colbert, actor Uma Thurman, journalists Wolf Blitzer and Nina Totenberg, and a host of others all participated with their own readings. One of my favorites is the reading by Louis C. K., who discusses the document with Jerry Seinfeld, who comments that the address “refocused the American ideal from the Constitution to the Declaration of Independence.” There is also a great mash-up version here. It is an inspired project—a wonderful thing, indeed, that prominent political, academic, and public figures would read the address with such heartfelt sincerity. As Seinfeld noted, the speech “changed America” and deserves to be revisited in this way.
School children throughout the United States used to learn the address by heart and surely it is one of the most eloquent statements in support of democratic republican government. At Loomis, we have a plaque with the address inscribed on it in the east stairwell of Founders Hall; students pass by it most days of their Loomis careers. In my class, we had already discussed the meaning of the address—how it had united the two main goals of the war: union and emancipation. We had talked about the language and the ideals. But speaking the words, concentrating on what they meant, thinking about cadence, added depth and nuance to our understanding.
I hope we can turn today’s video into a finished product to send to the Learn the Address website. Regardless though, reading it aloud as a class, with several takes as well as a few pauses as we adjusted the equipment, allowed us all to savor the words and to feel the sentiments expressed more deeply.