What is history for? And what should our relationship be to the past?

Bitter debates over critical race theory, “patriotic education” and the New York Times’s 1619 Project reduce history to a tool for either venerating America or condemning it. So, for a reminder of the more expansive power and pleasures of studying the past, I turned to documentarian Ken Burns, with whom I’ve been talking — and sometimes arguing — about history for years.

“There is a tendency, I’ve found,” Burns told me, “for people everywhere to try to fit history into a nice little box and [history] confounds it.”

For Burns, both historical inquiry and the American project are driven by an interest in new voices and an openness to fresh information. He sees those qualities as crucial to the search for truth and to the process of national self-improvement. I don’t always share Burns’s optimism that Americans can, or even want to, be guided by the better angels of our nature. But like him, I am concerned that curiosity and the national self-confidence required for reckoning with the past are endangered by rigid thinking that treats history as a political weapon.

For millions of Americans, Burns and his collaborators have served as trusted guides through subjects alternately entertaining and painful, from jazz music to Prohibition to the Vietnam War. His documentaries employ different historical methods and interpretations, which sometimes means irritating academic partisans of differing schools and lay audiences alike, as he did in “The Civil War.” That film prompted both venomous letters excoriating him for naming slavery as the root cause of the conflict and criticism for all the time he devoted to battles and biographies rather than larger social trends.

To Burns, the clash of ideas is the point, an opportunity to stage “an argument with the intention of working something out, not with the intention of just having an argument.”

Part of the key to Burns’s success has been a synthesis he offers between cheerful and pessimistic views of the United States. He believes in looking hard at the nation’s flaws because he believes one of the things that makes it great is its capacity to learn from the past and make progress, even if the country backslides along the way.

That attitude is what drives his opposition to laws attempting to regulate the way schools teach American history, including by banning critical race theory — previously a relatively esoteric academic discipline — and the curriculum based on the 1619 Project.

“Our children are way too smart” to be protected from history, Burns insists. “We don't really care about them if we think that they have to be fed pablum for their entire life.”

The dangers of such hypersensitivity about the past and its connections to the present aren’t just limited to children, he says.

“I think this is the greatest threat to our republic ever. Not the Depression, not World War II, not the Civil War. This is it,” Burns told me. “This moment of all these intersecting viruses, of novel coronaviruses and of racial injustice — [a] 402-year-old-virus. And it’s an age-old human virus of lying and misinformation and paranoia and conspiracy. This is the pill that will kill us unless we do something.”

As a counterexample, Burns points to South Carolina, where he’s helped raise money for the soon-to-open International African American Museum. That state is not immune from partisan debates about school curriculums. But at least some of the state, Burns says, “understands it has a rich and diverse history that isn’t just the old antebellum plantation bull----” and has been able to develop new kinds of tourism in response.

Talking to Burns is also a reminder that historical discovery can be delightful as well as sobering, hilarious as well as engaging. Our conversation turned to Theodore Roosevelt, who Burns sees as both the genius behind the expansion of the National Parks System and an enthusiastic eugenicist and warmonger.

Roosevelt may also be the U.S. president who’s most fun to read about. Edmund Morris’s three-volume biography captures Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge hollering at the president to come down from a tree, or Roosevelt demonstrating the best way to stab a wolf. But as Donald Trump’s tenure recently illustrated, being governed by a president who “is about 6,” as British diplomat Cecil Spring Rice once said of Roosevelt, can be more dangerous than amusing.

Rather than wrestling to resolve the contradictions embodied in America and great Americans into neat judgments, Burns suggests we use the failures of the past to inspire ourselves to greater consistency in the future.

“Since the very, very beginning of my work, I’ve always said I was interested in lifting up the rug of history and sweeping out the dirt, that the tapestry was in no way diminished by understanding the facts of it,” Burns says. “It’s not even dirt. It’s just true.”

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Filmmaker Ken Burns reflects on James Baldwin's understanding of liberty, and how our most venerated monuments can remind us of where America falls short. (The Washington Post)