These remarks are excerpted from the first meeting of the American Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, held in Chicago on June 10–11, 2011. To read more about that meeting, see page 7 in this issue.
Earlier this week I received a briefing book in the mail from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. You have seen this book. It was the same one that was sent to each of you–hefty, intimidating, and grimly bound in black. If I needed any further evidence of the high seriousness of our charge, this was it. Inserted among its weighty essays and articles was a schedule for our twoday meeting. Halfway through this schedule was tonight’s agenda item: “Dinner: Reflections. John Lithgow.” I swallowed hard. Reflections? John Lithgow?!
Ladies and Gentlemen, you are the most distinguished group of American thinkers, scholars, writers, and leaders I have ever addressed. Among you sit the presidents of great universities, the directors of great museums, wise policy-makers, sage judges, and professors whose heads are so crammed with great thoughts that you can barely stand upright. I am a shambling actor! I parrot other people’s words for a living! Mine is the only name on the Commission’s roster that dilutes and compromises its lofty mission. In your midst, I tremble like a serf invited into the manor house on Christmas Eve. The Reflections of John Lithgow? My reflections carry about as much weight in your company as a mayfly buzzing at the window of one of your meeting rooms.
But maybe not. Of the forty-five men and women on this Commission, four of us are from the world of the creative arts: a filmmaker, a singer-songwriter, the foresaid shambling actor, and arguably the greatest cello player in the world. Throw in the poet Dana Gioia and Ken Burns, who has elevated the historical documentary to the level of a fine art, and you have six. There must be a reason for inviting us artists to the party, beyond making droll after-dinner remarks and signing the odd autograph for your grandkids back home. All of us in this renegade “gang of six” deal in the currency of human emotion, of the ineffable, the irrational, the poetic. Perhaps we are here to add a measure of recklessness to the proceedings, to lubricate the machinery of communication, to counterbalance the intellectual and the political with the emotional and the visceral. On reflection, maybe we are here for . . . well, for our reflections.
Permit me then to embrace the role I have been assigned. Let me put one thought into play, which has its roots in the artistic process. Over the course of this weekend’s meetings (and indeed over the next several months of our deliberations), I suggest that from time to time you think like an actor. This involves making an imaginative and empathetic leap. It means playing a role. It requires you to put yourself into the character and inside the mind of another human being. This is less difficult than you may think, because the character I am asking each of you to inhabit is actually you yourself, when you were a young boy or a young girl.
And why do I suggest such a thing? We have been asked to examine the state of the humanities and the social sciences in our country at this historical moment, to evaluate their importance, and to make recommendations for the future. Of primary importance are the American system of education and the educational well-being of our vast student population at every age level–in primary and secondary schools, as undergraduates, graduate students, and young post-grads hurled into adulthood. All of the members of our Commission are products of American education, although our last formal schooling ended many years ago, in a very different era. American education has served this group extremely well. Let’s face it, we’re all pretty special. Each of us is a stunning success story. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be here. This is not boastfulness. It’s a fact. And we’re all entitled to a healthy measure of self-congratulation.
Another fact, of course, is a little more sobering: only a tiny percentage of the current student population of America will end up as well educated, as successful, or as lucky as we have been. Although things were not necessarily easy for us when we were growing up, for most students today they are much harder. But this should only strengthen our resolve. Our mission is to make sure that the largest number of young people, today and in the future, have the opportunity and the encouragement to fulfill their most ambitious dreams. As we examine current realities in American education, analyze its problems, and advocate for solutions, our own individual histories are perhaps our most useful points of reference. Ask yourself the question, “What was it in my educational background that set me on the path that, all these years later, has put me in the company of the remarkable people in this room?” And beyond that, “What can be done to provide the same degree of stimulation, excitement, and achievement for young people today?”
And here is where I urge you to think like an actor. Indulge in that hoary old Actors’ Studio exercise called “sense memory.” Keep asking questions of yourself. What were the eureka moments of discovery, creativity, and joy that created in you the habit of learning? What single event made you choose your life’s work? How old were you when that event took place? What teacher first truly inspired you? What sentence did he or she speak that has stayed with you ever since? Don’t be shy about sharing these sense memories with each other, even when you are discussing the thorniest, most complex issues before us. And then make one more imaginative leap. Try to see in your young self the state of mind of today’s schoolchildren.
I’ll start you off with a sense memory of my own. It’s a story more about the arts than the humanities, but I consider it apropos. When I was a kid I had no notion of being an actor. I wanted to be an artist. In a checkered childhood, I happened to spend my ninth and tenth grade years in Akron, Ohio, public schools. Typical of public schools in those days, art classes were a staple of every school curriculum. Their presence in the school day was completely taken for granted. But there was nothing typical about my art classes in Akron. They were fantastic. For two years, I was given the extraordinary luxury of starting every single school day with two elective periods of art. And such wonderful classes! I did drawings in charcoal and ink, paintings with watercolors and acrylics, woodcuts, linoleum prints, silk screens, ceramics and mosaics. Every morning I would eagerly anticipate those early hours of school. Without fail, art class would launch me into the rest of my day with a heady creative rush. As a result, school had an exhilarating magnetic pull for me. Those classes made me into an eager student for the remainder of every school day. An eager student and a happy one. True, I never became an artist. But the expressive energy of those art classes served as a kind of booster rocket to my entire educational career. When I consider my good fortune in those years, my heart goes out to the kids in so many of today’s public schools who must soldier on without the benefit of classes in art, music, theater, dance, or even manual arts. To me their young lives sound like academic drudgery, in the joyless iron grip of test prep.
Ah, yes, test prep. It’s not hard for you to perceive where my prejudices lie. But they are deeply rooted in my own experience and they will deeply color any opinion I may express in our upcoming conversations. I urge you to bring your experiences to bear, too, during our time together. Share your story. Speak your mind, but speak from your heart as well, and from your gut. Let’s make these proceedings into a creative, passionate, fun moment for all of us, in an effort to bring those same passions into the lives of this nation’s children.
John Lithgow, an actor, author, and recording artist, was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2010.