Arts “indispensable” to education says Lithgow

Award-winning actor John Lithgow continued the STEAM dialog on Jan. 30 as he spoke to a crowd of nearly 500 at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts during the Palm Beach State College Foundation’s STEAM luncheon.

During his speech, Lithgow acknowledged that test prep along with science, technology, engineering and math subjects have come to dominate conversations and the educational diet of young people. However, without incorporating the arts, he says, a student’s life is “tragically incomplete.”

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Lithgow poses with Palm Beach State Student Trustee Keneisha Dale

“It is absolutely essential in my mind that children be provided with their minimum daily allowance of this key source of nourishment and enrichment,” said Lithgow. “These vast areas of knowledge belong in the school curriculum.”

Palm Beach State’s STEAM initiative was launched in early 2013 to impact the projected shortage of local, skilled professionals in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) fields. The goal of the initiative is to prepare students for the high-paying, high-demand positions immediately available in these industries.

Lithgow, who titled his speech, “Why I Love to Teach Children,” spoke of the amazing gift it has been to see how humanities and the arts can shape a child’s development.

“At my kids’ concerts, I would watch the children from the stage. I see them shriek with surprise and scream with laughter. It’s a delight. But the best moments are when they fall silent and listen with rapt attention to every word of a song or every syllable of a complex rhyming song. At such moments, their wide open faces are the faces of children trying to absorb, understand and master new information. They are ready to learn. Those faces are all I need to convince me of a simple truth that the arts are an indispensable part of a child’s education.”

Lithgow began entertaining children when he himself was barely out of childhood. The third oldest of four siblings, he became a go-to babysitter for his younger sister, Sarah Jane, who was 10 years younger.

“Out of necessity, I became an expert at entertaining a child,” said Lithgow. “I loved this role. I kept her engaged and amused for hours on end. I read her stories and poems and devised endless games. Nothing delighted me more than the sight of her earnest concentration or the sound of her peals of laughter. On any given day, it was a tossup of which of us were having more fun.”

Later on, Lithgow would transfer all of these activity-based amusements to his own children, while also enjoying a successful acting career. After gaining notoriety from his role as Dick Solomon on the hit TV show “3rd Rock from the Sun,” Lithgow was able to ramp up his activities for children.

“Because of the clout of TV celebrity, people tended to say yes to anything I wanted to try,” said Lithgow.

This led him to Carnegie Hall, where he would put on his first children’s concert. Soon after, he found himself appearing with major orchestras all over the country. The concerts spawned CDs and best-selling picture books.

“I was becoming a minor celebrity among the little children as well,” said Lithgow. “But if the scale of these loopy escapades grew exponentially, their spirit always remained the same. I never lost the sense of goofy fun I had discovered years before entertaining my little sister.”

Lithgow reminded the audience of the responsibility of society to make sure children are learning even at a very young age. This, he says, will in turn make countries, nations and the world a much more interesting and better place.

“It is our job to provide emotional exercises, to jostle, surprise, unsettle, enliven—even disturb. For an enlivened mind is an open mind and an open mind is a keenly educable mind.”

As his final gesture, Lithgow asked the audience to pretend that they were once again four or five years old, while he performed a skit from his new book “Never Play Music Right Next to the Zoo.”

For more information on the STEAM initiative, visit

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