‘Star Trek’ and ‘Reading Rainbow’ star LeVar Burton speaks in Graham Chapel
Actor, producer and education advocate LeVar Burton spoke to a full Graham Chapel on reading and education Thursday night.
Burton, who starred in the television series “Roots” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” is best known as the host and executive producer of “Reading Rainbow,” a children’s program that focused on literacy through storytelling. The PBS television show, cancelled in 2006, was recently re-launched as an app. In 2014, the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter became the most successful Kickstarter project in history, raising $5,408,916 to improve access to the app.
Burton spoke about the significance of each of his major television roles as well as the importance of literacy and education in America, focusing on the value of storytelling throughout his life. Burton appeared as a part of the Student Union Speaker Series and was brought to campus by the Association of Black Students.
To begin, Burton recalled the emphasis that his mother placed on her children’s education to level the playing between them and other children, and how her views shaped his own.
“My mother was a single parent, raised three children, put us all through private school education,” Burton said. “My mother believed that I would definitely—as a black male—grow up to inherit a world that would oftentimes be hostile to my presence because of the color of my skin. My mother wanted to make sure that I would be able to compete on the level of what I call my ‘melanin-challenged’ classmates.”
He recalled his time on “Star Trek” and discussed the importance of science fiction as well, noting the occurrences of “Star Trek” gadgets that really exist in modern day life, like the flip phone or Bluetooth devices.
“Science fiction literature for me invites me to contemplate what I believe are two of the most potent words in combination in language: ‘what if.’ By inviting us to contemplate the ‘what if,’ science fiction has been responsible for spurring us to really reshape the world which we live in,” Burton said. “When the imagination is inspired, spurred on by quality literature that asks the right questions—that probes you in the right manner—the miraculous becomes the mundane.”
Burton continued on to discuss the success of “Reading Rainbow” as a television show, and now as an app, that tells stories to children to keep them interested in reading.
“I believe that we have a tremendous opportunity to use storytelling to really fix the process of educating our children,” Burton said.
He stressed that the government needs to invest in education as well.
“We need the institutional will to do it. So far we have focused it on spending, in my opinion, way too much money on war and we have sacrificed the children in the process,” Burton said.
He noted that reading was an important life skill, and throughout his time with “Reading Rainbow” and beyond, he has stressed the significance of literacy.
“When you pick up a book, you travel anywhere in the universe in your imagination. Take a look, it’s in a book,” Burton said. “The world is a place of infinite variety, and you only have to be exposed to enough before you find that which resonates with you.”
He offered those in attendance advice about living life based on his own experiences as someone who once was studying to become a Catholic priest before leaving to take another very different path. He compared moving through life to walking.
“In life, it’s not always important to know what the next step is. The next step will always reveal itself if you focus on the step that is in front of you, the next step will be there. Trust it. Trust yourself, trust the process,” Burton said.
The audience seemed excited for Burton’s speech, applauding for nearly a full minute when he was introduced. After the event, students said they were pleased by the talk.
Junior Lisa Moya was glad to have attended, noting that she will likely use Burton’s programs in her future career.
“I came here because I am an elementary education major and ‘Reading Rainbow’ was a major part of how I fell in love with reading. The idea of hearing one of the people who inspired my love for books and also who is shaping the way that education is changing for the future was too good to pass up on,” Moya said.
Anton Gradisek, a visiting Fulbright Scholar in the department of physics, came because he was a fan of Burton’s other shows, but still felt the impact of Burton’s positivity.
“I am from Europe, so I haven’t encountered ‘Reading Rainbow’ as a child, but I have been a ‘Star Trek’ fan, so it was a great opportunity to meet a person who actually worked there. Otherwise, I found the whole presentation very inspiring. Also focusing on the importance of education in different levels and reminded me to keep optimistic,” Gradisek said.
In closing, Burton was happy to note the incredible impact his television work has had on multiple generations, especially “Reading Rainbow.”
“There are several things that make me giddy. Among them, the idea, that you here at Wash. U. will go out there and go on to inherit a world that will sometimes be hostile to your presence simply because of the color of your skin, your gender, your ethnicity, your religion, a myriad of reasons, and yet, you will go on,” Burton said. “You are being prepared for the adventure of a lifetime, and I for one am incredibly proud to have played a small part in that.”