Washington (CNN) - What does President Barack Obama think George Lucas, Marilynne Robinson and Joan Didion all have in common?
Aside from the fact they’re among this year's recipients of the National Medal of Arts and Humanities, the president proclaimed Wednesday, “They are all teachers.”
Obama and 24 'teachers', also known as some of America's most influential artists and writers, gathered in Washington for the 2012 National Medal of Arts and the National Medal of Humanities Awards.
As Obama looked across the East Room of the White House, he described what he saw: "At first glance this is a pretty diverse group, we've got incredible singers and dancers, we have poets and producers, musicians, playwrights, scholars, they come from all across the country, all around the world and yet for all their differences today's honorees have one thing in common and that is they are teachers; whether they realize it or not. They have taught us about ourselves and our world."
Among the honorees, even the president seemed at times to be star struck.
"Frankly, this is just fun for me because I feel like I know you all because I've enjoyed your performances; your writings have fundamentally changed me. I think for the better,” he said.
The medals are given through the National Endowment for the Arts to "recognize extraordinary accomplishments of individuals engaged in the creation and production of the arts in the United States," according to the NEA website.
The medal recipients are more than just celebrities - their work will have a lasting impact on America, said Obama.
"We celebrate people like our honorees here today not just because of their talent but because they create something new,” Obama explained. “They create a new space and that becomes a lasting contribution to American life. Together the men and women with us today have helped us appreciate individual talent. But as I said earlier, they have also helped us to bridge our differences."
In his remarks, the president also gave the world a glimpse into what his childhood was like.
"They have also helped us…to recognize all the things we share as Americans, whether its arts or humanities, sports. Frank, I grew up reading Sports Illustrated. I think it was very good for me,” Obama said, referring to award honoree Frank Deford, the American sportswriter and novelist known for writing for Sports Illustrated for half a century.
George Lucas, the screenwriter and producer of the Star Wars films, also had Obama reminiscing about his youth.
"To make it look like those planes in space are actually flying like they are…I'm just saying, I remember when I first saw Star Wars. There's a whole generation that thinks special effects always looked like they do today. It used to be that you would see, like, a string on the little model space ships!"
Another medal recipient, Allen Toussaint, was lauded by the president for his contributions to enriching both music and the human condition.
"Somebody like Allen Toussaint is being honored here for his incredible contributions to the rhythm and blues and jazz music of his beloved New Orleans,” he said. “After his hometown was battered by Katrina and Allen was forced to evacuate, he did something even more important for his city, he went back and since then Allen has devoted his musical talent to lifting up and building up a city."
The full list of the 2012 National Arts Medals recipients are: Herb Alpert, Lin Arison, Joan Myers Brown, Renée Fleming, Ernest Gaines, Ellsworth Kelly, Tony Kushner, George Lucas, Elaine May, Laurie Olin, Allen Toussaint and The Washington Performing Arts Society.
The full list of 2012 National Humanities Medal recipients are: Edward L. Ayers, William G. Bowen, Jill Ker Conway, Natalie Zemon Davis, Frank Deford, Joan Didion, Robert Putnam, Marilynne Robinson, Kay Ryan, Robert B. Silvers, Anna Deavere Smith and Camilo José Vergara.
"Every one of them has helped us see beyond outward appearances and appreciate the significance of what's within and for that we are incredibly grateful," Obama said.