For more than three decades, when a pet died or parents divorced or planes brought down buildings, America turned to a familiar face: Fred Rogers. As host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” he was there when the nation needed a neighbor — offering lessons, a song, or simply a few kind words to remind us that somebody cares. Whether working with watercolors or coping with assassination, millions of kids and families relied on Rogers for guidance.
Now, 50 years after its national debut, they’re relying on him again. It’s easy to see why: In a culture dominated by scandal and cynicism, who doesn’t crave Rogers’ gentle reassurance? In a world that measures worth in followers and likes, his core message — “I like you just the way you are” — is a tonic for 21st century self-doubt. We’re clearly ready for a trip back to the Neighborhood. Morgan Neville’s documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” comes out in June; a Rogers biography is due in September; and a Tom Hanks-led biopic starts filming this fall.
But it’s more than just nostalgia driving the Mister Rogers renaissance. Amid the barrage of apocalyptic headlines about our democracy and planet, his emphasis on raising creative, curious, caring kids has never felt more urgent.
His playbook for doing so — convening foremost experts in everything from psychology to childhood development to music to make his program inclusive, engaging and relevant — is perhaps his greatest achievement. Rogers and his team brought their collective knowledge to bear on a central problem: how to leverage technology and make it work for kids. Together, they created a television program that brought kids joy and helped them to thrive in uncertain times.
Not coincidentally, the renewed interest in Rogers comes as uncertain times return. As I write this in his real-life neighborhood of Pittsburgh, self-driving cars cruise the streets outside my office window. Throughout the city, tech startups and robotics firms set up shop where the steel mills once stood. We’re seeing, in stark relief, the remaking of America’s economy — and all its benefits and drawbacks.
It’s a story playing out across the country. As old industries fade, innovation reigns supreme, creating digital empires and unheard-of wealth for a privileged few. Though technologies create jobs, they often require different skills than the ones to which we’ve committed. Autonomous cars puts cab drivers out of work. Self-checkout kiosks send cashiers to the unemployment line. Inequality rises. And kids, having spent years memorizing facts and drilling for standardized tests, enter a workforce that values them less and less. As a result, writes author Henry F. De Sio Jr., “the biggest divide we face is not right vs. left or rich vs. poor; it’s the emerging divide between the few who have the skills to play the new game vs. the many who don’t.”
This problem will not solve itself. Soon, kids will be asked to take jobs that haven’t been anticipated yet; to collaborate and compete with machines; and to navigate dramatic societal shifts. The big, complex problems we’ll leave to them — climate change, global instability and a poisoned body politic — will require computational thinking and radical human empathy. They’ll need high-tech tools and STEM skills, but also the low-tech mindsets and emotional intelligence that Rogers worked to impart.
That’s why Pittsburgh took a page from his playbook — and written one of our own.
For more than a decade, Remake Learning — an internationally recognized network of more than 500 schools, libraries, museums, nonprofits and others — has worked to ensure all learners can access engaging, relevant and equitable learning experiences. Like Rogers and his team, our network convenes cross-discipline experts to make new tools and technologies work for kids. It’s common now to see students flying drones in classrooms, recording music in libraries, and engineering real solutions to community problems. Educators teach alongside gamers; learning scientists plan summer camps with museum curators; and hip-hop artists host poetry workshops with afterschool providers.
From May 17-25, Pittsburgh will host the third-annual Remake Learning Days — the world’s largest open house for the future of teaching and learning. Showcased in media from Forbes to the World Economic Forum, this festival’s events give families a free, firsthand look at everything from stop-motion animation to robotics to outdoor learning. Over the past two years, #RemakeDays has drawn more than 60,000 families, and this year’s festival has a decidedly international bent: The largest science fair in the world — the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair — will join cohorts of educators and donors from Next Generation Learning Challenges and the Education Funder Strategy Group.
We hope other towns and regions consider launching Remake Learning Days. Next year, Chicago, San Francisco, Chattanooga and Kentucky plan to do just that, and learning networks have popped up in North Carolina’s Research Triangle and in Fremont, California. As Rogers himself once wrote, “In every neighborhood, all across our country, there are good people insisting on a good start for the young, and doing something about it.”
As our work grows nationally, it’s our hope that every kid in America finds him or herself a little bit closer to the Neighborhood: a place where learners feel cared for and able to reach their potential, whether that means curing cancer, cleaning an ocean, or finding better ways to care for the sick, sidelined, lonely and poor.
Gregg Behr is executive director of The Grable Foundation, which focuses on improving the lives of children, and is co-chair of Remake Learning. Follow him on Twitter @GreggBehr.