Mister Rogers’s blueprint for Joe Biden
Last year, during the dueling town halls that followed the most acrimonious and bitter presidential debate in recent campaign history, Republican strategist Mercedes Schlapp tweeted a curious comparison:
“[Feels] like I am watching an episode of Mister Rodgers [sic] Neighborhood,” she wrote of then-candidate Biden’s event. Not meant as a compliment, the tweet went viral, with the internet swiftly rejecting Schlapp’s take and turning it into a meme. Within days, Saturday Night Live featured a cardigan-clad Biden, portrayed by Jim Carrey, singing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Even the real Biden joined in, publicizing a call with Rogers’ widow, Joanne, and noting that “we could all learn a thing or two from her and her husband’s example.”
Biden was right. As he approaches his 100th day in office touting a $4 trillion infrastructure plan — one designed to “win the future” by confronting climate change and structural racism, accelerating innovation, and more — it’s essential that he follows the lead of America’s favorite neighbor.
That’s going to take more than simply being nice. Despite his recent re-casting as a secular saint of kindness, there was more to Fred Rogers than compassion and cardigans (though of course he had plenty of both). He was also a radical educator and artist who helped whole generations discover what delights them, what challenges them, and what moves them. He constructed a world where no matter what their backgrounds and dreams, every child found caring adults to help guide them toward self-discovery. No wonder so many people took Schlapp’s tweet personally: For many of us, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” helped shape who we are today.
The TV program’s work required a carefully engineered infrastructure — one for which Rogers left us his blueprints. As we detail in our just-published book, “When You Wonder, You’re Learning: Mister Rogers’ Enduring Lessons for Raising Creative, Curious, Caring Kids,” Rogers enlisted the top psychologists, child development experts and pediatricians of his day to help him design the Neighborhood. The educators he recruited were classroom teachers, artists, business owners, athletes and the ensemble cast of everyday life, bringing viewers a daily pipeline of mentors, career paths and different ways of living and being.
Rogers sometimes called this a “smorgasbord”: On Monday, viewers might visit a factory to learn how people make crayons. Tuesday might take them to an art museum or an aquarium. Each week was a feast of guests and documentaries and field trips, all of which showed viewers what the world could offer — and helped kids feel that they, too, could be part of it.
The Neighborhood provided the kind of learning that every parent wants for their child and that every teacher longs to offer. That’s why as Biden calls for once-in-a-generation investments in America’s infrastructure, it’s essential that he considers — and supports — not only schools, but also the broader “learning ecosystems” that support the nation’s kids.
Nearly every community boasts its own unique collection of schools, museums, parks, after-school programs, small businesses, libraries and all the other places where young people learn. By investing in the infrastructure that connects these ecosystems, Biden can do what Rogers did: bring the resources and wisdom of entire communities to bear on children’s learning.
It’s an idea that’s gaining traction around the world. “Fewer young people today experience the empowerment of education through conventional schooling alone,” notes a report by the World Innovation Summit for Education. “But when they engage with a broader community, charged with the power of social interaction in the connected world, learners of all ages, temperaments, and aptitudes can seize greater opportunities that better meet their needs.”
Perhaps it’s fitting that the most acclaimed example of this kind of ecosystem can be found right here in Rogers’ backyard. For nearly 15 years, a network of more than 600 schools, museums, libraries, art studios and others — including plenty of educators and scientists who worked with Rogers himself — has built a modern-day Neighborhood that spans the Pittsburgh region. Called Remake Learning, the network brings together the people and places that help young people learn. On any given day, kids in Pittsburgh, where Rogers lived and his show was produced, might produce podcasts in a children’s museum or learn beat-making in a library. Kids interested in technology might join an all-girls robotics team; kids interested in activism might testify before lawmakers and help to pass a bill. The list of partnerships and possibilities goes on and on, and as Remake Learning’s ecosystem grows, so does the number of young people prepared — as Biden might put it — to win the future.
Remake Learning is taking the Neighborhood on the road. From late April through late May, Remake Learning Days Across America takes root in 17 cities and regions from coast to coast, giving hundreds of thousands of families an up-close look at what learning ecosystems can do. A multi-day affair comprising hundreds of virtual and in-person events, the festival will find families in San Diego exploring everything from the colors of the cosmos to issues in bioethics. In Kansas City, Mo., they’ll learn to make composters that keep carbon from warming the planet. In the nation’s capital, they’ll combine activism with art; in Chattanooga, Tenn., they’ll explore what it takes to be young revolutionaries.
In every case and in every community, kids and families will find what they found in the Neighborhood: a taste of the world’s smorgasbord, a caring adult to support them, and a sense of the endless potential inherent to each human being.
If President Biden wants to build the country that so many of us believe America can be, then it’s time to treat these learning ecosystems like the critical infrastructure they are. We can, indeed, learn a thing or two from Fred Rogers’s example. It’s time to take up his blueprints, roll up our sleeves and make the Neighborhood real for every American kid.
Gregg Behr is executive director of The Grable Foundation and founder of Remake Learning. Ryan Rydzewski is an award-winning science and education reporter on the Grable staff who also does freelance writing. They are the co-authors of “When You Wonder, You’re Learning: Mister Rogers’ Enduring Lessons for Raising Creative, Curious, Caring Kids.”