Last week, Gregg Behr, executive director of the Grable Foundation, delivered this inspiring commencement speech to West Virginia University. The topic? Following in the footsteps of Fred Rogers and revolutionizing learning.
Thank you, Dean Denzine, and good morning, Provost McConnell, administrators, faculty, and staff. And a special good morning to you – the graduates – and also to your families, friends, and loved ones. Welcome to this beautiful day.
It’s an honor to stand before you here in almost Heaven, West Virginia.
Eighty years ago, in a small mountain town not far from this one, there was a young boy named Freddie. For years, Freddie had been plagued by the things that make so many childhoods difficult—he was shy, he was overweight, he had trouble making friends and trouble keeping them. Freddie felt isolated. The adults in his life were nice enough, but they didn’t seem to notice how lonely Freddie was, especially on warm summer days when his asthma got so bad that it trapped him inside. From his window, Freddie would watch the other, happier kids playing catch or jumping rope or riding bikes. There was his neighborhood, just outside, just out of reach. He’d lived there all his life, but somehow it didn’t quite feel like the place he belonged.
Except when one particular person would come by: Freddie’s grandfather, Fred Brooks McFeely. McFeely recognized the longing in Freddie—that longing in all of us to be loved, to feel at home. And so McFeely always told his grandson the same thing: “Freddy, you make my day very special.” It was just a simple sentence—McFeely couldn’t fix Freddie’s asthma or keep the bullies at school at bay. But he saw a problem, and he felt the need to respond. That need—that drive to do something—had an immeasurable impact on Freddie.
It had an impact on me, too, and on millions of others, and probably on many of you. Because when little Freddy Rogers grew up to host his own television show, he made sure to spread that same tenderness. “You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you,” he’d say. “There’s no person in the whole world like you. And I like you just the way you are.”
Like a country road, Fred Rogers took his viewers home—to a place where every child belonged. That place, of course, was Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a revolutionary children’s program that took what was then a new technology called television and made it work for kids. Rogers brought together researchers, educators, and counselors just like you to create a show both grounded in the science of childhood development and unwavering in its message of love, respect, and self-esteem. “What if you were offered an hour of television live every day?” Rogers once asked. “Can you imagine what it’s like to try to fill that up with something of value? I wanted to give the best I could.”
Graduates, hours like these now fall to you to safeguard and enrich. Equipped with modern technologies that enable you to connect with children and youth in ways that Mister Rogers never imagined, what will you do? Especially amidst a world where hours are no longer bound by the constraints of an hour hand, and where kids learn anywhere, at any time, and at any pace. The question is, will you fill them up with something of value? Will you give the best you can? You’re no longer confined to the roads that have been laid before you. What will you do with this new power—the power to build entirely new country roads?
Maybe you’ll build one to Pittsburgh, where we’ve been trying to answer these questions for almost a decade. As the executive director of The Grable Foundation, a philanthropic foundation dedicated to improving the lives of children, I talk often with educators. Years ago, I realized I was hearing the same frustration again and again: teachers said they just weren’t connecting with kids the way they used to. To be sure, nothing about this was surprising; generations of adults have lamented about “kids today.” What was astonishing, however, was the seismic shift to which they were referring.
In a flash, the Digital Age had reached a tipping point; modern tools had become so pervasive and so transformative that kids were coming to school with entirely new frameworks for how to understand the world. They were pursuing knowledge differently, developing identities differently, and seeking affirmation differently. Their learning environments couldn’t keep up. So I started inviting all kinds of people—teachers, librarians, counselors, researchers, gamers, and engineers—to come together and talk about how to respond. Soon thereafter, we realized that, together, we had two major strengths: innovative learning pedagogies and the potential to prototype ideas rapidly. What might happen if we followed in Fred Rogers’ footsteps and blurred the boundaries between the two?