"I see an opportunity to revolutionize the way we educate children in this world. If I have to bully every stakeholder in the marketplace into being a part of the effort to get it done; if I have to be the guy who knocks on the doors and embarrasses people in public and private in order to get them to sign on? So be it."
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday
Burton, of course, is the longtime host of the
The series, with its heartfelt embrace of bound, physical books and bricks-and-mortar libraries, seems at first quaint in this era of tablets in classrooms and preschoolers on e-readers. The acolytes, many now with kids of their own, have certainly changed.
But that's selling the show — and its host — short.
Burton remains a man with an audience: 1.8 million Twitter followers, guest spots on "
Burton, also known for playing Kunta Kinte in 1977's
"I'm the perfect ambassador for this revolution," he said. "I come by my passion honestly and I hold out my own life as an example of the power of literacy."
And he's approaching the role with a plan. In June, Burton and Wolfe acquired licensing rights to the "Rainbow" series, which they promptly made available on
"We're at a really interesting nexus at the intersection of education and technology," Burton said over coffee recently. (He was in Chicago to speak on the future of education during Chicago Ideas Week.) "I've been dealing with kids and media for a long time, and I see this time as an opportunity to revolutionize education."
How to do it? "Simple," he said: Put every lesson on a tablet and a tablet in every hand.
"We know that you can take any message, if it's well done with moving pictures and sound, and embed any content you like — math, science, social studies, language — on these tablet devices.
"A: They're mobile. B: They're so engaging," he continues. "With all the advantages technology offers us, coupled with the way human beings are predisposed to storytelling — every culture on the planet has a storytelling tradition — there's no barrier to entry for the student.
"That's my idea."
Burton is not unfamiliar with the economic and political hurdles standing between his idea and reality.
"As is generally the case, the most affluent school districts are able to afford the most technology," he admits. "We need to level the playing field. Boom. We need to rearrange our priorities. We need to get real."
Which is the opposite, of course, of simple. But it's impossible to sit across from Mr. "Reading Rainbow" himself and not think, "Hmm. Could we … possibly?"
"LeVar started an industry," said Michael Levine, executive director of the Sesame Workshop's Joan Ganz Cooney Center. "'Reading Rainbow' was a beautifully done, incredibly effective tool to get kids and parents thinking about reading. In terms of earning its status as an iconic property, a wholly unique but simple and elegant idea, it's unparalleled in public media."
It was also ahead of its time. Stories on a screen — before screens were the go-to medium for stories.
"Reading Rainbow sort of inspired all these other ways of digital storytelling," said Jack Martin, president of the Young Adult Library Services Association. "He was bringing books to the screen and teaching kids how to talk about books, and libraries how to talk about books, before other companies were doing it. It's actually pretty amazing."
Burton's idea doesn't include a nuts-and-bolts plan to get tablets into the hands of disadvantaged students, for example. But he is hoping that his high-profile lobbying will effect change — just as the original "Reading Rainbow" program did.
Part of that change, he says, is encouraging parents to embrace devices the way they embrace books. Burton has no nostalgia for a time when books were books and screens were screens. The intersection of the two, he said, is "a great thing."
"It's great on a number of levels," he said. "It's going to increase our responsibility quotient where our stewardship of our environmental resources is concerned; it's no longer sustainable to cut down trees to make books. And it's going to change the way we educate the children on our planet. Those are two good things."
And let's not forget, Wolfe said, that Burton is as much Lt. Commander La Forge as he is the guy behind "Reading Rainbow." "People see him as
"I understand the fear that by losing contact with books on the printed page, we're somehow surrendering some aspect of our humanity," said Burton. "But that's just not the case. The tools exist now, through technology and social media, for us to share our stories with one another. And if we're sharing our stories with one another, then that experience of 'the other' diminishes. Because if I know your story and you know my story, there is no 'other.' What we find in that exchange of narratives is that we're really pretty much the same — the same values, the same aspirations, the same wants, needs, desires for our families, for our loved ones. It collapses all of the illusions of separation."
"Stories were alive long before pages," Wolfe said. "Stories were theater. Stories were hieroglyphics. Stories were pictographs. It's the medium of the day that's the story, not the device."
Turn more of our education into stories, they argue, and marry them to devices, and voilà! Revolution.
"We have to care enough about the future of this country and the world to invest what's necessary," Burton said. "If we don't do it, then we're stupid. We are foolish."
Technology, he said, is the missing piece. "The medium is not the message," Burton said, echoing Wolfe. "The medium is the delivery system. The story is the message."
And Burton wants to remain the messenger.