Howard Blumenthal ’74 explores the future by interviewing kids around the world.
By Kris Dreessen
Watch the Kids on Earth videos.
Howard Blumenthal ’74 created and produced the Peabody Award-winning PBS series, “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” to teach kids geography and problem-solving. The show combined a detective story, game show, comedy and musical numbers.
With his new online video project, “Kids on Earth,” he travels to cities, towns and rural villages all over the world to interview kids — mostly ages 9 to 14, some younger and older — to understand how quickly the world has changed for people born in the 21st century.
Blumenthal travels solo, relying upon new local friends and partners to arrange interviews at schools and community centers. During each half-hour interview, kids talk about what’s important to them: protecting the environment, family life, career plans, pets, friends, marine biology, equality and more. For example, in Paraguay, he interviewed lower-income children from a rural area who had learned to operate a peanut butter business as part of their school education. In São Paulo, he spoke with middle-class Buddhist children of Japanese descent. Blumenthal creates video segments from the interviews recorded in the United States, Bulgaria, Brazil, Kosovo, Uganda, Cambodia and other countries, then posts them online for free use by parents, kids and teachers. He hopes to post his 1,000th segment by the end of 2019.
Watching the videos, Blumenthal says, can help kids understand the world beyond their own community. He has learned just how technology has changed education, and the tremendous importance of family and community.
In Piran, Slovenia, Blumenthal met a 14-year-old who studied quantum physics so effectively by watching YouTube videos that he taught the subject to his classmates. Another student in Kampala, Uganda, researched how to properly run hospitals, with the hope of starting one in his country someday.
“I find a similar, deeper understanding, breadth of ideas and openness, everywhere,” says Blumenthal. “You can learn about anything on the internet, and kids are doing it on a massive scale, in a profound way. In the last 10 years, internet access has dramatically transformed kids’ abilities to become experts and create personalized learning that school cannot offer.”
According to a 2017 UNICEF report, about 50 percent of the world’s more than 2.4 billion kids are connected to the internet. This democratizes education and information across ethnic groups, location, income levels and ages, says Blumenthal.
“They are seeing the world outside, watching other kids build interesting lives for themselves. They learn from one another,” he says. “ If television was the window on the world, the internet provides the doorway you can walk right through — and they do.”
From what he’s discovered through his project, Blumenthal believes adults should spend less time fussing about children’s screen times and traditional school reform. “Adults are now raising the healthiest, wealthiest, most connected and most global humans in history,” says Blumenthal. “Schools and parents must refocus their energies on teaching social-emotional learning and community engagement.”
Blumenthal is also writing a book, “Kids on Earth in the 21st Century,” which will address these topics.
Blumenthal got his start writing for newspapers and magazines and producing television. Later, he served as CEO of Independence Media and as a senior executive for divisions of Hearst and Bertelsmann. He authored 25 books on topics about music, history, media, creativity and time travel, and is a Senior Scholar with the University of Pennsylvania. This fall, he will speak about his project for UNESCO in Sweden.
“Most kids know very little about other countries. I want to change that, one kid at a time. My hope is that kids around the world will develop a sense that everybody can be a friend,” says Blumenthal. “Once you become a friend, it is difficult to hate. And maybe that will make the world a safer place.”