5 role models and the lessons they continue to teach generations
We teamed up with researchers from Nesta and the Oxford Martin School to understand the top skills that every student will need to flourish in their careers — learning strategies, psychology, instructing, social perceptiveness, and sociology and anthropology. See how leaders throughout history have best exemplified these skills while making an impact on our lives through their actions, ideals, and messages — whether we knew it or not.
Learning Strategies: Fred Rogers
On May 9, 1969, during an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers asked black police officer, Officer Clemmons, to cool his feet in his wading pool. At first, Clemmons declined, saying he didn’t have a towel, but Rogers offered his. This small act broke the color barrier that existed at the time as racial tensions were rising. By sharing both the water and the towel, the men exposed the bigotry of not allowing black people access to pools and other establishments.
In 2018, Clemmons said, “It was a definite call to social action on Fred’s part. That was his way of speaking about race relations in America.” This small act is just one example of the messages of love, kindness, and acceptance that Rogers taught children (and adults), while at the same time sending a much larger message to the public via media. 1
Psychology: Dr. Joyce Brothers
During the 1960’s, sexual satisfaction and menopause were considered taboo subjects for television and radio, but Dr. Joyce Brothers knew they were front and center in women’s minds. As a result, she started her television show, where she gave out psychological advice on relationships, family, sexuality, and self-empowerment, while also answering audience questions.
Brothers created the “The Brothers System,” which stresses that if a woman is self-loving and takes care of her own needs, then she will be able to better care for her husband and family. She also encouraged equal relationships that allow for wives to ask their husbands for what they need to be personally satisfied in a marriage. 2
Instructing: Anne Sullivan
When Anne Sullivan was only 20 years old, she helped Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf, make associations between words and physical objects. Sullivan finger-spelled the word “water” on Keller’s hand as she ran water over her other hand. Keller made a major breakthrough, connecting the concept of sign language with the objects around her. With Sullivan’s help, Keller was able to learn almost 600 words, most of the multiplication tables, and how to read Braille in only a few months. 3
Social Perceptiveness: Nelson Mandela
During the 1950s Steve Bloom’s parents, who were anti-apartheid activists, knew Nelson Mandela. They told their son the story of the time Mandela saw a white woman stranded with her broken car in Johannesburg. He stopped and offered his help. After he was able to fix her car, she thanked him by offering a sixpence. He declined, saying he was just happy to help. She asked why a black man would help her if it wasn’t for the money. “Because you were stranded at the side of the road,” he replied. Mandela’s life as an anti-apartheid activist, politician and philanthropist was full of moments of kindness, humility, and courage like this one. 4
Sociology & Anthropology: Dr. Jane Goodall
While studying chimpanzees in Tanzania in 1960, Jane Goodall saw a large male chimpanzee take a twig, bend it, strip it of its leaves, stick it into the nest, and spoon termites into his mouth. This was the first time any creature, besides a human, was seen making and using a tool.
“It was hard for me to believe,” she recalls. “At that time, it was thought that humans, and only humans, used and made tools. I had been told from school onwards that the best definition of a human being was man the tool-maker — yet I had just watched a chimp tool-maker in action.”
As her work continued, Goodall found that chimpanzees (our nearest evolutionary cousins) also embraced, hugged, and kissed each other, as well as experienced adolescence, developed powerful mother-and-child bonds, and used political chicanery to get what they wanted. It is thanks to Goodall and her work that we now know the many similarities between humans and chimps and have much greater knowledge of chimpanzee behavior. 5
Contemporary role models
Today, people in various fields are exhibiting these same skills and making their own impact.
[Learn more about these skills and the modern people we can look to as examples.]
- Kettler, Sara. “Fred Rogers Took a Stand Against Racial Inequality When He Invited a Black Character to Join Him in a Pool,” Biography, May 24, 2019.
- Isaacs, Shalyn. “Joyce Brothers,”Feminist Voices, 2016.
- Biography.com Editors.“Anne Sullivan Biography,” Biography,April 12, 2019.
- Paramaguru, Kharunya. “5 Great Stories About Nelson Mandela’s Humility, Kindness and Courage,” Time, December 06, 2013.
- McKie, Robin. “Chimps with everything: Jane Goodall’s 50 years in the jungle,” The Guardian, June 26, 2010.