LeVar Burton

LeVar Burton, founder of Reading Rainbow, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Saturday Oct. 13, 2012. (Abel Uribe, Chicago Tribune / October 11, 2012)

LeVar Burton speaks with the clarity and conviction of a man with an audience. His indignations are righteous. “I'm pissed at the current state of education in America. The fact that we've spent way too much money on war and not enough on our kids? That pisses me off.” His ideals are fully felt. “Literacy is a God-given, inalienable right. Every human being deserves clean air, water, shelter, safety, security, the opportunity to worship as one chooses without fear of persecution, and the right to read and write in at least one language. These are the staples of being human.” And his passion is infectious.

"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."

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Burton, of course, is the longtime host of the PBS series "Reading Rainbow," which aired from 1983 to 2009. He hosted all 155 episodes, often calling on such celebrities as Bill Cosby, James Earl Jones and Kermit the Frog to help him narrate books to youngsters and instill in them an early and lasting love of reading. The show picked up 26 Emmys, a Peabody Award and countless thousands of acolytes along the way.

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 "The O'Reilly Factor" and "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," face time with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. "He's a very vocal advocate who people look to on education," said film producer Mark Wolfe, who teamed with Burton to found RRKidz digital multimedia company. "Mister Rogers has passed away. Big Bird and Elmo — not so much as ambassadors. LeVar really has become that guy."

Burton, also known for playing Kunta Kinte in 1977's "Roots" and Lt. Commander La Forge in "Star Trek: The Next Generation," sees a new role for himself.

"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 iTunes and launched as an iPad app. It became the No. 1 children's educational app within 36 hours.

"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."