As many of you have already learned from the social networking and memeosphere, today is the birthday of Mr. Fred Rogers. He'd be 85 today, and the world lost him 10 years ago. Too soon.
The internets have gone a little Mr. Rogers-crazy, lately, with things like this article on cracked.com and before that, this music mix-up on YouTube. I think that's just wonderful. (You should check out both of those things, BTW, and even read the comments - Mr. Rogers has the power to turn even anonymous internet commenting into something good.)
I remember watching Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood when I was a child. Mostly, I did this when I was too young to remember many specifics about the experience. It's sort of burned into my emotional memory, such that it's an intensely evocative experience to watch one of the old episodes now.
I also remember when I stopped watching him. It started when there was a conflict between me and my older sister about what to watch on TV. I wanted to watch Mr. Rogers, she wanted to watch cartoons. I think the immediate result was that neither of us got to watch anything (because we weren't supposed to fight), but the more long-term result was that I stopped watching Mr. Rogers because big sister called him boring and stupid. If I recall, she also pointed out, with her excellent older-sibling worldly knowledge, that it was impossible for Mr. Rogers to really like me or be talking to me because it was a TV program. My mother told me that this was because Erin was older and had outgrown the program, and this only made matters worse. I had to be a grown-up, had to be at least as grown-up as her, so that was that.
It's so easy for cynicism to take hold, even in young children. Thankfully, my older sister and I have come back around to re-examining ours, but alas, the same is not true for many people.
People like the anchors at Fox News:
If you don't have the stomach to watch it, this is the infamous Fox News video wherein Mr. Rogers is called "evil" and blamed for the fact that, apparently, an entire generation of children - namely, those children younger than the newscasters, of course - were ruined by his telling them they were special and worthy just for being alive.
I'll briefly run down the obvious rebuttals:
- Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood was a popular TV show during the time when these newscasters were children, too, so the logic of the argument is faulty.
- The so-called "experts" cited in this newscast consist of one guy - notably without apparent psychology credentials - who wrote a bitter, rambly article for the Wall Street Journal, an article which, I might add, spends a rather inordinate amount of time demonstrating his point by discussing the need for children to call their adult role models by titles rather than first names (Um...guy? I think MISTER Rogers understands the merit of that idea).
- Try watching any random episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and see if you can miss one of the insanely common instances of him advocating learning, working hard, and practicing skills for a very long time in order to develop them. Just try.
- EVERY generation calls the younger generation "lazy," yet somehow, the world keeps on running.
- Repeatedly calling Mr. Rogers - Mr. Fred McFeely Freakin' Rogers - "evil" when the worst you can POSSIBLY mean is "misguided" is an obvious attempt to generate controversy, and the newscaster clearly doesn't actually believe it.
Now...let's get into the heart of the matter, and why none of that is important anyway.
Mr. Rogers Neighborhood wasn't Blue's Clues or Barney and Friends or even Sesame Street. He didn't do an "educational" program in the sense of those, the sort of (sometimes) almost desperate attempts to ram early grade school materials down kids' throats. He didn't do a show for yuppie moms trying to make their babies' brains grow. He talked about the joy in music rather than the genius-making powers of Mozart. When he explored learning, he trusted in children's natural curiosities and natural joy in learning and developing, and he knew that creative play was a big part of nature's way of accomplishing this in the developing human mind.
But that wasn't the point.
I know it may be hard for many in our competitive, capitalist and rugged individualist culture to understand, but there are more important things in the human experience than winning, being the best at something, "working hard" (i.e., working yourself into the ground) and showing others up. Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was a show that introduced children to the wonders of experiencing life and connecting to other people and, most of all, connecting to our emotional experiences, good and bad, and learning to manage them in healthy ways.
These things, these vital and vulnerable things, are the very things that go by the wayside in a culture fixated on the idea that everyone is born indebted and must prove their usefulness. When adults, emotionally starved after their own upbringing, view their own children, not as human beings, but as clay to be molded into tools to serve their own needs...a person like Mr. Rogers is the most dangerous of all subversives.
And yet, the great beauty, the great hope that he provides our world, is in how very few people see him that way. Fox News and company notwithstanding, it's very difficult to find anyone willing to say anything bad about the man, and those who do will quickly find themselves drowned out in a tidal wave of disapproval. What other subversive can you say that about?
I couldn't possibly fit everything I'd like to say about Fred Rogers and the lessons he taught in one post. So I'm going to do seven, one for each day of the week. Because I'm an analyst and anthropologist, that's the angle I'm going to take. I hope you'll join me.
Do remember, though, that my analysis is only a description of the thing in itself. At the end of the day, you can't write a formula for magic. Or make-believe.