‘Mister Rogers and Philosophy’, for the Children Now Grown

Mister Rogers and Philosophy considers reality, fantasy, and our philosophical role in both worlds of the long-running PBS children's program, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

Mister Rogers and Philosophy: Wondering Through the Neighborhood
Eric J. Mohr and Holly K. Mohr, eds.
Open Court
October 2019

That a Presbyterian Minister like Fred Rogers might find an audience for his children’s program on public television today, when gentle patience and a simple approach to early childhood education appear to be rare, seems sadly far-fetched. The PBS of early 1968 could have taken its cue from the comforting whimsy of the commercially syndicated Romper Room, where pre-school children were treated as potentially brilliant little rascals. But a prime time special episode dealing with the assassination of Robert Kennedy (only two months after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated) proved that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood would be much more than that. The means by which Fred Rogers and company helped children understand the uncertainty of the world — and their world — set the standard for the best of children’s television.

Rogers was a calm and measured presence with a definite agenda. He conducted himself as a man of God without proselytizing. He was progressively political about racial issues. Nearly three weeks after the last episode in August 2001, in the 33-year run of his groundbreaking program, Rogers returned to address the nation’s children (and those who’d grown up with him since 1968) about tragedy in the news (and in children’s lives).

The legacy of Rogers’ afterlife since his 2003 death has included various biographies and film projects. Consider director Morgan Neville’s 2018 documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Paramount to the film’s success was its ability and willingness to look deep into the motivations and inspirations of Rogers as an artist and crusader. Rather than mythologize and deify its long passed subject, the film placed his artistic choices and influential legacy into proper cultural and historical context. He quietly crusaded against racism, promoted imagination, and instilled in his viewers a sense of individual excellence.

Marielle Heller’s 2019 fictional film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, on the other hand, tried (and failed) to form a narrative based on a journalist’s relationship with Rogers formed during the writing of a cover story. The stylistic choices were strange but appropriate, shot and presented as if it were an episode of Rogers’ TV show. Unfortunately, Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Rogers came off more like a heavily medicated and aged Forrest Gump. As Rogers, Hanks was a minor supporting player in a story sold as a Rogers biopic.

Mister Rogers and Philosophy: Wondering Through the Neighborhood, co-edited by Eric J. and Holly K. Mohr, is another fine volume in the Open Court Books Philosophy series. Mixing pop culture landmarks like this TV show with textbook philosophical touchstones (Plato, Socrates, Aristotle through to Marx and others), the series aims to make links between its subjects accomplishments and understandable concepts in classic and modern philosophy. The success of a given volume understandably depends on the power of its subject, and the legacy of Fred Rogers is rich. The Mohrs have collected two dozen essays separated into five sections, each named for one of Rogers’ songs. Original viewers (like myself) will remember the role piano music and a soft jazz combo contributed to the way Rogers told his stories. His were songs about wonder, anger, pretending, friendships, solving problems, and everything in between.

Writer Jacob Graham sets the scene, in his opening essay “The Wonderful Feeling of Being Alive” when he notes the importance Plato put to wonder:

“It is important…that Plato calls wonder a feeling…a mood, a lens through which we may view ourselves and our world.”

We are reminded early in this essay that Rogers knew how to work with and manipulate time as he played his piano, like any competent jazz pianist. “His slow pace went hand-in-hand with silence… These basic elements of slowness and silence are necessary to explore, to think, to strive, to understand.” This reflection nicely transitions to Marlene Clark’s “Mesmeric Mister Rogers”. In this essay, she effectively argues that this quiet man “…somehow managed to exemplify a blend of magnetic attraction with a more benign form of hypnotic appeal, which he used to noble effect…” Perhaps we all need to be mesmerists in order to capture and maintain the attention of young children.

Of course it’s not enough to simply capture a viewer’s attention. What needs to happen in order to prove ourselves worthy of leading children by teaching deep ideas, and addressing difficult topics, as Rogers did? Nathan and Leilani Mueller’s “Wonder and Philosophy as a Way Home” looks at beauty, philosophy, and simple questions in the show. The Muellers elaborate on the “…three unique spaces that make up the neighborhood of philosophers…” They connect, in a strong way, with everything in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. There’s inner domesticity, the immediate area outside your home, and then the infinite neighborhood of make-believe, where all children have to do is hop on the trolley that starts in Mr. Rogers’ living room and take it to a land that thrives in their imaginations.

The idea of the Socratic inquiry is clearly illustrated in Ben Lukey and Steve “Chip” Bein’s “The Gently Socratic Inquiry of Fred Rogers”. Consider the way Lady Aberlin asked Daniel Striped Tiger, in the 1968 assassination special, if he’d been hearing the word “assassination”. They write:

“As the episode unfolds, it’s clear that Daniel isn’t just looking for comfort…he’s sincerely in search of deeper understanding. That’s our natural state: to wonder.”

Was Rogers a corrupter of youth? That accusation was slapped on Socrates, after all. There are some observers who see Rogers’ insistence that everybody is special and unique as the origins of “snowflakes”. Lukey and Bein write:

“We assume these critics prefer the kind of tough love that recognizes not everyone gets to be an astronaut when they grow up.”

What works best in this essay is that the writers note how Rogers was less an intellectual content provider to the study of philosophy than he was a persistent practitioner of the practice of philosophy. That’s the important difference. He seemed more focused on providing tools for children to understand the world, rather than simply supplying road maps.

Part II’s title,” What do you do with the mad that you feel?” opens with reflections about the Neighborhood. Sydney Ball and Eric J. Mohr’s “Another Day in the Neighborhood” works gently, sometimes from the voice of a child reflecting on the importance of balancing first-year college life and responsibilities:

“Immanuel Kant had a word for this. He called it ‘autonomy.’ …behavior should be guided by reason…doing what you should without needing to be told. Did I learn some of this from Mister Rogers so long ago? Who knew Kant and Mister Rogers were on the same wavelength?”

Nathaniel J. McDonald and Frank Scalambrino’s “Peace Through Emotional Development” goes deep into the weeds by connecting Rogers’ prioritizing the needs of a child with Montessori’s Planes of Development, themselves based on the works of Piaget. Montessori’s four levels of development were sensitive (ages 0-6), learning the knowledge to function in society (ages 6-12), adolescence (12-18), and the consolidation of identity and development (18-24.)

In his careful development of themes through the course of his program, Rogers consulted with leading psychologists and pediatricians of the time: Margaret McFarland, Benjamin Spock, T. Berry Brazleton, and the texts of Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, and Carl Rogers. Viewers were comforted by seeing Mister Rogers regularly start and end the program in the same way:

“…he directed the show with regard to their sensitivities and the work of their developmental planes…”

This essay nicely defends Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood against long-time accusations that the program was a cause (for some the sole cause) of an entire generation feeling entitled, unconditionally special. Rogers worked with child psychology theories of the time that may seem too permissive in these times, but the program cannot be the primary contributing factor to the way its first generation of viewers grew to inherit the world.

Part III, “By Pretending You Can Be Most Anything You Can Think About”, opens with David Boersema’s essay, “The Virtues of Art”. It’s one of the more direct and effective examinations of the role art played in the production of the program: “In using the affective nature of aesthetic experience, one of the components of Mister Rogers’ teaching was to emphasize that art is both product and process.” Throughout the program’s run, we saw art expressed and represented, communicated within the given community, changed and transformed for better or for worse. Children were encouraged to recognize the beauty of nature and work for it to thrive.

Daniel Leonard’s essay “Fred’s Felt Friends” examined the use of puppets as transitional objects. Observational learning came in three stages. A child identified a desired object. Then, that object was presented to viewers and other participating children as important. Finally, the child made sure the object provided assurance in times of stress and anxiety. Leonard writes about how the show’s structure helped with this learning process:

“Its measured pace and tight focus promote attention, its repetitive themes, songs, and segments bolster retention, and its direct suggestions to the viewer — ‘Maybe you could try this with your family’ and ‘Won’t you sing with me?’ — encourage initiation.”

Sara Lindey and Jason King’s “Puppets are People Too” builds on the ideas of disguise and control. Of the authoritarian leader King Friday, they write: “Rogers insists of a critique of absolute power while celebrating the loving and imperfect parent as he plays ruler of the Land of Make-Believe.”

Fernando Pagnoni Berns’ “Won’t You Be My Post-Human Neighbor?” works on the same wavelength of representation, and there are interesting ideas. Why were some humans in the Land of Make Believe related to puppets? How could the trolley that started in Fred’s living room and brought children to that imaginative land use language we couldn’t understand?

“In Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood nobody seemed to care if you’re human, an object, or an animal…you can be a good neighbor if you’re ready to let your human privileges drop…”

The ideas are clearly illustrated throughout most of this book’s contributions. Learning is not passive. Reality can be uncovered in the world of make-believe as it can be revealed in “known truth”. In Hoon J. Lee’s “Mister Rogers’ Pseudonyms”, we’re all safely disguised behind masks. Rogers will be all the puppets (Henrietta Pussycat, Daniel Striped Tiger, and others) and in doing so his viewers can embrace those varieties of personalities. The use of silence in the program is also paramount to understanding its success:

“Contemplation and response are encouraged by the gentle method of indirect communication. By remaining silent, enough room is made for a child to contemplate and respond.”

The Open Court books series work best when the subject of philosophical consideration is deep enough to explore in many variations through a fixed number of themes. Mister Rogers and Philosophy is a pleasure to read because its subject was a brave, challenging, and rare gift to the generations he entertained and educated. Read about the Dao of the Neighborhood (John M. Thompson’s “Lesson from Fred Rogers’ Dao”) and marvel at how fearlessly the man embraced the unexpected. The Neighborhood was political as well. Writer Christopher M. Innes notes, in “Won’t You Be My Comrade?”

“The magic of the Trolley and the charm of the puppets conspire to convince kids that they’ll have to accept a life of exploitation by the ruling class when they grow up…We might still call Fred Rogers a bourgeois socialist, but he did fulfill an important role.”

There are few if any children’s TV personalities who had the quiet determination and clear progressive vision of Fred Rogers. The quiet solitude and Zen-like determination in his approach helped countless youngsters understand their potential in a world that could often be overwhelming. The essays in this book help give the man his due and could inspire a new generation of similar programming: quiet, comforting, challenging, creative, the yin yang of reality and fantasy for young people facing a world that is too immediate, too instant. Slowing down the motor’s speed will always make room for wonder.

RATING 8 / 10