A beautiful day in the neighbourhood: Mister Rogers’ pedagogy and Western values final course paper by Patrick Chan

A beautiful day in the neighbourhood: Mister Rogers’ pedagogy and Western values final course paper by Patrick Chan

A Neighbourly Day in This Beautywood?

On March 23rd 2010 it was not a beautiful day in my Ottawa neighbourhood. Ann Coulter, an American republican with strong and outrageous opinions, was scheduled to speak to Canadians at the University of Ottawa. Since I was already on campus, my friends and I decided to see what the commotion was all about. Unbeknownst to us, once we arrived, a massive crowd was found protesting against Coulter outside the building where the lecture would be held. As well, a crowd that espoused Coulter’s beliefs also gathered outside in support of the lecture. Thus, this resulted in a huge argument between these two divided sides. The loud yelling and the sporadic chants led the organizers and security personnel to cancel the event altogether since this situation sparked security concerns for the well-being of Coulter. The majority of my friends that tried to attend the lecture were visibly regarded as Muslim—people Coulter claims should be converted to Christians. Hateful threats were spread and ugly comments were directed to my friends. They were called commies and Nazis. Furthermore, they were asked to thank “Canadians” for letting them stay in the country and to move back to Afghanistan. While these comments did not make much sense, the commotion around this public lecture sparked me to think: would Mister Rogers approve of this? Would the values Mister Rogers seem to capitalize through his pedagogy and curriculum parallel the values expressed in this situation? His teaching which centers on acceptance, tolerance and friendship was clearly not seen at this controversial event.

Fred Mc Feely Rogers, the television host of the widely popular children’s television series, Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, did not have the credentials to stand in front of a classroom and educate young minds. Nevertheless, he was possibly one of the very first educators many people had as a child growing up in the Western landscape during the era of television. In fact, he was a purveyor of Western values and an educator that transformed a television set into a Westernized classroom. Through his pedagogy, he taught virtues and values which Western societies believe to be appropriate. His television house and the Neighbourhood of Make-Believe was an environment where children, which he referred as his television neighbours, had the ability to imagine a world that was free of violence, hostility and cynicism. Essentially, it was an idealized world that society projected for children. It helped to socialize these young individuals into recognizing the core virtues that are acceptable and associated with integrity within a given society. In the end, his performance as a White male and his pedagogy help to establish himself as an educator that supports values seen in the Western realm.

After the simple gesture of putting on a cardigan and slipping on blue sneakers, children are invited for half an hour to share in Rogers’ excitement and curiosity in everyday things such as the manufacturing process of crayons or the experience of a school bus ride. He also helps his television neighbours understand certain fears and feelings and encourages them to reason why they are experiencing these emotions (Zelevansky, 2004). Thus, looking at Mister Rogers as a cultural artifact, and using theoretical frameworks within the context of cultural studies, it is possible to suggest that he is an idealized form of the quintessential Western educator and provides a curriculum in addition to a pedagogy that maintains the normative acts within Western spheres.

Dance (2002) refers cultural capital as “inherited or acquired linguistic codes, disposition, tastes, modes of thinking, and other types of knowledge or competencies deemed legitimate by the dominant group or groups in society” (pp. 74). The acquisition of this form of capital affords people pedagogical opportunities to function within the dominant culture. With many subcultures existing within the dominant culture in a given society, to gain the capital of a specific subculture, the haphazard organization, pre-existing values and underlying knowledge of these subcultures must be learned. As well, the main or dominant culture that is specific to that culture must also be learned if a person wishes to attain the cultural capital for that specific mainstream culture. Without the necessary cultural capital, people are unable to successfully reside in a culture that demands adherence to the mainstream. Some believe it is the role of teachers and other educators to impart this capital to future generations. Others however, believe it is the role of teachers to diminish the inequality and essentially “equalize” the mainstream social setting that exists within given societies (Dance, 2002, pp. 74). Rogers’ curriculum and pedagogy in the television show helps to preserve cultural capital according to Western mentality and values. It is through a deconstruction of his pedagogy when this becomes truly evident.

Mister Rogers’ Whiteness as a Purveyor of Western Values

The presence of Rogers and his innate performance as a White individual help to create a divide between his and other racialized reproductions. His show, in turn, can provide cultural capital that ultimately promotes a skewed view towards reality. Particularly, the parodies and alternate lenses behind Rogers’ pedagogy can truly capture the main ideas Rogers unintentionally represents in his television program. Rogers is the representation of a person that Western societies claim holds power. He is White. He is male. So, he holds and spreads the stereotypes that are embodied within the elite group in a Western society through his performance. It is then possible to reread his pedagogical performance as an elite, idealistic member of society. In fact, the other television personalities during this time such as Fred Penner, Mr. Dressup and even, to some extent, the Friendly Giant, all helped to preserve elitism and the dominant group particular for Western societies. They were all White and were all male. They further provided their viewership with the idealized social reproduction that links these physical attributes to a kind, and caring individual. Also, the viewership may adopt the mindset that worthwhile educators are male and White. It is possible that if one of these variables were altered, the inherent power of these shows would change. However, with the popularity of Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, parodies of Rogers that depict his Whiteness as a discourse into social representations along with his demure and gentle manner was constantly displayed within popular culture.

In the television show, Saturday Night Live, Rogers was parodied with the classic comedy sketch—performed by Eddie Murphy—Mister Robinsons’ Neighbourhood. Murphy utilizes his performance of a Black person and his representation of Blackness to represent the stereotypical Black person. At first, Murphy, depicting the character Mister Robinson, uses the same simplistic speech as Rogers once he enters the dirty and grimy house. He sings that he “always wanted to live in a house like yours my friend and maybe when there’s nobody home, [he would] break in” (Michaels, 1982). This refers to the idea that Black individuals are not only marginalized into the label of a thief, but also it refers to the notion Black individual belong within the lower class. The idea perpetuated is that these individuals cannot afford a clean house. If they do have a clean house within their possession, it must not genuinely belong to them. Further, instead of sneakers, Mister Robinson puts on glitter shoes, which he refers to as “rock and roll shoes”. This, then, produces a representation of Blackness and the notion of talent within the realm of music. So, within the first forty seconds of this sketch, the stereotypical values that Western philosophy dictates to be connected with Blackness and Black individuals are clearly defined.

Giroux (1997) recognizes that the concept of Whiteness is “centered on the recognition that race is a set of attitudes, values, lived experiences, and affective identifications that has become a defining feature in American life” (Giroux, 1997, pp.108). Similarly, this can be transcended to the concept of Blackness and the defining features in Afro centric American life. Murphy utilizes the stereotypes that are originally perceived for Whiteness within the original show, which Rogers exemplifies, and parallels it with the stereotypes that are originally perceived for Blackness, which Murphy represents in a humorous fashion.

Racialized performances can also be represented through what Navas (2007) labels as “remixed versions” of the original show. In the episode No and Yes, which aired in February 13th 1985, Jermaine Vaughn, one of Rogers’ neighbours, stopped by to show his talents as a break dancer. This brief meeting truly depicts the stereotypical performances of Blackness and Whiteness and capitalizes what members of Western culture perceive to be racialized representations. Through the YouTube clip entitled, Mr. Rogers Was a B-Boy MOFO ! (feat NWA), this representation is heightened. Instead of providing a duplicate copy of what was aired, the clip was remixed so that when Vaughn, a twelve year old Black child, break dances, a song which many would associate with the representation of Blackness plays—N.W.A’s Fuck tha Police. This, in turn, as Navas remarks is the crux behind the matrix of cultural performances (Navas, 2007). White is thus portrayed as a gentle and demure and somewhat of a proper race, whereas Black is portrayed as intense and to some extent rebellious. In turn, with the aid of the aforementioned YouTube clip, it is Vaughn’s trendy performance as a Black individual through break dancing that garners the street credentials, which is quite significant in some subcultures. Vaughn has successfully gained the cultural capital specific to popular culture circles. Rogers’ simple performance as a White person garners evidence that Whiteness is not in tune with the fashionable in-group and popular culture.

Giroux (1997) explains that Black individuals and Blackness has shifted to representational politics of race and the portrayal of Black individuals is so far removed from reality and history. Stereotypes, he argues, becomes the main focus and point of interest. Shows like Mister Rogers Neighbourhood have become a pedagogy that shapes the imagination of students in terms of how they view the world around them (pp. 109). A means to eradicate these imaginative constructions must be achieved in schools to reconstruct the concept of both Blackness and Whiteness and make these terms more relatable to reality and the history rather than relatable to stereotypical assumptions.

Furthermore, through these different representations, an identity can be achieved. Buckingham (2008) explains that because identity is malleable and fluid, it is possible for these television neighbours to construct a new or even alter identities. Modern consumer culture and to some extent, media outlets, he further explains, offers these television neighbours countless opportunities to fashion a new identity that they may see fit (Buckingham, 2008). Perhaps these television neighbours prefer the company of Rogers and despise other television personalities such as Barney, the purple dinosaur—or vice versa. As well, it is possible that these viewers take along a like or dislike, respectively, for the pedagogy these different television personalities adhere in their shows.

Mister Rogers’ Actions as a Purveyor of Western Values

Rogers did not use what educators today refer as the banking method of education to impart this cultural capital. Instead, he adopted a teaching method that differs drastically. Paulo Freire (1970) reminds us that teachers and educators should not inherently adopt a banking method but instead seek a new model that can truly benefit students. According to Freire, the banking method towards teaching offers students a superficial scope of the content being taught. In this method, teachers see students as objects in the learning process and regard themselves as superior to the students. Thus, Freire sees the banking concept as a weak solution toward teaching (Freire, 1970).

Rogers uses his appearance and the representations of the clothes he wears as a means to eradicate any sign of the banking method of education towards teaching, which Freire notes as “projecting an absolute ignorance onto others” (Freire, 1970, p. 72). His clothes helped to convey the meaning of comfort and caring. Perhaps he was dressing up for the performance of teaching. According to Hall, Saussure notes that in the semiotic approach, objects can “function as signifiers in the production of meaning” (p. 37). The idea of comfort is signified through the act of removing clothes and putting on new ones right as he enters the television house. Perhaps the knitted cardigan and the sneakers he puts on at the beginning of every episode was a way to signify comfort; it represented an avenue for children to connect with their television friend. It is possible that a suit, which he usually initially wears as he enters his television house, may make children uneasy. That piece of clothing signifies the idea of authority and a person who would silence those that are left marginalized. Thus, the signature sign Rogers consistently uses—a knitted cardigan and sneakers—helped to reassure audience members he was not trying to enforce a specific status and enforce a status within our cultural matrix. Instead, these clothed represented the idea of an understanding and comfortable environment which becomes the polar opposite of the banking method of education. His pedagogical performance helped to relate to his television neighbours and, in turn, answer the pinnacle questions these neighbours have at that particular time.

Children can achieve comfort in knowing Mister Rogers was not only a friend, but also, in a sense, removed his adult-like persona and understood the fears and the curiosity of his television neighbours. Even though it was physically impossible for Rogers to hear each child through the television set, oddly, it seemed as if he was actually listening and actually sympathizing and giving children a glimmer of optimistic understanding. The banking educator sees students as meek receptacles and sponges who should take words the educator lectures as gold (Freire, 1970). Mister Rogers on the other hand takes the time, as he busts out the ever so popular tune, Won’t You Be My Neighbour, to connect with his television audience and in an effort to befriend his television neighbours, he strips his status of television entertainer to a more relatable and reassuring status.

In the episode When Things Get Broken, which aired on March 25th 1999, Western values are explored and encouraged. After the traffic light embedded in his television house turns from yellow to green, which signified the current condition of the show—yellow, a preparation for the show, and green, the commencement of the show—Rogers enters the television house and begins his daily routine by singing and changing clothes. Once settled in, he introduces to his television neighbours a toy where marbles travel to fun spots within the toy. At first, Rogers uses his childlike wonder and plops a whole slew of marbles into the contraption. As he laughs with excitement, the camera pans into the toy and follows the marbles through this unique toy. Rogers then begins an experiment where he asks his television neighbours if a bigger ball would move along this contraption. Through trial and error and the innate skill of reasoning, he entertains several ideas regarding the type of marbles that could move through this fun toy (Rogers, 1999).

Giroux (1990) states that the school system is a product of Western values. Further, it is a setting that offers students the ideals of Western ideology and utilizes curricula that narrows in cultural imperatives of Western civilizations. In particular, the language, knowledge and values required to preserve Western culture, in Giroux’s eyes, is passed in the school system. In a sense, the school is a venue of cultural production where Western ideologies are enforced (Giroux, 1990, pp. 545). The reasoning process where Rogers attempts to use different balls for the contraption is an example of the essence of the Enlightenment era, a prime crux within Western values. In Western philosophy, the pillars of the Enlightenment era, reason and inquiry, are quite crucial and significant (Min, 2009). Rogers explores and encourages these Enlightenment pillars through this trial and error period within the program. As he poses questions to his television neighbours such as their opinions of different marbles rolling through the contraption, he also helps develop reasoning tactics with his television neighbours through thinking logically about why these marbles will or will not roll within the toy.

Further along in the episode, we enter the Neighbourhood of Make Believe through the neighbourhood trolley. We find Lady Aberlin, the main character within this imaginary land, showing off a fun toy to Prince Tuesday, Aberlin’s puppet cousin living within the neighbourhood’s castle. Impressed, Tuesday suggests showing the toy to his father, King Friday the 13th. Once he arrives, the king seems hesitant and quite determined to seek answers to a matter which he deems pertinent. Unaffected, Aberlin decides to show the new toy to the king. We, however, witness Friday throwing the toy on the ground in a burst of rage when his questions were left unanswered—rendering the toy broken. It is then when we return back to Rogers’ house. Rogers reflects upon this potentially scary incident and asks his television neighbours about the king’s actions. After, he begins to sing about anger and the alternative ways to express this rage with the song, What Do You Do? (Rogers, 1999).

Foucault (1977), similar to Giroux, states that teachers are purveyors of a shared cultural consciousness that becomes distinctive of Western intellectuals. Teachers essentially are agents of this system of power (as cited in Greene, 1995). Western ethic follows Judeo-Christian ethic. The value of interpersonal relationships is a significant part of the Judeo-Christian ethic, which traditionally believed to be linked with Western values. In the circles of the Judeo-Christian ethic, there exists the idea of moral judgement and a consideration for others (De Craemer, 1983). This value is mirrored within the underlying curriculum within the program and in particular this episode. The song Rogers sings conveys the message that all people should be treated with respect and that there are other alternative ways in which you can convey the emotion: mad. Rogers suggests to play tag with friends or to pummel clay and possibly dough. This way, the respect and worth of other individuals are maintained. It is then when a person is able to parallel the Judeo-Christian ideology of moral judgement and adopt a stance that considers others above all.

Rogers’ pedagogy truly mirrors what Foucault claims as a reality in a school setting. The shared Western cultural consciousness of finding ulterior ways to express anger and, more importantly, considering others, is promoted through this song. Looking through a Judeo-Christian lens, Rogers’ curriculum points to the issue of silencing. While these issues are indeed central and quite important, it is also possible that other religions become silenced. The Buddhist mindset that looks for internal harmony is not represented within the neighbourhood. Buddhist beliefs state that truth and developing an insight about the self through a detached perspective is quite significant. In fact, the belief of mindfulness of the self is so strong that Buddhist followers spend much of their energy to perfect this. On some levels, this truth seeking process does not take others into consideration but rather focuses on inner peace (Amore & Ching, 2002). Instead of encouraging a means to accept this inner peace, Rogers calls on his television neighbours to follow Judeo-Christian mentality where consideration for others trumps other values such as a desire for the mindfulness of the self. As a result, Rogers’ song that encourages alternative methods to display anger, in the eyes of Buddhist thought is superficial and does not confront what they believe to be the reality.

It’s Such a Good Feeling to Know You’re Alive!

While Rogers’ television program is a purveyor of Western thought, it is still an invaluable resource for children. Rogers’ pedagogy may limit what is being presented in the forefront of his curriculum and may also promote elite cultural capital, but it is still a useful tool in a time where violence, cynicism and negativity are focused in mass media (Macdonald, 1957). Rogers provides his television neighbours a breath of fresh air as his curriculum focuses on friendship, optimism and positivity. According to Rogers (2003), each individual person is special and it is when a person “combines [their] own intuition with a sensitivity to other people’s feelings and moods, [they become] close to the origins of valuable human attributes such as generosity, altruism, compassion, sympathy and empathy” (pp. 147). He takes pride in this curriculum of friendship and kindness and asks his neighbours to develop forbearant attitudes during times of rage and anger. Despite his social representations of Western cultural capital, it is comforting that while his show promotes Western values, his own ideals recognize the value of individuals and identifies with pillar such as kindness and consideration.

In the end, I am brought back to Coulter’s cancelled speech and I look at those calmly trying to reconcile the masses. Amidst the hate, fury and screams, they tried to calm outraged students and opted to leave the area when things became heated. Their actions mirrored Rogers’ mindset. Particularly, it is through their benevolence and attempts to find resolution where I truly saw glimpses of Rogers’ pedagogical performance and curriculum. They exercised their ability of forbearance and compromise—traits Rogers would definitely approve. Yes, I think Mister Rogers’ teachings do work.


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