everyone gets a trophy

In defense of Fred Rogers

Honestly, I can’t believe I have to write a post defending someone as genuinely influential and amazing as Fred Rogers.

Our neighbor – then, now and forever.

But his legacy came under attack again last week during a now-widely discussed high school commencement speech.

David McCullough, an English teacher and son of historian David McCullough, gave a pointed and blunt speech to stunned students telling them they aren’t special.

It was meant as a wake-up call to the “everyone gets a trophy” and “helicopter parent” kids. And I agree with many of the points McCullough made.

But his quote early on made me very angry: “Contrary to what your soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers, and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.”

Mr. Rogers is being blamed for “coddling” kids and making them into belly button gazing narcissists. And McCullough isn’t the first one to do so. The late Jeffrey Zaslow, a former Wall Street Journal, wrote an entire article blaming Fred Rogers for the “me me me” epidemic.

I always try to see multiple viewpoints and multiple “sides” of an issue. I get that education is a complex topic in this country and an increasingly political one.

But come for Fred Rogers, and I will bear down the force of a thousand suns to protect his legacy.

I can’t even put into words how much I disagree with the “blame Mr. Rogers” movement. Yes, he does say to children, “You’re special.” But there are a ton of apples-to-oranges comparisons being made – lots of claims without looking deeper at his work.

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood emphasized the unique qualities of each child and each individual. And at the developmental stage that the show was aimed at, that was – and still is – a valuable and necessary message.

There was nothing – absolutely nothing – in his messages that suggested that children didn’t need to strive for goals, or work hard, or any of the disconnections from reality he’s been blamed for. All he recognized is that children may take different pathways to success, and that different people had strengths in different areas.

Fred Rogers was an educator for longer than many of us have even been alive. He was involved in the medium of television as early as 1954 and his shows always had the same goals – to encourage education, inspire learning and cultivate curiosity in children.

This wasn’t a ego trip for him or a chance for him to be a ‘star,’ and as this astonishing video clip shows, he was willing to fight very hard for what he believed in. What you saw on air of Fred Rogers was – surprise – exactly who he was off camera.

His background as a Presbyterian minister was a foundation for what he felt was a mission to guide and inspire children to learn, to grow and to feel safe – a crucial focus at a time where the nightly news showed the horrors of Vietnam night after night (and quite frankly, a need that is timeless).

Conservative news sites have taken McCullough’s speech and made it a call to arms. The narrative being put forth in conservative media is that the “everyone is special” message must clearly equal coddling from liberal leaders and educators.

A few observations on this phenomenon, if I may.

Firstly, we need to step away from politicizing education and work together to improve learning and improve outcomes. Some no-nonsense common sense goals and boundaries would be welcome, but making education one of the us vs. them, liberal vs. conservative, Democrat vs. Republican battles will favor no one.

Secondly, the conservative and evangelical view is that every life has value and every life is special. And that can’t apply just in utero, can it? I see such a direct and clear connection between Fred Rogers’ faith, and his contention that every child is special. I would think many Christians would see the same connection.

And one final irony: being told that you’re not special, that you’re just one of a group and that you get what the guy next to you gets…..that sounds a bit to me like….oh, what’s the word that’s been tossed around frequently in politics in the last few years? Oh wait, that’s right: COMMUNISM.

Every person adhering to a sameness – that’s pretty much the definition of that word. (It’s been misused and misapplied so often in recent times; I had to look in the dictionary just to be sure!)

Celebrating the uniqueness of the individual, the independent spirit – that, to me, is America and the most patriotic thing we can do. And to me, that’s what the legacy of Fred Rogers represents.

I don’t disagree with McCullough’s basic premise. There is vast room for improvement in our education system. Children (and the adults in their lives) definitely need to understand that achievement is earned, not a given, and that hard work and intense studying is crucial.

I’ve seen what happens when a child is overly protected from criticism and failure. I’ve worked with many people like that in my career, and few things are as aggravating as trying to give feedback to someone who never learned to take constructive criticism. We urge children to succeed, but we don’t always teach them how to fail, and how to recover from that.

Self-reliance is an obvious goal. Living a life where you can care for you and your family takes away a lot of fear and uncertainty and it empowers people. I completely co-sign that idea, too. I have no arguments with those points.

But instead of dismissing Fred Rogers and his magnificent legacy of work, perhaps it’s time to reexamine that legacy and see what else he can teach us about reaching the hearts and minds of children.

His work and his ideas are timeless. In the same week that McCullough dismissed Rogers in his speech, a YouTube video featuring debuted on the PBS YouTube channel. It has garnered over three million page views.

As a kid who grew up in Pittsburgh, Fred Rogers was always there and always “ours.” I didn’t fully appreciate his work until his death in 2003. He has been gone for almost ten years now. He’s very much missed, and the world could certainly use more leaders and teachers like Fred Rogers.

EDITED TO ADD: A former colleague who read my post on Twitter sent me a link to another great post about Fred Rogers; the post, in turn, reminded me of the acceptance speech that Rogers made at the 1997 Daytime Emmy Awards.

The Emmys, of course, are an awards show. For once, Rogers had an opportunity to make the moment about him, or his team, or deliver some variation on the usual thank you’s that winners make. What he does here (starting around 1:45) is beyond astonishing in its grace and its simplicity. Please watch.