Ep. 1 The Countercultural Peacebuilding of Mister Rogers
Fred Rogers was a pioneer in countercultural practices of peacebuilding on children’s television. In this episode, I explore Fred Rogers with Dr. Michael Long, the author of Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers. Together, we explore the implications of his presence and beliefs for musicians and music teachers.
Dr. Michael Long
Michael Long is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Elizabethtown College. He is the author of more than 11 books, writing beautiful, approachable biographical books that take a deep look at spirituality, non-violence, peace, civil rights, and forms of civil disobedience. Long’s book on Jackie Robinson has received critical acclaim from Publishers Weekly and the New York Times.
His book Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers - has been a significant inspiration in the formation of our new Master of Music Education degree in peacebuilding at Elizabethtown College. In this book Long takes a deep look at the dilemmas that Fred Rogers faced, where he was a countercultural voice of love and care, and where he seemed to stumble as he encountered deep, ethical dilemmas.
Speaker 1: (00:02)
There's this theory, these counter cultural values and practices that everybody can get to and that they can get there because of this divine spark within us and with than others. If we recognize the divine spark within ourselves and within others, the neighborhood of make believe isn't make believe it all. It's within our grasp.
Speaker 2: (00:26)
You are listening to the music and peacebuilding podcast, professional development network at musicpeacebuilding.com exploring intersections of peacebuilding culture, sacredness relationship, community, creativity and imagination through research and story. Dr. Michael Long is associate professor of religious studies at Elizabeth Town College. He is the author of more than 11 books, writing beautiful, approachable biographical books that take a deep look at spirituality, nonviolence, peace, civil rights and forms of civil disobedience. Long's book on Jackie Robinson has received critical acclaim from publishers weekly and the New York Times. His book, peaceful neighbor discovering the countercultural. Mr. Rogers has been a significant inspiration in the formation of our new master of music education degree in peacebuilding at Elizabeth Town College. In this book Long takes a deep look at the dilemmas that Fred Rogers faced, where he was a counter cultural voice of love and care and where he seemed to stumble as he encountered deep ethical dilemmas. You have a long tradition of scholarship. Were you seem
Speaker 1: (01:49)
to explore very abstract themes of peacemaking spirituality, and nonconformity through biographical story. And my first question is about like how did you come upon this form of scholarship to be kind of your lifetime work? What I tend to do in my books is focus on themes of resistance primarily. And this includes resistance to religious authorities, political authorities, economic authorities and so forth. And I think I do that primarily because there was a time when I was hurt badly and I wasn't heard, my voice wasn't heard. And I think my attention to giving voice to those people who have been hurt or oppressed comes out of that experience. And my attention to biography comes out of my own bio crap biography. And by doing so, by focusing on resistance and by focusing on that theme in a biographical way, uh, I give voice to myself. Hmm. And to the time when I wasn't heard. And I do that by focusing on others. Granted, but doing that also allows me to speak my own truth.
Speaker 2: (03:17)
Dr Longs book on Fred Rogers captivates me in his writing about Roger's presence, the degree to which his presence was countercultural in its slowness and intentionality and how his belief elements specifically how Fred Rogers connected elements of belief to practice as he did theological work in the new forum of children's television. Long writes the slow way. He talked, the careful transitions he made from his real television neighborhood to make believe the silence he insisted on all of this gave us a model for being peace.
Speaker 1: (04:01)
As you seem to watch like every episode of Fred Rogers as you are going through the archives. What were some of the key things that you noticed and kind of his pacing and his transitions that really captivated you? One of the things I immediately noticed was that I really looked forward to watching the programs and I watched way too many of them in some ways, but I looked forward to them because they settled navy. And often when I go into archives, I have a target and I want to tackle that target and I want to do it with a lot of speed and urgency. When I went to the Fred Rogers archives and I started to watch the programs, I had a different type of reaction. Uh, it really settled me. And there's a point in his work where he talks about the importance of silence and slowness as a way to settle our inner turmoil.
Speaker 1: (04:59)
And that's exactly what I felt when I watched the program. Rogers has this distinct way of being. And while I understand he was a very quick walker, uh, when he was a working or going from place to place outside the studio in the studio, he had this very deliberate slow plate pacing and you can see it not only in the way he moves but also in the way that he directs the camera to go from place to place. You can also hear it in his voice and you can also detect it in the music. And I was thinking about that on the way here. Um, I imagined that he was very familiar with looney toons growing up and that has a very quick music to it that Dah, Dah, Dah, Dah, Dah, Dah, Dah, Dah, Dah, Dah, Dah, Dah, Dah, Dah, Dah. You have to forgive my tone on pitch.
Speaker 1: (05:55)
Roger's music is so unlike that. Uh, it's slows everything down. And in some ways I think he comes out of this white man's jazz music of the 60s the Vince Gerardi type format. And when I encountered that slow pacing and his music and in his pacing of the program and in his voice and in his transitions, I saw that this was a man who not only talked about peace but really wanted to model it for us. Uh, he wanted to express the settling of our inner turmoil. And he enacted that not only did he talk about it, he really, uh, not he embodied the peace that he wanted to teach. And so when I sit down and watch these programs, time and again, I really had that sense of being peace, uh, that he wanted to communicate. And it was really a lovely experience for me. It was probably the most quiet experience I've ever had in an archives.
Speaker 1: (07:04)
I think about my own experiences, like a beginning public school teacher. And I remember in my first two years of teaching, I was all frenzy. Like I was, I was a nervous teacher and I was trying to get all the possible content I could get it in an hour because that was, that was what good teaching was. And I think somewhere in my third year of teaching, I realize that if I slowed myself down with my students, if I centered myself, I was actually like a, a much more effective teacher. And I think that that's one of the things that I reflect upon as I read your book and kind of watch Mr. RogersRogers'. It's a great reminder for me as a teacher, right? As, um, it's kind of that idea of pacing. Yeah. I think that's a great point. It had that same effect on me too.
Speaker 1: (07:50)
The other important point when we look at Rogers, I believe, is to look at the way that he communicates these themes of peace. And he does it primarily through narrative, through stories. And he does that in part because he takes his cues from Jesus. And Rogers, as you know, was an ordained Presbyterian minister and he learned from his study of Jesus that one of the best ways to teach these themes is by telling parables and Rogers really considered his work to be parabolic in that, in that sense, and to tell a good parable, to tell a good story, to share. A good narrative really requires that you slow down at certain points to emphasize the important points of the story. And sometimes it requires you to go a little faster. But Roger's really excelled at slowing down. Uh, when he got to an important part of the parable that he was communicating. And that had a big effect on me as well. And in the classroom I experienced the same thing you did. I really started to slow down and share more stories than I ever before. Uh, after I studied Rogers. And taking on a narrative approach to teaching has really been deeply rewarding because when you share stories as Rogers did, you touch the hearts of students in a way so you don't buy teaching didactically for example. So that was a great model that I learned from Fred Rogers
Speaker 3: (09:18)
Speaker 1: (09:21)
So the other area of his presence that I have been so captivated in has been his, his idea of his presence and looking and you captured this beautiful quote from him. You said, when you look at the lens of a camera, which is just one machine, you think of just one person, I like that as opposed to facing a sea of congregated faces. What really perked your interest about his gift of looking? He was such a good storyteller and yet he really didn't feel comfortable in the pulpit. Uh, he didn't feel comfortable before a huge Group of people. And I think it's, some of that is because of its own shyness at as a child. He was very shy and maybe we can talk about that later, but he felt much more comfortable in a one on one setting. I was attracted to that because I am too.
Speaker 1: (10:12)
I feel much more comfortable in one on one settings and I do and large groups. And so I think I had that connection with Rogers on that point. He did excel at looking deeply into people and he did because of this childhood experience. This may be a good time for me to talk about that for sure. When he was a young child, Rogers was overweight, uh, by his own estimation. And he was also shy and his parents kept him sheltered. Uh, they were wealthy parents and Latrobe and in many ways, uh, they grew up in the [inaudible] area where they feared that because they were wealthy, their son Fred might be kidnapped and held ransom for money. And so they sheltered him in many ways. He was also somebody who suffered from asthma. So they wanted him to stay inside a lot. But, believe it or not, he was chauffeured to school by an African American young man who lived with them named George Allen.
Speaker 1: (11:11)
And he chauffeured Rogers to school every day back and forth to and from. And one day he couldn't chauffeur for Fred Rogers to school and Roger's finds himself having to walk home and he is afraid? Because he doesn't walk home a regular lady and he knows it. He is a target for those in his classes. And so sure enough, as he's walking home and he's walking home fast so we can get home because he has this fear, some older children or children his age, I'm not quite sure, start to track him down and they start to yell names that in Fat Freddy was what they called him and they said, Fat Freddy, we're going to get you. And Fred starts to speed up. They start to run and he runs too and ran to his neighbors house. And there he was so grateful, not only to his neighbor who took him in and who eventually by the way he identifies as a Christ, like figure somebody who uh, is welcoming to him, the outcast.
Speaker 1: (12:11)
But he's also in that moment feeling really resentful and the parents and the adults around him are telling him not to mind those children that they don't deserve his attention. And as he recounts this later, he says but I really did resent that. And I really did mine that. And I really did want those feelings. I resented them because they couldn't see me in the depths of my being, they couldn't look deeply. And See who I was. They couldn't look beyond my fatness as he puts it and see who I was deep down. And so he latches onto this quote from a little prince, which is his favorite quotation, and it goes something like this. What is invisible to the what is most essential, is invisible to the eye and Roger's builds his, his entire program from my perspective around this quotation, he looks deeply at children, and sees them as special.
Speaker 1: (13:11)
Even though other people see them as perhaps not fully adult and fully to be valued. Rogers looks deeply and sees something else. He looks deeply within himself and sees somebody who is lovable and able to love. And these are the two primary characteristics he sees in everybody that we, each of us is a lovable and capable of loving. That's the essence that he believes each of us possesses. No matter what we've done, what we look like, what we say, we're always lovable and capable of loving. And that's the essence that he believes those children missed when they teased him so badly. That's the essence that he believes that many of us miss when we treat one another violently. And that's certainly the characteristics that he believes governments miss when they take us to war.
Speaker 4: (14:06)
I think the other thing that I hear is I listened to you speak is, is this idea that emotions have wisdom to them? And maybe this idea that these adults in his life were not willing to treat his emotions and his feelings as being worthy of being concerned about. In many ways,
Speaker 1: (14:22)
right. And along with that, I would say that Rogers, when he looked back on that experience, really wanted the freedom to feel resentful. And this is an important point that comes up in Roger's work time and again, and that is he wants us to feel free to be angry and to feel free to be resentful. And certainly he wants to encourage us to channel those feelings appropriately. And he spent a lot of his program talking about channeling and a very subtle way, but he never wants to squelch us when we we have those feelings of anger, those feelings of resentment. And I think that's one of the things that are really appreciate about Rogers. Now Mr. Rogers' neighborhood is built on feelings, As you know, if you look at Sesame Street, that program focuses a lot on numbers. And Fred Rogers program does is it focuses mostly on feelings.
Speaker 1: (15:25)
And I think that's a really nice way to distinguish between Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers neighborhood were one focuses on the basics of education. Uh, intellectual education, for example, Rogers focuses on emotional intelligence. And I really respect that about Rogers because that's an, that's a topic that we usually don't focus on so much. When we look at children, when we think about their intellectual development a lot, and sometimes we, uh, don't focus on the emotional development as much as we could. Yeah. This child is bright, usually means this child is intellectually smart, but for Rogers it could mean, this child is, is really developing emotionally in a very healthy way.
Speaker 4: (16:07)
Deeply compassionate or, yeah, I love that piece on anger because [inaudible] so much of, of theology, maybe anger as a form of sin in many ways. And I feel like this is an area where he's really countercultural because he, he's teaching children to accept the anger and then to have tools to work through it. And I think about my own son who's watched Daniel Tiger's neighborhood and he's watched some of the Mr. Rogers episodes and the Daniel Tiger's neighborhood is so famous for asking kids to stomp their mad out. Right. And I, and I, I think about how healthy that's been for our own children to be able to encounter that emotion not as a sinful emotion, but as a real emotional that maybe, can be worked through in some ways.
Speaker 1: (16:53)
Yes. And in fact, it connected with quite a few children who watched the program, uh, while I was going on live and they would write him about this. And there was one, a little boy I remember who wrote a letter to him and he wanted a picture of Mr. Rogers looking angry. [laughter] And he said in this letter, I believe after our Fred did a program in which he's sitting down at the piano and he looks angry while he's playing the piano and he's playing these awful chords and he's teaching us how it's important sometimes when we're feeling angry just to do something constructive like that, you know, let the anchor come out of your fingers on a piano, uh, rather than through fists hitting somebody. And it's a really lovely program. I encourage you all to watch it, but I think this little boy watched our program. He said, I really connect with you know, I'm putting these in this boy's mouth, but I think he said, I really liked that and I wish I had a picture of Mr. Rogers to put on my wall and I wish you that he was looking angry so I can think. Yeah, that's me too.
Speaker 1: (18:04)
And the first week is program went national. Fred Rogers devoted a week of programs to peace. And this is right in the context of the Vietnam War. And the problem in this particular, in these particular episodes is that so much change has come to the neighborhood of make believe that it makes king Friday angry. And so he wants to put borders up, walls, if you will, uh, around the neighborhood of make believe so more change can't come in and it's resolved. And its resolved in this very bizarre and peculiar fashion, but I love it for its creativity. And what happens is that lady Elaine, I believe in lady aberlin blow up balloons and they float balloons into the kingdom with messages of peace. And King Friday finally gets the message that changes in something that he needs to fear, but it's something that he can receive. Change comes in the form of these balloons that haven't been in the neighborhood before, and they have these messages of peace. It's dramatic change with a message of peace attached to it. And later after this happens in the program, Mr. Rogers says to lady, aberlin, something like, who knew you could create peace with balloons? [laughter]
Speaker 1: (19:33)
Yes. Who did know, right? It's a simple act of blowing up a balloon and attaching this beautiful message of peace to it, that bursts King Fridays, ego and his desire to set up barriers between him and other people who are seeking change within the kingdom. It's an absolutely gorgeous message and it's about creating peace out of creativity, right? I mean, it's a very creative approach to peace, but it's a very small act. And so children get this image from this first week of programs that's happening in the context of the Vietnam War, that they can undertake simple acts of peace in their own home and in their own neighborhood. And that just might mean blowing up some beautiful balloon so that people can see them and experience the joy of a simple balloon, oh, it's a very powerful message. And a child can do that. That's the other important message. I mean, Rogers is constantly communicating that children, who aren't known as primary agents in the world can be creative actors for peace. And that's a, that's a message that happens time and again in the program. The children who are often seen as vessels to be filled, as empty containers to fill with our knowledge and our wisdom can be on their own, their own peacemakers, their own actors, their own, uh, little agents in a world that needs to type of piece that they can bring with their creative and fun and joyful thoughts.
Speaker 4: (21:22)
One of the things that we think about a lot is as we're talking about peacebuilding is empowering voices of marginalized because the extent to which certain groups are oppressed is maybe the potential for violence in many aspects. And one of the, uh, I really loved how you pointed out about how Roger's number one was captivated by manual labor and how often he lifted up. Maybe the voices of artisans who may not have seen as being great craftsmen or scholars. And then I would hold that against another program where he seems to get down the level of this one child who's in a wheelchair and empowers that voice. through like this really sacred moment in the program.
Speaker 1: (22:07)
Yeah. I'll address the first Rogers, uh, grew up in La Trobe. He came from a wealthy home, as I said, and his father was a factory owner and according to Fred, his father had great respect for the laborers and his mother also had great respect for laborers who were poor and she did a lot of good charitable work in latrobe. And Rogers would go to the factory with his father and with his grandfather and it would have interactions with everyday labors. And I believe that really stuck with them. And so when he gets to his program, he gives voice to these everyday laborers by showing that they are the magical actors behind what just shows up in our house as if it's just, there automatically, uh, for example, a stove. The stove is in our house automatically. And my sons grew up early on not knowing that people made those things, but that's what Rogers does.
Speaker 1: (23:09)
He demystifies that the items in our house and shows that behind these items are silent workers who worked really hard to make these items appear almost magically in our house. So he demystifies the things in our life and gives voice to the quiet laborers who have made these things possible. In terms of the case of the young boy in the wheelchair, his name is Jeff Erlinger. And I love the episodes in which Jeff appears, because Fred does get down to Jeff's level, he really does. I mean, physically he leans down or sits down, I believe next to Jeff. But more than that, he allows Jeff to lead the conversation. And that's awesome because people like Jeff, and Jeff are often seen as victims, uh, and victims who have been shunted aside in society. And there's Jeff and the front yard and Mr. Rogers' neighborhood right at the front porch. And he and Fred are visiting, uh, and it's a visit in which Jeff leads the discussion and talks about, if I remember correctly, uh, how Jeff negotiates his life in a wheelchair. And Wow, that's a new message for a lot of us who don't know how people like Jeff and Jeff negotiate their lives. That's another way that Roger's demystifies, uh, the parts of our life, that need demystification. And as he does so he gives voice to the voiceless.
Speaker 4: (25:05)
So I'd like to close today, but looking at this last big concept, which is, which is this idea of moral imagination. And I think in the book you define moral imagination as the ability to see goodness in moments of crisis and danger. This comes from kind of an essential truth that Rogers seems to communicate that all people are basically good worthy of our care and love. And I'm interested into what captivated you about his sense of moral imagination and why you went for that language. To describe where Rogers was.
Speaker 1: (25:37)
Rogers was a practicing Christian and a deeply practicing Christian, I would say. And one of his contemporaries was reverend Billy Graham. We know him as probably the most important crusader of sorts in the 20th century. And Reverend Graham, uh, often preached about judgment and often did it in harsh terms, though he sort of grew out of that reputation later on. And I think Fred Rogers developed a different type of spirituality and it was a spirituality that he drew from one of his teachers at seminary in Pittsburgh. His name was William Orr and William Orr taught Fred. That one of the most important things that we can ever do in life is to forgive and we can forgive. Fred taught because of a few things. One is that within everybody there is a divine spark and for Rogers this is almost a Quaker belief. It seems to me he was a good Presbyterian many ways, but I often consider him to be Quaker in his view that there's a divine spark within each of us and because that divine spark is within each of us in...
Speaker 1: (26:54)
In Fred's thought each of us has goodness and for Rogers that is everybody. Everybody. There's, there are some sections in which he's writing about Nazi Germany and World war two and I get the sense even in those writings, he has a sense that deep within everybody, including the soldiers who were our enemies, there is a sense of goodness and the ability for us to see because it's divine spark is also within us. We have the ability to see the divine spark within others. And so there's a sense of agency there as well. And Rogers doesn't want us to forget that, that within us there's a divine spark. And so he's constantly preaching against judgementalism. And I do use the word preaching here, uh, intentionally. He's preaching against judgmentalism. He's also a preaching against those who don't offer forgiveness. And he does this especially at this one point when President Clinton is in trouble with Monica Lewinsky affair and in an email that Rogers writes at the time.
Speaker 1: (28:10)
He takes a step back and he talks about how unforgiving society is and how unable it seems to be. Uh, and times like that when there is a national crisis of sorts and reflects our inability or unwillingness to forgive. And at this point he reemphasizes that within us is a divine spark. And that we, because of that, we have this capacity, whether we realize it or not, to forgive those who don't seem like they deserve forgiveness. And for Rogers, that's necessary and it's necessary because he wants all of us to get to the neighborhood of make believe. And for Rogers, I'm convinced that the neighborhood of make believe is the reign of God. It's this place where peace and justice reign Supremely. It's an oasis in a violent world. It's an oasis in a world of injustice. It's an oasis in a world where races and ethnicities conflict. Rogers has created on his program the reign of God, where there's this, there are these counter cultural values and practices that everybody can get to and that they can get there because of this divine spark within us and within others. If we recognize the divine spark within ourselves and within others, the neighborhood of make believe isn't make believe at all. It's within our grasp.
Speaker 5: (29:42)
Speaker 2: (29:48)
So is there anything that I haven't asked you that you think would,
Speaker 4: (29:53)
from Fred Rogers life and work would really illuminate a piece of wisdom that public school teachers and music teachers could hold onto it as they approach the practice of teaching from a place of peace building?
Speaker 1: (30:08)
Well, maybe we could reiterate the importance of the slow pace of the classroom. If we get anything from Rogers, it is the importance of slowing down with children and listening to them and looking deeply at them and with them. I should emphasize, you know, one of the important things that Rogers taught was, was very radical and it was that he wanted to be friends with children. Let's put this in context. At the time in 1968 for example, many fathers were at work in the middle of the afternoon when Mr. Rogers is coming into the household and many fathers and men and these in the lives of these children aren't really friends. Their Authority figures to be obeyed, and what Fred does is really remarkable. He comes in at the homes of children in the middle of the afternoon when there's not supposed to be a man around, and not only is he there, he's there modeling peace, is not modeling what he calls power punishment, harsh discipline.
Speaker 1: (31:28)
He's modeling peace. Not only is he doing that, he's asking children to be his friends that is incredibly remarkable. In 1968 it's incredibly remarkable. Even today, we don't think of forming friendships with children. We think of children not so much as friends, but as vessels to be taught. I believe those lessons are important for teachers in the classroom. It's a radical notion to think of a child as a friend. But when we do that, we open our hearts to children and we also encourage them to open their hearts to us and that can allow for the type of deep learning and peaceful learning that Rogers modeled.
Speaker 2: (32:17)
Dr. Michael Long closes his book this way. Fred Rogers was a compassionate human being and at times an imperfect one contrary to popular wisdom, Rogers wasn't content merely to accept us as we are. He wanted us to become prophets and peacemakers committed to making our neighborhoods bastions of compassion by taking Fred Rogers seriously rather than dismissing him as a lightweight or deifying him in the clouds. Perhaps we can at last see the his own steadfast commitment to peace in a time marked by relentless wars and terror gave us reason to hope against hope. That the neighborhood of make believe where king. Friday orders his troops to put their weapons away, can indeed become our very own.
Speaker 3: (33:10)
Speaker 2: (33:15)
Michael Long's book, peaceful neighbor discovering the counter cultural. Mr. Rogers was published in 2015 and can be purchased in bookstores everywhere. This is the music and peacebuilding podcast hosted by Kevin Shorner-Johnson at Elizabethtown College. We host a master of music education with an emphasis in peacebuilding thinking deeply. We reclaim space for connection and care. Join us at musicpeacebuilding.com.