It’s a Didactic Day in the Neighborhood: Mister Rogers and Educational Ideology

I recently lamented that my kids are growing up without Mister Rogers -– a very sweet public television show that features an infinitely gentle father figure who wears cardigans and talks directly to the camera. (We don’t have good reception of our local PBS station.)

Someone gave us a copy of a Mister Rogers show. My wife suggested that I watch it. So the next time my daughter asked for “Mister Roberts!!” I sat with her to check it out. I found an interesting exercise in didactic drama — a creative performance designed to teach a specific ideology.

If you’ve ever seen the show, you know that Mister Rogers talks without a trace of condescension, irony, or “aren’t I cute, buy my stuff” attitude (like a certain purple dinosaur and even, I’d have to say, a certain fuzzy red monster).

There isn’t a trace of razzle-dazzle in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood — but I was surprised that the piano chords that signal the arrival of Trolley and the start of a trip to The Land of Make-Believe still make my pulse race after nearly 30 years.

In this particular episode, children from the local school (where the student body is all puppets, of course) have been invited to attend a field trip to the castle, but a rather stuffy and somewhat arrogant inventor (also a puppet) shows them an invention called a Learning Machine, which is a helmet that teaches you everything you need to know, replacing the need for teachers, school, field trips, and everything else.

I couldn’t help but think of Doctor McCoy’s encounter with The Great Teacher in the so-bad-it’s-good Star Trek Episode “Spock’s Brain” (where Leonard Nimoy spends half the time voicing lines as a brain-in-a-box, and the other half as a zombie operated by a remote control gadget… but I digress).

At any rate, when Mister Rogers informs us of the backstory, he mentions the Learning Machine with distaste. Other human (non-puppet) characters in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe express their amazement that anyone could possibly choose a machine over a field trip. Ironically, in order to support this claim, Lady Aberlin (had to look that one up) and a male character whose name I didn’t catch drive a battery-powered go-cart, which the children won’t get to ride if they never come to the field trip. And, of course, Mister Rogers is using television to deliver his anti-technology message… but that’s beside the point.
The climax of the fantasy sequence features the inventor, wearing his “learning machine” helmet, and the teacher informing the students that they should vote — do they want a field trip, or the learning machine?

I was perhaps over-sensitive to the dogmatic nature of the scene. It was, after all, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood… and I confess I was surprised to see how strongly it seemed the deck was stacked against technology. The inventor spoke as a stuffy academic, while none of the children actually seemed to like the learning machine. Prince Tuesday said, “My father would probably want me to vote for the learning machine,” but his father, King Friday the Thirteenth, is usually presented as benevolent but pompous, so that was hardly a ringing endorsement.

Just when I was getting a little annoyed at the straw man argument being presented, timid little Daniel Striped Tiger speaks up… why do we have to choose between the learning machine and a field trip? Why not use the learning machine, but also keep teachers and field trips?

It was a simple solution… of course, budgets and limited space in a curriculum and the cost of teacher training and so forth are way too much to bring into a show designed for preschoolers.

But I’ve got to hand it to Fred Rogers — who also provided the voice of Daniel. Not only is Daniel wiser than any of the other puppets, he also appears to be wiser than Mister Rogers (who frowned and shook his head when he mentioned the learning machine when introducing the Neighborhood of Make Believe segment).

It takes real humility and true faith in the intelligence of your audience (even if they are preschoolers) to make a sweet but dippy puppet wiser than you are in the show that bears your name. It’s much easier, on the other hand, to use dippy puppets (or straw men) to present the “other side” — the one you want to attack.

Update: See also, “A Sudden Case of ‘Routine Maintenance’ in the Neighborhood of Make Believe“.