For 33 years, Fred Rogers opened each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with a cheerful smile and a heartfelt invitation, delivered in the show’s iconic theme song “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Being a neighbor in the moral and spiritual sense of the word, says Steven M. Emmanuel, dean of the Susan S. Goode School of Arts and Humanities at Virginia Wesleyan University, entails a kind of presence that goes beyond mere physical proximity: It is a way of being that expresses care, compassion, and unconditional acceptance. It was Rogers’ extraordinary capacity to make himself fully present to his audience that made him such an endearing figure to the millions of children (and grown-ups) who watched his show.
Rogers was motivated to enter the arena of broadcast television out of a deep concern about its potentially harmful effects on children and society. To do that he developed a pedagogy that allowed him to connect with his young viewers in a way that transcended the limitations of the medium, preserving the ethical quality of interpersonal communication. He envisioned the possibility of public television creating a network of interpersonal relationships aimed at building self-esteem and greater self-understanding in viewers.
Emmanuel examines how Rogers was able to create a powerful sense of his personal presence using the impersonal medium of television. He takes a close look at Rogers’ ideas about the role of television in the moral and psychological development of children and its potential for building healthy communities based on the values of care and mutual respect.
Turning his attention to today, he reexamines the value of Rogers’ contributions at a time when education is increasingly shifting to remote platforms and the pervasiveness of technology and media seems to be driving people away from each other, creating deep social and political divisions that tear at the fabric of communities. There is still much that we can learn from Rogers, holds Emmanuel, about how to preserve our humanity in the digital age.
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