Tuesday, May 25, 2010

In Defense of Mr. Rogers

So, the reason I decided I wanted to start blogging again was that I was goofing off on Youtube and came across this (a couple years old) piece apparently from Fox and Friends about a study (from LSU of all places) demonstrating that Mr. Rogers is responsible for the Sense of Entitlement so prevalent in Kids Today:

This infuriated me for a number of reasons, and I had no idea where/how to go about expressing this. And I thought to myself, "Gee, if only I had a forum for expressing this kind of anger in an articulate fashion! I ought to start a blog! Oh, wait, I have a blog. Only, I haven't done anything with it in more than a year, and when I last wrote, all I did was put my foot in it and post PSAs from YouTube." So, I deleted all the old posts, changed the theme, and put up an introductory blog entry.  All preparatory to expounding exactly why it is that I got so angry about something Faux News said about Mr. Rogers three or so years ago (that is, half a decade after he died and PBS stopped airing his show).

First of all, there is the fact that I love Mr. Rogers and everything he stands for.

Second, there is the fact that my mom was probably the biggest fan Mr. Rogers ever had. I grew up on Mr. Rogers. I got my share of Bs and even the occasional C. I did not got to my professors at the end of the semester and explain that I really need an A, so could they just look my essays over and see if they can find a few extra points. This is not a value that Mr. Rogers espouses. He tells every child that s/he is special just by her/his being her/himself, but he also encourages intelligence, curiosity, and hard work. He just argues that a child is special even when s/he fails at a pursuit.

Third, there is the fact that it has always baffled me that Mr. Rogers was never the face of American Christianity. Christians in America are constantly laboring against this unflattering and often offensive vision of what they are supposed to be, espoused by non-Christians in America. This view is unfortunately not made out of whole cloth; it is based on the idiosyncrasies -- and often outright bigotry -- of very public Christian figures such as Jerry Falwell, Fred Phelps, and Pat Robertson. So here is Mr. Rogers, a Presbyterian minister who advocates that "feelings are mentionable and manageable," that we should get to know and love our neighbors for their individual personalities and strengths, that there is joy in the simple action of stamping a foot and wonder in the process of manufacturing chairs, and instead of saying, "Here's a positive role model!", that voice of the Right, Fox News, accuses him of being singlehandedly responsible for ruining two generations of young people and actually calls him "evil." Sure, he's a square; but my generation actually values nerdiness, so that could be celebrated as a virtue. He was a successful and compassionate public figure for four decades, with an unwaveringly, though not overwhelmingly, Christian focus, and the same people who stick up for Pat Robertson roll over on him. Why not celebrate him?

Fourthly, there's the fact that there is a much more sensible explanation for why college students over the last five years or so have suddenly become so disengaged for the length of as semester and then ready to beg for "extra points" during finals week. It doesn't make sense that it's Mr. Rogers' fault since he's been on the air since the sixties. Hell, I've only been teaching college since 2003 and I can attest that this is a problem that, on the grand scale at which it currently exists, has developed since then. Certainly, there have always been students who goof off all semester and then freak out around finals time, but this systematic withdrawal for the duration of the semester followed by a request for "extra credit projects" after final grades have been calculated is new, strange, and widespread. I'd estimate that my husband and I each get this kind of response from 5%-10% of our students EACH SEMESTER. Those of you drawing bell curves at home are saying, well sure, those are your Fs and maybe some Ds. Not so. Most of them are Bs hoping to be "given" As. And let me clarify now, I've never "given" a grade in my life; grades are earned, As to Fs.

However, something has been happening more recently that corresponds to this change in college students' behavior: a certain flavor of education reform (you can read about it in the New York Times here). There is this idea that teachers must be held "accountable," which is a fine idea; unfortunately, it has been decided by a whole bunch of people who have privileged, private educations themselves and for the most part, no formal pedagogy training deciding that the only way to measure a teacher's success is by measuring the standardized test scores of his/her students. The result of this kind of policy (and it's bipartisan -- No Child Left Behind and The Race to the Top both fall into this category) is that students are taught that the only important thing about school is the scores they get on those one set of tests at the end of the year. There is no love of a process of learning, and thus low engagement throughout the school year. And then there is a mad scramble at the end of the year to get high marks on one set of tests. Of COURSE those students flounder in college, where so much is self-directed and where all the scores and all the class meetings count. Hopefully, after a semester or two, they figure it out, but it's unrealistic to expect that after twelve years of marking time until the Big Tests, students will suddenly be able to redefine the way they learn in a single semester. But I hope that most of them do, and that they find reasons to actually enjoy their classes after that. And when they do, if they're my students, I will personally sing them this.


Anonymous said...

Rather than blame Mr Rogers, who is awesome BTW. I would look at the "everybody wins" mentality that has taken over activities for children. Not that I am super against it mind you, I often play games with kids where everyone wins and scores don't matter, but when that becomes the mentality that is instilled, it becomes problematic. I think your points on extra credit and whatnot are right on.
There also seems to be a mentality that if I put enough work into it, I should get such and such grade for it. Never mind that it has horrible grammar, the points that are made are wrong, the logic defies logic, etc, what matters to the student is how much work went into it. I don't know where that mentality comes from.

Danielle said...

Absolutely! I tend to call this the "participation ribbon" or "youth soccer" mentality. European football is an exciting, and very competitive, game, but in the US, we've created this idea that all you have to do to play Youth Soccer is run back and forth up and down the field and at the end, everyone gets a blue participation ribbon and a pizza party.

My mom also notes that the pedagogy resulting from the "self esteem" movement in a lot of schools is that kids were just told they were great in a vacuum, without reference to any accomplishments of which they might be proud.

But that's not the way Mr. Rogers went about affirming kids at all.

kate said...

fox news is called fox news because that's what it does. (that only really works verbally.)

yeah, i totally agree--mr. rogers was about affirming that SOMETHING made each kid special, that everyone had something they were good at or something interesting to say. this isn't the same as saying everyone should be rewarded for everything. as i tell my step-kids: everybody is great at something, but even then nobody's the best. there will always be someone better than you, and the point is to work as hard as you can for your OWN benefit, not for empty accolades.

i think i learned these lessons from my musical education. your success at playing an instrument is directly proportional to the hours of practice you put in, and there is NO instant gratification. odds are low that you'll be the next joshua bell, but playing well will be extremely rewarding anyway.

i love that you have a blog! hi!

Danielle said...

Hi, yourself!

For a long time, I never had the discipline for my music lessons, so I ended up giving up the piano after a truly mortifying recital, but then I discovered that for me, it was all about rhythm and I threw myself into drumming and tap dancing and suddenly grew some motivation to practice. John's theatre students who were dancers as kids also have that serious work ethic.

I like the idea that nobody's the best. Even if you're a serious contender, you could have a bad day when someone else is having a really good day. But it doesn't mean it's not worth working for, or that you can't feel pride in what you do.