Thursday, July 5, 2007

Blaming Mister Rogers

In today's Wall Street Journal:

Don Chance, a finance professor at Louisiana State University, says it dawned on him last spring. The semester was ending, and as usual, students were making a pilgrimage to his office, asking for the extra points needed to lift their grades to A's.

"They felt so entitled," he recalls, "and it just hit me. We can blame Mr. Rogers."

Fred Rogers, the late TV icon, told several generations of children that they were "special" just for being whoever they were. He meant well, and he was a sterling role model in many ways. But what often got lost in his self-esteem-building patter was the idea that being special comes from working hard and having high expectations for yourself.
Only someone with a cursory knowledge of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood would make this claim. Hard work and high expectations? Consider the many visitors to the neighborhood who talk about and demonstrate their hard-earned abilities: violinist Itzhak Perlman and gymnast Chaney Umphrey, for instance. Or consider the ways in which Mister Rogers himself bumbles and struggles when trying to learn a new skill (often, as I remember, in Negri's Music Shop). Consider too that being "special" is something that comes with a context: "You are my friend. You're special to me." That's a statement not about innate grandeur but about the way someone else sees you.

What I always hear in Mister Rogers' closing words is something quite different from an encouragement to narcissism: "There's just one person in the whole world like you. And people can like you just the way you are." In my ears, those words sound as a reminder of the beauty and mystery of individuality, offering consolation to children whose circumstances — clothes, speech, family situation — put them at a remove from others.

Self-esteem is busting out all over, but I think there are more likely causes to finger. Stay out of my 'hood.
Blame It on Mister Rogers: Why Young Adults Feel So Entitled (Wall Street Journal)

Related post
The inverse power of praise

comments: 4

Chaser said...

I lurve me some Fred Rogers for all the reasons you mention.

There's part of me that wonders if the language and practice of community and reciprocity is so impoverished that it's hard for people to hear the notion that they are "special" within those contexts. The special part sticks, the need for reciprocity and the need for other-regard gets lost.

Michael Leddy said...

Community and reciprocity being impoverished: I strongly agree. Did you see the piece about civility in the Chronicle? It speaks to the issues about students and decorum that you've been addressing on your blog.

Patty said...

I could never imagine blaming Mr. Rogers. He taught so much, so well; many adults could have benefitted from paying attention to what he had to teach!

Now Sesame Street ... I sometimes blame that show. The "You can be what you want to be, do what you want to do. Believe in yourself ..." song irked me. My children and I would listen to the song and I'd have to add my little "Well, you have to work for it and you shouldn't hurt others, and sometimes things don't work out no matter how hard you try!" sort of mom-talk which, I'm guessing, drove them nuts.

But maybe it's just that we all want to blame someone or something ... we need reasons. And just suggesting that it's the nature of humankind doesn't fit well because it is too fatalistic.

Ramble ramble. (Found your site via Musical Assumptions.)

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for coming by, Patty. Elaine (Musical Assumptions) is my wife, as you probably already know.

I'm disappointed to see that that professor's anecdotal comment about Mister Rogers is being recycled in syndication as something more: "Research Blasts Mister Rogers" is one headline. Ugh.