Written by Hannah Lomele
There are few advocates for the education of children more adored and prevalent than Fred Rogers, the inimitable host of public television’s Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Built on the educational principles of creative play and emotional learning, Rogers’ gentle thoughtfulness had, and has, great impact on the children as well as the adults who watched his program.
The sight of Rogers in his trademark cardigan sweater and sneakers is a familiar one to many. But he has a less familiar side as well. The lesser-known aspect of his long career in educational activism wore a suit instead of his typical garb, and sat in a courtroom addressing a judge rather than in his home addressing the scores of children who made up his audience—his neighborhood.
Rogers truly believed that everyone was a member of his neighborhood, his community. And as such, he fought for the rights of his community. Most conspicuously, he dedicated his time to public television, ensuring that all children had the opportunity to learn from his calm and loving depiction of the “inner drama of childhood.” In fact, he only started his own show as a response to being disappointed with the violence and superficiality shown on television screens. Rogers saw a need in television, and rather than waiting for someone else to fill that void, he created the award-winning Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Through these seemingly small, indirect acts of rebellion, Rogers demonstrated his political efficacy as well as that of all individuals.
But Rogers took it a step further when the Public Broadcasting Network’s government funding was being threatened. Unwilling to let financial cuts affect the education and futures of children, he appeared before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications in 1969 to fight for funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. His goal seemed impossible, but it did not deter him.
What follows is one of the greatest testimonies for education ever brought before the Senate. In his usual manner, full of passion, calm logic, and kind-heartedness, Rogers swayed the burly chairman of the subcommittee, John O. Pastore—who had never seen Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—to grant PBS increased funding, all in only six minutes.
Political efficacy is the belief in one’s influence in governmental affairs. Community members who are not active members in political matters often cite a lack of political efficacy as the reason why they do not vote, read the news, or go to municipal government meetings. A feeling of hopelessness has spread across the United States like a plague, making individuals believe that their voices are not being heard. Therefore, many people do not bother trying to express their opinions or fight for what they believe in.
Rogers provides a striking demonstration in opposition to this pervading feeling of civil inefficacy. In just six minutes, in a room of people who didn’t believe in him, Rogers not only secured funding for public television, he also increased the Senate appropriation from six million dollars to twenty-two million dollars. And, in watching the clip, it is clear that he made a believer out of Senator Pastore, who mocked Rogers at the beginning of his speech and was often described as “impatient” during his term.
Rogers taught many lessons in the thirty-three years that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired on television. But this particular one, to believe in the power of your own political efficacy, is arguably one of the most important, one that he had actually been saying, albeit in a different way, at the end of each of his programs for his entire career: “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.”