Social Radical: Mr Rogers?

LATROBE — When he died in 2003, Fred Rogers was described in many headlines as gentle, beloved, kind and — of course — neighborly.

But how about radical? Counter-cultural? Trouble-maker?

Scholars and others are using such adjectives as they assess the legacy of the late creator and host of the long-running “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

For all his much-parodied gentle voice and manner, the Latrobe native actually worked from a steely social conscience. He used his program, with its non-threatening benign puppets, songs and conversation, to raise provocative topics such as war, peace, race, gender and poverty with his audience of preschoolers and their parents — patiently guiding them across the minefields of late 20th century political and social change.

Mr. Rogers was no “meek and mild pushover,” wrote Michael Long, author of the recent book, “Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers.”

Mr. Rogers was “a quiet but strong American prophet who, with roots in progressive spirituality, invited us to make the world into a counter-cultural neighborhood of love,” said Mr. Long, a professor of religious studies and peace and conflict studies at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College.

An early example could be seen on a recent afternoon in a classroom at the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media on the campus of St. Vincent College in Latrobe. The center was formed to carry on his legacy, and that includes learning to be bold advocates when needed, said its co-director, Junlei Li.

Mr. Li, a professor of psychological science, is teaching a seminar this semester titled, “What Would Fred Rogers Do?”.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.