I grew up with a Presbyterian minister as an important daily influence in my development. This may seem like a strange statement for a child raised very much within the bubble of the Jewish community, but anyone my age with a television could probably say the same. I’m referring to Fred Rogers, whose TV show was groundbreaking in its approach to children’s TV programming in several important ways. This article describes the ways in which the education system is finally catching up to some of the core insights Mr. Rogers used to write and deliver his program. With my lens as a Jewish educator, Mr. Rogers was walking on ground that our tradition had paved long before the invention of television.
In contrast to many modern movies and TV shows aimed at preschool children, key features of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood were that it was slow, deep, and dealt openly and honestly with dark topics and challenging emotions. It is hard to imagine a modern TV show succeeding with an opening sequence that includes someone taking the time to tie his shoes and change his sweater before ever beginning to enter the script.
Much of this history is covered in the recent documentary film, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which has a 99% approval rating on rottentomatoes.com. You should watch it. In it we learn that Fred Rogers, himself a student of child developmental psychologists and pediatricians at the University of Pittsburgh, was committed to creating a loving environment in which it would be safe for him to address events as traumatic as the assassination of RFK, Jr. directly and honestly.
The science of learning has recently offered plenty of evidence that success in careers and life relies at least as much on the healthy acquisition of social-emotional skills as it does on academic content. Research-based methodologies like Responsive Classroom, which we have now been training faculty in for 3 years here at Gesher also focus on the important of teaching students strategies for managing their inner worlds and their relationships with others.
Of the many Jewish sources we can cite to demonstrate the ancient focus our religious society has always maintained on the crucial importance of healthy relationships and community, one of my favorites is the concept of tzedek, tzedek tirdof (literally: justice, justice, you shall seek/pursue). The pursuit of a just society is the guiding principle under which we organize much of Jewish education, but particularly the social-emotional.
Wishing you a meaningful and productive week, and an early Shabbat Shalom!