Archiveology

Students from Incubator 143 in a homemade trolley

 

What Would Fred Rogers Do?

“Fred” is a four-letter word; and like “fame” or “life” or “love,” what ultimately matters is what we do with it.

Something about Fred and his work touched millions of children and grown-ups. No matter how or when we got to know him, we may still find ourselves wondering what Fred might do if he were in our place facing our challenges.

 

While most of us are drawn to the legacy by “what” Fred did and produced, the Fred Rogers Archive holds the best answers to the “why” and “how” inside Fred’s work. Understanding the principles and approaches that supported Fred’s public service helps us to adapt and apply them in our own contexts.

 

What each of us does with whatever we learned from Fred Rogers Archive is the only honest answer to “What would Fred Rogers do?” Even as we look to Fred’s Archive for guidance and support, the simple gift Fred gave us, paradoxically, is the conviction that each of us has something worth giving to our own neighbors and communities.

Examples of Archival Work

There are numerous short-term and long-term research projects that take place at the Fred Rogers Archive. Long-term projects at the Center revolve around the work by our PNC Grow Up Great Senior Fellow Hedda Sharapan to reverse engineer episodes of Mister Rogers Neighborhood back to original audio recordings between Fred and his mentor, Dr. Margaret McFarland to illustrate how complex early childhood development theory resulted in deep and thoughtful programming. Through the Incubator 143 Lab, students and faculty are engaged in the long-term study of the Fred Rogers Archive. Because of the diverse backgrounds and passions of our students, the inquiries into the archive are just as varied.

Society and Child Development

The gentle voice and presence of “Mister Rogers” is supported by Fred’s firm convictions in children’s development and the role of society. While Fred was intentional to offer encouragement and affirmation on television, he was much more direct in expressing his concerns for children’s development in a modern society in his speeches and notes. Anything that potentially influenced a child to devalue oneself or one’s neighbors, including overt rampant consumerism or inappropriate push of school skills into early childhood, is of concern to Fred. What is exciting for our study of the Archive is that, among raw archival materials, Fred used words carefully and intentionally, but did not sugar-coat his criticisms of things he thought were ill-suited for children’s development. These strong convictions guide us to identify and tackle challenges that still remain for healthy child development.

 

Our most recent endeavor is to identify across speeches, notes, articles, and even letters the main messages Fred shared about technology and childhood (PDF).

Communication and Social Change

Fred was a meticulous communicator. In the Archive, we are astounded to find that even Fred’s final speech copies (the ones he held in his hand while delivering the speeches) were extensively marked up. He was always trying to find a simpler, deeper, more positive, and more connecting way to speak to an audience. While audiences often look to Fred as the hero, Fred almost invariably made the audience the true heroes of his speeches.

 

Today’s communicators and advocates learn and apply much of Fred’s deliberate style of communication by examining closely how Fred Rogers framed issues, sought common ground, encouraged the helping professionals, and identified challenges as well as foregrounded hope. Our work in this area have been a resource for non-profit organizations who serve children, including the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, Pittsburgh Social Venture Partnerships, University of Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital, and many others.

Theology and Human Development

We are examining the theological understanding behind Fred’s approach to human development. To maintain a welcoming and inclusive environment, Fred intentionally limited explicit references to theological concepts in his Neighborhood program. But it is clear to us that Fred’s work was deeply grounded in his religious faith and his ordination as Presbyterian minister.

 

In Fred’s speeches and notes away from the television studio, he articulated the connections between theology, faith, and work. We carefully comb through and organize the texts of Fred’s sermons (on rare occasions) and speeches to religious audiences, as well as Fred’s own teachers and mentors, like his teacher Dr. Orr from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and his good friend Henri Nouwen, the beloved Catholic priest and theological author.