By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.
Just take three minutes, and watch this wonderful video. Underneath will be the rest of this entry.
I absolutely love this song; catchy, warm, touching. I bet many of you feel the same way. But I see something else. This Mr. Rogers dub will be a teaching tool for me. I am going to utilize this video for two disparate classes. First, Intro to Communications and second, Western Civilization. Now you may be saying, “What? I can see Communications, maybe, but Western Civ? Surely you jest MSJ?” Nope, I am completely serious.
This video is a wonderful example of the rhythm and musicality of speech. Our society usually identifies a clear demarcation between speech and song, viewing the two as related but separate categories of communication. Of course lyrics are a central part of song, but we usually don’t find much other commonality between song and our everyday speech, seeing an air-tight delineation between the two categories. Au contraire! This video proves that this delineation is overstated. The speech of Mr. Rogers turns to song when simply put to music. We can see that even in our everyday language usage we have a lyrical, rhythmic delivery that is unconscious and inherent. Another example, and strangely the complete opposite of the Mr. Rogers video, proves this point just as well. When language is arrhythmic it sounds inhuman because it loses its evocative, emotional power. See this video as example:
Now, onto Western Civilization. In his ‘chorus’, Mr. Rogers informs us that “It’s good to be curious, about many things. You can think about things, and make believe; all you have to do is think, and they’ll grow.” This seems like an innocuous statement. But is it really? The fact that Mr. Rogers is providing this message to children, and doing so with a vast majority of parental approval, provides an insight into our modern mentalities. Today, his statement about curiosity is almost banal. Five hundred years ago, Mr. Rogers’ song would have been one of cultural revolution. He could have found himself in trouble with authorities if he had been telling children that “it’s good to be curious”, since curiosity during much of Western history has been understood not as a virtue, but as a vice.
Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher viewed curiosity antithetically from Fred Rogers. During the mid-17th century, he wrote that “curiosity is only vanity. We usually only want to know something so that we can talk about it.” Pascal was not some Negative Nelly, and though he was an original thinker in many ways, he was not saying anything new with this claim. He was speaking for a long held belief in Christian Europe that curiosity led to nothing but pain, sin, and ultimately, death. St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the fathers of Western European Christianity put the matter in a straightforward manner a millennium before Pascal. In his Confessions, the great Bishop of Hippo stated, “From the same motive (curiosity) men proceed to investigate the workings of nature, which is beyond our ken—things which it does no good to know and which men only want to know for the sake of knowing.”
You would be hard pressed to find a more influential individual than Saint Augustine in Western Civilization between the years 500-1500, and like many of his notions, his take on curiosity became standard throughout the so-called “Middle Ages”. For those influenced by Pascal and Augustine, curiosity was dangerous since it led to the weakening of two major pillars of the Western heritage: Tradition and authority. Perhaps nothing seems as odd to us 21st century Americans than the belief that the authority of tradition should trump any sort of curiosity. The oddity can turn to disdain when we hear this belief travel down the road to absolute dogma. In anti-Mr. Rogers-ian tone, Saint Ignatius of Loyola zealously declared that “To be right in everything, we ought always to hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it.” For Loyola, Mr. Rogers’ little song would have been heretical; dare we say a stake-burning offense?
So, why are Loyola and Pascal outliers nowadays, and Mr. Rogers the accepted norm? There is little doubt that the Enlightenment of the 18th century changed everything, and Mr. Rogers is a child of that intellectual movement. The Enlightenment was crucial in transforming our modern, Western mentalities in regards to curiosity. Curiosity slowly became a virtue, not a vice. We could argue all day if this has been a positive or a negative outcome of modernity, but there is no doubt that Enlightenment thinkers have won the day. Hence, we hear the forerunners of Fred Rogers in the beliefs of many Enlightenment thinkers and personages, such as Joseph Addison, the 18th century English ‘journalist’. Using more complex language than Mr. Rogers, Addison relayed the same message when he stated that “Everything that is new or uncommon raises a pleasure in the imagination, because it fills the soul with an agreeable surprise, gratifies its curiosity, and gives it an idea of which it was not before possessed.” Today, we expect teachers to live by this credo. In Addison’s time, it still had the ring of revolution.
Mr. Rogers’ chorus is the simplified embodiment of Enlightenment discourse. By the time of my childhood, curiosity had become a virtue to be extolled and encouraged. Of course, there are still many out there who believe that Augustine’s and Pascal’s argument is correct, but come on, how are you going to disagree with Mr. Rogers?