Authors and After Words

According to Johnny Depp, "If you turn on the television and see the horrors that are happening to people in the world right now, I think there’s no better time to strive to have some kind of hope through imagination. I think it’s a time to close your eyes and try to make a change, or at least hope to make a change, or we’re going to explode." Considering his subtle and glowing portrayal of J. M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, in Finding Neverland, Depp has taken his own words to heart. He readily confesses that the birth of his daughter brought him profound meaning and evidently a new thirst for fantasy. Non-theatrical adults often take such a dedication to fantasy, coming from an actor, with a grain of salt. Aren’t all actors little more than big children? Besides, Neverland, Narnia and Middle Earth are ONLY figments of fantasy and imagination; why take them seriously? We take them seriously because, as we now understand through cognitive psychology, there is much more to fantasy than meets the eye. In order to describe the depth and importance of fantasy more clearly, I need to consider the very television that Depp bemoans because one of the great practitioners of fantasy also understood the structure and power of television to speak directly to both children and adults – namely, the late Fred Rogers.

Our traditions of story telling through imaginative creativity underlie our awakening of self-consciousness, both as a species and as individuals. This awakening is reflected in the developing mentality of the growing child. In this growth process fantasy addresses two vital functions. The first is to provide a means of "trying on the world," that is to rehearse or to play out alternative strategies for meeting and coping with the world at large. The second function of fantasy is to provide a pedagogical means to transmit the values, folkways and customs of culture to the growing child through stories, rituals, song, dance, – indeed, all the arts. Rogers used television to do both of these things, primarily through the shenanigans of his mixed human/puppet theater troupe that performed highly structured five act ethical plays, an act a day, every week, week in and week out. The setting for these plays was the “Neighborhood of Make Believe.” Via the ritual ride on the trolley, we were taken into “The Neighborhood of Make Believe,” (which is just beyond the bend from Neverland) where Daniel Striped Tiger could be assured that Santa Claus is not a spy and does not know when a kid is asleep or awake. It was here in the safety of this fantasy land that the problems of fear, anger, competition, jealousy – all the mysteries of being and becoming – rose up to be dealt with in an ultimately healing and redemptive manner.

The need for safe places where we can work through and experiment with the psychological, philosophical, and metaphysical issues of the actual world, continues throughout the span of life. The functions of human creativity (play, language, and art) are specifically designed to make these abstract elements of life concrete. All fantasy is rooted in one way or another in the actual world, and in so being, helps us to shape our understanding of that world and make our way through it. Consequently, there really is no such thing as "only" or "mere" fantasy for all art helps us to understand, adapt, transform, and assimilate our experience of the actual world. Everything we place before children or each other has a pedagogical impact. Furthermore, that impact has either pro-social or anti-social implications, which will ultimately and profoundly shape our views of life and each other.

Fred Rogers understood this. He knew well how our perception of the world either extends and enhances or restricts and constricts our experience in that world and he understood the moral obligation of television producers to clearly separate education and entertainment from indoctrination, especially where the minds and feelings of children were concerned. On the commercial networks, so-called children’s television was seen from the beginning as a means of conditioning children to become consumers. In fact, doing so was described 30 years ago by one television executive as "easy as shooting fish in a barrel." Fred Rogers and others like Captain Kangaroo and Children’s Television Workshop sought to develop television as an educational, rather than a commercial medium. They failed. Television today is almost totally a creature of the economically exploitive forces that are literally transforming a culture of aspiration with accepted values and a sense of ethics, with traditions of an inherited and creative gathering of wisdom and transcendence, however varied and multifaceted that might have been. All this is being reshaped into a uniform world of materialistic gratification driven simply by getting and spending. We are replacing our heritage and our cultural memory with entertainment that is designed for the moment, either to lure us into paying attention to commercial messages, or to be itself consumed and forgotten in order to make room for the next round of consumable entertainments and products. The problem is that we are all affected by this process, children and adults alike. But contrary to the curriculum of consumerism, we do not belong only to our separate selves. Whether we know it or not, like it or not, we belong to each other and to this world as well. We dismember our deeper cultural traditions and connections at our own peril.

Fred Rogers’s message to children through four decades of programming, through wars, assassinations and all sorts of natural and man-made disasters was that "You belong and are beloved." To their parents and other care givers he preached the need for children to be surrounded by adults who were determined to imagine a safer world and to make it so for them and for each other. Now we learn that according to the economic rules of market share and ratings, there is no longer room on Public Television for Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. How are those of us who believe that Public Television is an antidote to the consumerism of network television to understand this decision? One more portal to the uplifting world of fantasy, to the Neighborhood of Make Believe, to Johnny Depp’s world of hope through imagination, has been closed. What a shame; what a shame; what a shame!