What Is the Conservative Beef With ‘Social -Emotional Learning’?

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The Florida Department of Education has just banned dozens of math textbooks on the pretext that they fall short of the state’s newly enacted Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking (BEST) Standards. Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran struck 54 books from a list of proposed teaching materials because in his opinion they seemed to sneak in certain loathed hallmarks of the liberal agenda. “Reasons for rejecting textbooks,” according to a press release, “included references to Critical Race Theory (CRT), inclusions of Common Core, and the unsolicited addition of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in mathematics.”

The department did not release the names of the illicit math books, so it’s not presently clear in what ways they may (or may not!) have advanced “indoctrinating concepts like race essentialism,” to quote Governor Ron DeSantis’s statement on the matter. In a state that just banned its teachers from acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ people, such narrow-minded thinking is predictable, but one thing that stands out nonetheless is social-emotional learning. On its face, this concept connotes empathy, making it hard to pinpoint what Florida’s department of education might find objectionable. And yet, across the country, conservatives are increasingly mounting resistance to social-emotional learning — or SEL — as a sort of extension of their critical-race-theory paranoia. Why is that? Time to unpack.

What is social-emotional learning?

In short, social-emotional education helps children develop emotional literacy when it comes to their own feelings and other people’s. The goal of these programs is to build empathy and to help kids self-regulate, enhance sensitivity in interpersonal interactions, and communicate. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) — a pioneering organization in the field — highlights five fundamental principles that teachers can guide kids to practice in the classroom and, ideally, carry into their communities. They are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

All of which feels fairly straightforward and hard to argue with: The encouragement of emotional processing seems valuable-to-crucial if the goal is to avoid raising a generation of little sociopaths. According to the Washington Post, SEL programs aimed at fostering respect, kindness, and honesty, etc., have been standard in many K-12 schools for decades. Particularly during the pandemic, schools have leaned on SEL curricula to help students manage their mental health, but even before that, districts across the country were implementing SEL to combat rising suicide rates among teens. As NBC notes, some parents criticized those programs for fixating on suicide, when, realistically, the goal is prevention and teaching kids how to recognize depression. Those pushing back against SEL often seem to have it backward, but their complaints line up with a right-wing worldview.

And the right is opposed to SEL because?

Over the past few months, certain conservatives have zeroed in on SEL as another Trojan horse for progressive ideology — “the latest child-indoctrination scheme,” as the self-appointed “Child Protection League” puts it, per the Post. For context, the Child Protection League describes itself as a group that, among other things, encourages children to “freely express their political beliefs, moral standards, and faith” in schools and “experience personal, physical privacy and modesty in bathrooms, showers, locker rooms, and living spaces separated by biological sex,” if that gives you a sense of where this is going. It seems a segment of the right fears that encouraging children toward consideration and compassion for their peers will lead to acceptance of their differences, whether in race or gender or sexuality or religion or any number of other identity-based areas of life. Here is how Utah parent Lisa Bruns framed her opposition to SEL while (successfully) lobbying her local school board to dump its Second Step program. Via the Post:

It is extremely clear that Casel and curriculum like Second Step want to use SEL to reprogram our children into social justice activists for particular causes, causes that make them question objective reality, reject familial cultural or religious beliefs, favor socialism over capitalism, and push them to believe that racial, gender or class identity matters more than unifying as a human race. And that’s not good for them or for our country.

Bruns reportedly also complained about the program promoting “narratives of white power and white privilege” because it informed students that some people enjoy inherent advantages on the basis of their sex, gender, race, class, or some combination thereof. And if that objection sounds familiar, that is probably because of the broad overlap it shares with the conservative flap over critical race theory.

Remind me, what is their beef with critical race theory again?

In reality, critical race theory is a subject more likely to be taught at the graduate- or law-school levels, rather than in elementary or high schools, but that is not necessarily material to the hysteria at hand. According to Republican lawmakers in the dozens of states that have recently moved to restrict its teaching, the term critical race theory applies to any curriculum that touches on how race stratifies power hierarchies. This camp gets very upset about what is often a more honest representation of the ways systemic racism, primarily in the U.S., cements inequality. One popular conservative talking point frames this type of teaching in schools as a way to single out white children — make them feel guilty and open them up to bullying — simply because of their skin color. Thus the push by some politicians and parents to ban anti-racist books and educational tools basically because they might make some white students uncomfortable.

But SEL is not CRT, or … ?

SEL and CRT are not the same, though you don’t really have to strain to see where teaching children about bias would be relevant to their own emotional processing and to having more sensitive interactions with their peers. The Post notes that Casel’s “transformational SEL” approach has specifically provoked conservative ire because it speaks to identity and culture as crucial to SEL programs. At the same time, some SEL programs have also faced criticism in the past for failing to adequately address how factors like racism, homophobia, transphobia, and religious discrimination shape students’ experiences.

How do conservatives propose to remove emotional intelligence from the educational landscape?

What right-wing lawmakers in certain states are doing is banning books — see, again, Florida — or, as in Oklahoma, encouraging parents to report any social-emotional learning they catch wind of to their local district attorney. Indiana, Idaho, Texas, and Georgia are among the other states that have trained their sights on SEL, according to the Post. It’s a bizarre turn of events, considering that the concept used to enjoy bipartisan support.

One big hurdle to all of this is that for many people, emoting is an inexorable function of simply existing. Feelings do tend to arise, particularly when we come into contact with others. And as Dr. Maurice Elias, a professor in the psychology department at Rutgers University, observed to Newsweek, “We are educating kids socially and emotionally all the time. Parents are the first ones to do that. And then schools also need to do that, as do daycare centers and after school programs. So we’re constantly educating kids about social emotional stuff, but we don’t always do it intentionally.” As you can see, it’s a bit of a pickle.

Why is the Right Coming After ‘Social-Emotional Learning’?