Social-Emotional Learning Doesn't Have to be a Culture War Wedge IssueRoundup
tags: education, culture war, Social-Emotional Learning
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela (@nataliapetrzela) is an associate professor of history at The New School and the author of the book “Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture” and the forthcoming “Fit Nation: The Gains And Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession.” She is the co-host of the “Past Present” podcast and host of the podcast “Welcome To Your Fantasy.”
“There are very powerful forces at work here,” conservative commentator Glenn Beck intoned on a recent episode of his podcast, imploring his listeners to gird for battle against a what he called a “master grooming and brainwashing technique” threatening American children.
The enemy Beck and many other right-wing commentators are pointing toward is SEL, shorthand for “Social Emotional Learning,” which, according to Beck, is the ideological “umbrella” for more familiar acronyms in our nation’s most recent classroom wars: CRT (critical race theory) and CSE (comprehensive sexuality education).
Rage over these concepts and curricula has inspired legislation, cost educators their jobs and inflamed once sleepy school board meetings, but in Beck’s formulation, all these are mere skirmishes. The “war worth fighting,” he explained (amid advertisements for apocalyptic accouterments such as emergency food supply kits for “when SHTF”) is against SEL, which according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning emphasizes “managing emotions,” cultivating empathy and “making responsible and caring
Opponents like Beck and others view it as a nefarious plan to “get your kids” that begins with universal pre-K – long before the language arts classes or liberal arts campuses often understood as the main arenas of conflict in the educational culture wars.
The right’s treatment of SEL/CRT/CSE as a triple threat is not obvious: Teaching kids about White supremacy and sex is understandably incendiary to many parents, but what does encouraging kids to manage their moods or make motivational videos have to do with the “woke brainwashing” supposedly overtaking public schools?
Lots, history tells us, even as the familiar political fault lines that explain fights over fraught topics such as patriotism or pronouns don’t easily apply to a curriculum that teaches apparently innocuous skills such as “self-management” and “responsible decision making.”
To understand why these fights are so intense, it is crucial to grasp a longer, messier history of progressive efforts to educate “the whole child” and of conservative resistance to these programs that explicitly address children’s emotions, attitudes and values – especially when they challenge dominant ideas about power and identity.
But it is just as important to consider that unlike the schoolhouse fights that seem only to affirm and entrench political polarization – whether about LGBTQ literature, antiracism workshops or trans sports participation – contestation over SEL might just contain the seeds of something like common ground, if not quite reconciliation.