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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Is social-emotional learning a Trojan horse?

While social-emotional learning sounds “positive and uncontroversial” in theory, “in practice, SEL serves as a delivery mechanism for radical pedagogies such as critical race theory and gender deconstructionism,” Chris Rufo, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, told the New York Times in a March interview.


SEL’s intention “is to soften children at an emotional level, reinterpret their normative behavior as an expression of ‘repression,’ ‘whiteness,’ or ‘internalized racism,’ and then rewire their behavior according to the dictates of left-wing ideology,” said Rufo, who led the campaign against “social justice” initiatives in schools.

SEL is not a “Trojan Horse” for radical theories about race, gender or Marxism, argues Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

However, he questions whether “monitoring, evaluating and seeking to shape a child’s attitudes, values, and beliefs is the appropriate business of a school.” What starts as concern for a student’s emotional health may become “too personal, too intrusive, and too sensitive to be a legitimate function of public school and thus the state.”

“As with so many well-meaning education reforms, SEL has a Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect, write Rick Hess, also of AEI, in The Dispatch.

As has been true with the Common Core and “anti-racist education” (née critical race theory), SEL can be reasonably described both as a sensible, innocuous attempt to tackle a real challenge and, too often, an excuse for a blue, bubbled industry of education funders, advocates, professors, and trainers to promote faddish nonsense and ideological agendas. The latter is why SEL invariably comes up as a justification for doing away with traditional grading, eliminating advanced math, subjecting students and staff to “privilege walks,” or teaching first-graders about gender identity.

Hess advises parents to see what sort of SEL their children’s school is implementing. Are teachers trying to promote tolerance, cultivate relationship skills and encourage better decision-making? Great. “But if school SEL missives are dotted with talk of microaggressions and implicit bias, parent-teacher night features a pitch for eyebrow-raising disciplinary strategies, or classrooms are cluttered with feeling thermometers and privilege maps,” then “concern is in order.”

Figure 3. Parents respond most positively to “Life Skills” and most negatively to “Soft Skills,” while “Social-Emotional Learning” ranks second to worst.

Parents dislike “social-emotional learning” and “soft skills,” but support schools teaching “life skills”, a Fordham survey found.

SEL became controversial when it went woke, reports Laura Meckler in the Washington Post.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (Casel), a nonprofit that promotes SEL, created “transformative” programs that incorporate race, gender identity and “equity” in response to left-wing critics. Students learn about their “implicit biases” and are encouraged to become activists.

That’s not OK with many parents.

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