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Curmudgucation: Identity and Social Emotional Learning

I believe a couple of things about social-emotional learning. 

One is that it is a critical element of education that we neither can nor should attempt to remove from schools. The other is that attempts to formalize SEL and deliver it in SEL-specific "lessons" are misguided and just generally a bad idea. I don't defend them.  

However, a couple of things jumped out at me in this recent Vox article from Fabiola Cineas about SEL. First, there's this.


Critics of social-emotional learning, like Parents Defending Education, a group tracking what it says is “liberal indoctrination,” say the programs focus too much on children’s identities.

This is nuts. This is peak "tell me you don't understand education without saying you don't understand education" But it also gives us another angle for understanding what MAGA parents are upset about. 

There is nothing more fundamental to growing up than identity--shaping it, experimenting with it, trying to define it, and just generally trying to figure out what it is. Young humans (and sometimes not so young ones) are trying to grapple with identity all the time. It is only natural that the place where they spend so many hours, the place where they practice working and socializing with other young humans, the place where they stretch and test their mental abilities--that's a place where they will also be working on their identities. That is why I say that education is the students' work of becoming their best selves as they figure out what it means to be fully human in the world.

But this is one of the fundamental fears of parenting, as old as changling stories-- you turn your back, and your child turns into someone else. Most of us wrestle with it at some point as the children grow, but for some parents, particularly parents who already live with a laundry list of Others that they consider less-thans, this fear is huge. 

They don't want that child to change into someone else, especially not into an Other. They want to send their kid to go to school and have them come back home as exactly the same person. They want their child to develop an identity only at home, under the watchful eyes of parents who can decide and control exactly what that identity will be. 

It shouldn’t matter what a child’s race or gender is, these parent groups say.

Shouldn't matter to whom? Because it certainly matters to the child.

The whole "just teach the basics" mantra is about defining school as a place where information and skills are pumped into the child's brain, while the child's identity just sort of sits in stasis all day, untouched and undisturbed. 

This is not just a bad idea. It's a hopeless idea, like deciding "I like my child right now at the size he is at age six, so I'm not going to send him to school, but he'd damn well better just always stay this size."

How did we get here?

Here's the other part of the article that struck me.

To be clear, most SEL frameworks have no connection to identity politics, but critics of SEL have conflated it with critical race theory, a concept rarely taught in grade school that argues that racism is endemic in American society. In the past two years, following the peak of the CRT backlash, several states including Virginia, Indiana, and Oklahoma have tried to enact legislation that restricts the use of social-emotional learning or bans the use of government funding to support these programs. And across the country, some parents are pushing for the removal of social-emotional learning. Reports have shown that many parents, including those pushing for the removal of SEL, still aren’t aware of what it actually is.

So how did we get here?

When parents couldn’t find evidence of critical race theory being taught at their children’s schools, political strategists went back to the drawing board to find something that would stick, said Jim Vetter, the co-leader of SEL4US, a national SEL nonprofit. “They started focusing on SEL as the Trojan horse to get CRT into our schools,” Vetter said. And that has meant scrubbing the phrase “social-emotional learning” from school district websites, more teachers who are afraid to correspond with parents on the subject, and an overall chilling effect, Vetter said.

My emphasis. 

I don't think that's exactly how it worked. I think it's more a matter of parents who suspect a Something Being Done at school that is threatening to change their child. Maybe it was CRT, but if CRT doesn't seem to be the Thing, then maybe it's SEL. This search has been going on for a long time. Fifty years ago it was long-haired commie pinko stuff. A hundred years ago it was evolution. 

It has to be Something, the thinking goes, because children wouldn't be LGBTQ or socialist or angry, pushy minority children (as opposed to quiet, compliant ones) if someone didn't Do Something to change them, recruit them, trick them. 

Rescuing the changelings

I think of one of the respondents to a "turn in your indoctrinatin' teacher or school" survey that North Carolina ran a few years back. The woman wrote

My daughter was raised with sound Biblical values, but just three short years [in]) public school has turned her into a full-blown socialist...even to this day, I cannot have a rational discussion with her regarding anything significant.

That daughter had graduated from school fifteen years before. And somehow it was three years of public school that turned this daughter into a person that the mother couldn't even find a way to communicate with.

I am sure there is lots more to this story, and I'm sure that most of it would make me sad. I don't care who you are or what you believe--it's a tough thing to have a child grow up to become someone you don't recognize, someone who rejects the things that you value. I totally get the urge to slap your child into a bubble and take control so that you can be certain they grow up to be the person you dream they'll be. I understand the impulse, but it's a huge mistake to yield to that impulse. It's disrespectful, it's treating your child as property, and it's pretty much doomed to failure.

As long as parents wrestle with these issues, we will have folks who blame schools. Thirty years from now, there will be something--not CRT or outcomes based education or SEL or DEI or evolution, but something--that will be held up as a Terrible Thing that schools are doing to usurp the rightful place of parents. And they will have part of a point, because when a young human works through the business of growing up and figuring out their best selves and what it means to be fully human in the world, the process is like a miniature gravitational singularity that drags in everything around it. 

Like every parent who ever parented, I have Ideas about parenting. You have to lead and nurture and love and do everything to head them in the direction you want for them, and it can be frustrating and even heartbreaking when factors beyond your control move them in another direction. In those moments, you have choices to make. But it strikes me a very useful to remember that the child should be building their own identity, and not just an extension of someone else's. 

I've rambled off again, but there are many layers to this. The parental rights movement is a lot about political and anti-public school opportunism, but it would have no traction if it weren't rooted in a primal parental fear about sending your child off to school and having some changeling come home, a fear that can be exacerbated by a view of the world that sees only a very narrow path that can or should be navigated as we move through the world. And sometimes schools don't help. Sometimes they implement ill-considered data-grubbing formalized SEL programs that are as intrusive as they are useless. And sometimes young humans have a hard time working things out. But it is impossible for them not to spend this time in their lives focusing on, working out, and trying to find their identities. 

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...