Rights for All? Transformative SEL’s Divisive Worldview
Social-emotional learning (SEL), an umbrella term for a variety of curricula that target the development of emotional awareness and self-regulation skills, has gone mainstream in U.S. K-12 education. For most of its existence, the rationale for SEL has been that encouraging emotional and character development is just as important as teaching facts and skills, and may be essential to helping students perform well academically. SEL, it is argued, provides the psychological foundation necessary for students to master academic challenges and live fulfilled lives.
To many educators and parents, SEL had the ring of common sense, and thus the main debates have been not over whether SEL should be part of the curriculum, but over how much time and emphasis to allot to SEL.
However, 2020 marked a turning point in SEL programs, when The Collaborative for the Advancement of Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), which is widely recognized as the authoritative source for social-emotional learning curricula, introduced “Transformative SEL.” Transformative SEL dramatically shifts the focus from the individual acquisition of social and emotional competencies to encouraging students to understand their personal experiences primarily according to race, gender, or other group classifications. These identity categories are assumed to determine a person’s status in society as either an oppressor or a victim.
“We focus on issues of race/ethnicity as a first step toward addressing the broader range of extant inequities,” wrote Jagers, Rivas-Drake, and Brittany Williams in introducing Transformative SEL. “The concept of transformative SEL is a means to better articulate the potential of SEL to mitigate the educational, social, and economic inequities that derive from the interrelated legacies of racialized cultural oppression in the United States and globally.”
Transformative SEL entirely redefines CASEL’s original five basic SEL competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. The self-awareness competency, for example, which originally was built around the goals of fostering individual exploration and self-esteem, has been replaced by an “intersectional approach” to individual identity construction, in which students are taught to view their identities as the sum of the social identity groups—race, class, gender, etc.—they fall into. The self-management competency, which used to teach students skills like “resilience” and “social efficacy,” now includes “resistance,” defined as “taking actions to advance policies or changes that are consistent with human rights, social justice, and equality.” Social awareness now includes “critical social analysis,” “public regard of one’s racial group,” and “actions to ameliorate oppression and injustice and to realize liberation.”
Incorporating current anti-racism or social justice formulations into standard curricula under the guise of the character-forming role of education is deeply problematic for a number of reasons. First, as Helen Pluckrose has observed, people can oppose racism for a variety of reasons. Some might oppose racism out of their religious belief that all people are children of God. Others might espouse classical liberal beliefs that all people should be treated as individuals regardless of cultural, racial, or class categories. A Marxist might fight racism because it obscures the reality of class divisions. In a pluralistic society, a public school district that teaches students that there is only one way to be anti-racist is not only wrong, but it also makes it more difficult to reach every student and convince them of the virtues of being anti-racist.
Second, by encouraging students to classify themselves exclusively by the reductive categories of race, ethnicity, and gender, Transformative SEL fails to teach young people to consider each person as an imperfect human being made up of a myriad of life experience, ancestry, and cultural background. Ultimately, Transformative SEL diminishes students’ identities and teaches them to flatten themselves and others into stereotypes.
Third, teaching students to define themselves primarily in terms of a broad identity group—based exclusively on immutable physical characteristics— prepares the ground for tribalism and an ‘Us Versus Them’ mentality. Such a focus obscures the view of our common humanity. As the authors of The Coddling of the American Mind have observed, “This sort of teaching seems likely to encode the Untruth of ‘Us Versus Them’ directly into students’ cognitive schemas: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.”
It is widely recognized that children bring their “whole selves” to school. Everyone enters the classroom with a mind, body, and background of experiences and cultural influences. Schools and educators must respond to the whole child and will inevitably play a part in the development of their students’ characters, beliefs, and values.
The question for public education is not whether schools should be inclusive or sensitive to each student’s background. Of course, they should be. The real question is, will we prepare students to build a society based on universal, pro-human rights or will we set the next generation up for tribal strife?
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