More Voices Join the Chorus Against Social Emotional Learning

August 30, 2019

by Karen R. Effrem, MD


As alarm about the problems, dangers, and poor research related to social emotional learning (SEL) spreads, prominent new voices are entering the fray to speak against it. Bob Kellogg at One News Now recently discussed SEL’s harm to parental autonomy and the academic dilution it causes, while Max Eden, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, wrote in National Review about the problematic SEL curriculum adopted by New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio for that city’s schools.

The One News Now article referenced the op-ed that Jane Robbins and I wrote for The Federalist, based on our white paper for the Pioneer Institute. We discuss how SEL is anchored in the self-esteem and outcome-based education fads of previous decades, how academics is being diluted, the close links to Common Core, and how parental autonomy is further eroding.

Max Eden offers a detailed analysis not only of the problems with SEL in general but also with the specific curriculum that New York City adopted. In addition to describing SEL as “the Common Core of the latter half of this decade,” he goes on to say:

SEL is an effort to promote means shorn of ends, to stress value-neutral methodological “competencies” while remaining outwardly agnostic about the particular or universal good toward which those competencies are directed. Because promoting a value-neutral notion of human conduct is itself a value-laden enterprise, the confused result is a technique-driven approach to social and emotional engineering that teeters between ideologies of relativism and progressivism.

He then lays out the specific problems — of which there are many — of the Sanford Harmony curriculum:

…the norm-setting process that has traditionally been implicit and internal becomes explicit and external. Students learn to behave and relate to each other through games such as “Emotions Bingo,” to map out “think-feel-do” chains,” to role-play “communications boosters” and “communications bloopers,” and to engage in “whole-body-listening…”

… Sanford trains teachers to understand themselves through a lens of intersectional “awareness”: categorizing themselves by age, ability, race, ethnicity, indigenous membership, social class, sexual orientation, and gender identity; to commit to “self-care”; to recognize and set aside “biases”; and be on careful guard against “micro-aggressions.”

The ideology behind these exhortations will likely fill the outwardly value-neutral “competencies” encouraged by the curriculum. The top priority of Sanford Harmony is “diversity and inclusion,” a notion that goes beyond simply respecting one’s peers. Teachers are told to “reduce the saliency of gender in the classroom,” and press students to “critically evaluate gendered information.”

Teachers will also “increase students’ awareness of how the media influences their thoughts and behaviors,” and train students to “critically evaluate and change stereotyped messages.”

There is, of course, nothing wrong with encouraging students to critically evaluate stereotypes. But parents ought to be wary about what that will mean in practice when it’s implemented by teachers reporting to bureaucrats who are trained to fight “toxic whiteness” and abhor a “sense of urgency” and “objectivity” as manifestations of “white supremacy culture.”

Eden then lays out several important implications and concerns of this type of curriculum regarding the indoctrination of children:

Indeed, NYC parents should be very concerned that SEL will prove to be a Trojan horse for delivering de Blasio’s hard-left ideology into elementary-school classrooms. And as SEL gains currency across the country, parents outside the Big Apple should be worried as well…

…But in the past few decades, power over American institutions – especially public education – has consolidated into the hands of a group that New America’s Michael Lind designates the “managerial-professional minority.” This minority, Lind contends, “demands willing assent to the ever-changing ideological party line of the bosses in their version of the Mao suit: the T-shirts and blue jeans of Silicon Valley.”

Behind the facially value-neutral fad of SEL in NYC lies a peculiar mix of intersectionality, the gamification of social relations, and pop-psychology ideas of mental health. Public education’s managerial-professional elite might genuinely not recognize these as elements of a particular and novel ideology.

Particularly important is the harm that SEL has done and is continuing to do to parental autonomy, as happened with Common Core, and the educational elites’ likely dismissive attitudes towards those parental concerns:

But as SEL sweeps the nation, parents will likely recognize that ideology and be alarmed by it. And just as with the Common Core, their alarm will undoubtedly be met with condescension, a response that will only serve to increase civic alienation and class division — to say nothing of the substantive effect this social and emotional engineering will have on the character of our next generation.

I suspect that Eden’s alarm about this aspect of SEL would be even greater if he understood how much SEL was in the structure of Common Core and how that was the intention from the very beginning of the U.S. Department of Education, the National Association of State Boards of Education and numerous other national stakeholder groups. Regardless of that aspect, Eden’s piece is a very welcome reinforcement in this critical battle to protect the hearts and minds of the next generation.


Dr. Karen Effrem and her husband have three children. She is trained as a pediatrician and serves as national education issues chairman for Eagle Forum and president of Education Liberty Watch.

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