Should US Public Schools be Teaching SEL?
"NO! We do not co-parent with the government!"*
For those arriving late, SEL means Social Emotional Learning. Although it’s aggressively marketed as being beneficial, SEL is one of the most divisive programs to ever hit our K-12 schools.
This is the third of my SEL commentaries: 1) SEL introduction, 2) Should a Catholic School be Teaching SEL?, and 3) this discussion of the Public School counterpart (as there are some significant differences from the Catholic school situation). [I also posted a fourth article following this: SEL and Critical Thinking.]
This insightful quote puts things in perspective: “In American public education: failure doesn’t come with consequences, and success is seldom replicated.”
A brief history of our education system helps explain how we got into SEL. This Report is one of the best for presenting digestable facts for citizens. The following is a condensed and slightly edited version of Dr. Kevin Ryan’s thoughtful Forward…
The government-sponsored schools of colonial America were brought into being for the express purpose of providing children with religion-based morality they needed to not only save their souls but to harmoniously live together in community.
Our insightful Founding Fathers (well aware of frail human nature), knew that their noble experiment of democratic government would flounder without a moral citizenry. Thomas Jefferson was convinced that establishing schools should be a top priority for the new nation. Further, he saw the role of schooling as “imbuing men with the knowledge and civic virtue necessary for self-government.”
Until recently, moral education has been a major priority in American public education! Resting on a generic Judeo-Christian religion code, parents and educators had generally been comfortable with the schools’ promoting and reinforcing this morality. Teachers were expected to not only convey skills and knowledge, but to be moral educators. To bring this about, they were expected to be moral exemplars, clear about right and wrong, and upholding basic ethical standards. Again, until recently, our public schools were willing and essential partners with parents in this task.
With the new secularism of recent years, the word “moral” (with its religious undertones) has fallen sharply out of fashion. This tracks with the decline of church attendance and support of US citizens. Both are largely attributable to the Left’s successful campaign against America and its standards. That said, public school teachers, still aware of the need to shepherd students into moral maturity, dropped the term “moral education” and replaced it with “character education.”
A dictionary definition states that our character is the sum total of our virtues and vices. Thus, character education seemed to fit the school’s more secular mandate, focusing on the virtues that support life in a democratic society and culture.
In recent years, however, even this religiously neutral approach to education has been too much for many public school educators. Fears of “imposing” one’s views and values on students have neutered many public school administrators and teachers. Having enforced the idea that schools be “religion-free zones,” they have left moral teaching to parents and an increasingly powerful media culture.
But if Judeo-Christian standards are considered archaic, what steps into this void and defines these virtues? Into this current moral vacuum slithers the antithesis of moral and character education, the vacuous Social-Emotional Learning (SEL).
To turn our schools into instruments that separate children from their parents’ religion, and to replace that with atheist, self-focused morality, raises profound questions about the future of public education itself.
The takeaways here are:
1) Americans intuitively recognize the need for moral standards in our society,
2) We’ve allowed a small number of Left-wing activists to demonize the Judeo-Christian moral standards that America was founded on,
3) That leaves secular standards like SEL, as weak attempts to replace the damned Judeo-Christian set of values,
4) On the surface, the stated SEL objectives seem admirable — but it is a trojan horse. In reality, SEL is a delivery vehicle for CRT, DEI, Woke, etc.
5) The promoters of these man-made standards are (by and large) atheists who oppose God-made standards, and
6) This puts us on the same moral page as Communist countries like China and Russia, as their standards are also based on an atheistic premise.
Put another way, the evidence clearly indicates that SEL promoters are advocating the atheistic religion of Relativism. This is extremely problematic!
Why is it that supporting Judeo-Christian standards is verboten for public schools — but it’s OK for them to be promoting a Left-wing, godless creed?
In other words, why are Public Schools allowed to openly teach such a religion?
One of the major organizations dedicated to promoting SEL is Second Step. Their About page lists attributes, etc. that SEL is purported to enhance. Then it says: "SEL concepts provide an extra dimension to education, focusing on improving cooperation, communication, and decision-making."
A profoundly important point is that Critical Thinking is a proven, powerful solution to improve “cooperation, communication, and decision-making." Further, teaching Critical Thinking would not be controversial, as it is 100% consistent with what public schools should be doing anyway. However, there is no mention of Critical Thinking in any of Second Step’s SEL material!
Worse, SEL proponents diminish the importance of thinking and understanding. For example: “As a species, emotion is more important than understanding because, in lieu of our willful rationality and effortful pursuit of universal truths, we are ‘wired’ for emotion and it drives us forward — up, away, and back again countless and quiet little cycles in life.” Got that? Emotion trumps understanding!
Stanford has a very detailed discussion of many aspects of Critical Thinking. Their conclusions regarding emotions are salient here:
“The emotions that drive a critical thinking process are perplexity or puzzlement, a wish to resolve it, and satisfaction at achieving the desired resolution. Children experience these emotions at an early age, without being trained to do so. Education that takes Critical Thinking as a goal needs only to channel these emotions and to make sure not to stifle them. Collaborative critical thinking benefits from the ability to recognize one’s own and others’ emotional commitments and reactions.”
The fact that the leading SEL secular advocates not only do not encourage Critical Thinking, but disparage it, is blatant hypocrisy. Further, it proves that SEL promoters have very different objectives (e.g., undermining America) than what they claim.
One last example. Here is an impressive list of 100 Findings Regarding Critical Thinking. It summarizes them into these key points:
1 - There are three core Critical Thinking skills: analysis, evaluation, and inference.
2 - The knowledge we store in our heads isn’t necessarily correct; it's just how we understand something.
3 - We can’t always be politically correct if we want to think critically.
The rub between SEL and Critical Thinking is point #3. The SEL proponents are all about political correctness (e.g., CRT, DEI, Woke, etc.), and are strongly opposed to training students to be at odds with these cornerstones of their belief system (religion).
The Bottom Line is that on the surface, SEL sounds enticing — but it is actually a mechanism to indoctrinate our children with Marxist ideology and an atheistic belief system. None of this is appropriate for the US K-12 public school system!
FYI, here are some documents and information about the legal rights of parents regarding the education of their children:
Alliance Defending Freedom (a conservative legal organization)
Child & Parental Rights (a conservative legal organization)
1925 US Supreme Court ruling states parents have the right "to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control.” Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510
1972 US Supreme Court ruling recognized the “liberty of parents...to direct the upbringing and education of children.” Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205
1982 US Supreme Court ruling recognized the “fundamental liberty interest of natural parents in the care, custody, and management of their child.” Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745
2000 US Supreme Court ruled the Constitution “protects the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children.” Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S.
Note 1 — Who am I to comment on public education? First, I’ve been on local School Boards for over ten years — even though we had no children in the schools. Second, I’ve extensively studied K-12 education and what needs to be done (e.g., see my Education Report). Third, I’m a member of Mensa and a Critical Thinker.
Note 2 — If you’d like to do additional research on SEL, here are some good materials: Report: Social Emotional Learning — K–12 Education as New Age Nanny State… Article: The Trouble with Social Emotional Learning… Article: The Latest Big Education Fad, Social-Emotional Learning, Is As Bad As It Sounds… Short video: Social Emotional Learning explained w James Lindsay… Longer Video: Social Emotional Learning | James Lindsay (Here he explains the connection of Communism with SEL.)… Testimony about SEL to a state legislature.
*Note 3 — A Tennessee chapter of Moms for Liberty has a fabulous SEL Resource page, with multiple videos, reports, quizzes, etc. (Make sure to scroll through the whole page.) The national MfL organization originated the excellent phrase at the top.
Note 4 — Although Dr. Karen Effram (MD from Johns Hopkins) died in 2020, she was a tireless advocate for children and a national expert on SEL. She authored some 50 articles on various concerning aspects of SEL. Peruse them here.
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