The Latest Education-Policy Fad Amounts to Social and Emotional Engineering

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (left), Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and New York Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez visit a Pre-K class at Public School 123 Suydam in Brooklyn in 2016. (Anthony DelMundo/Pool via Reuters)
New York schools have adopted a curriculum that purports to be value-neutral. It’s anything but.

Shortly after launching his candidacy for president, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced a landmark new initiative to promote “Social and Emotional Learning” (SEL) in New York City schools.

SEL is America’s latest education-policy fad — the Common Core of the latter half of this decade. As with the Common Core, proponents declare that everyone simply must be for it. The refrain “Who could be against higher standards?” has become “Who could be against SEL?” But, as with the Common Core, there’s ample reason for parents to be concerned.

SEL isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. Schools have always been in the business of character education. And as University of Arkansas professor Jay Greene pointed out, there is a nearly one-to-one match between the classical virtues and the “competencies” outlined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL): “prudence” is rendered as “responsible decision-making,” “temperance” as “self-management,” etc.

So, why not simply assign students William J. Bennett’s The Book of Virtues? Because, as SEL advocates will privately admit, progressive pedagogues can’t abide the word “virtue.” Too conservative, too wrapped up in the idea of human nature and teleological ends.

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.

The NYC Department of Education has adopted the SEL curriculum of Sanford Harmony, the fastest growing SEL curriculum provider in America, serving 8 million students in 18,000 schools. In the Sanford 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.”

Traditionally, teachers set expectations and students absorb them — or else receive a consequence for misbehavior. But SEL eschews consequences, diminishing the teacher as an authority figure, and instead of encouraging students to internally regulate their behavior, it encourages them to rely on external games and tools for guidance.

An SEL advocate once gushed to me about a classroom he observed in which every student made a “mood thermometer” to communicate and regulate their internal states. It is, however, far from clear that gamifying human relations and encouraging students to understand and project themselves through a pop–mental-health prism is a positive development. There is reason to fear that SEL will bring the “coddling of the American mind” — with its counterproductive emphasis on viewing everyday human problems as issues of mental health and “safety” — from college campuses down to the elementary level.

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.”

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.

John Stuart Mill argued that state education is a “contrivance for molding people . . . and the mold in which it casts them is the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or a majority of the existing generation.”

In the early days of the American republic, public education was seen as a vehicle for creating, as Benjamin Rush put it, “republican machines.” As America expanded, public schools became community centers where towns could promote their own local values.

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.

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.

Max C. Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of Issues 2020: Public School Spending Is at an All-Time High.


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