Last year’s “CRT” is this year’s “SEL.” For those normal folks who don’t obsessively follow education news, “social-emotional learning” (SEL) is the latest progressive fad in schools to ignite the culture war. An analysis of not just SEL’s faults but also the source from which it springs—university schools of education—does much to elucidate the cause of many American educational woes. SEL may be one fad, but it’s representative of systemic flaws in the overall system.
At its best, SEL is something of a secular character education stripped of virtue. No longer do students learn of prudence, temperance, and courage but open-mindedness and acceptance. No longer do students apply an objective ethics to their lives but choose their own subjective values. No longer do students learn self-control because it is right and proper but because it’s valuable for securing a job in the future. In this form, SEL is not particularly politicized, but neither is it effective.
Even in its benign form, however, SEL warrants skepticism. Is a teacher’s role to play therapist and psychoanalyst with students? What must schools push out of the curriculum to make room for social and emotional learning? Are a few mini-lessons and classroom posters declaring that “kind is cool” going to effect any meaningful change?
At its worst, SEL is a means to slip progressive politics into the classroom.At its worst, SEL is a means to slip progressive politics into the classroom. Social and emotional learning is difficult to define but euphonious. Who would oppose teaching children basic emotional skills? As such, it acts as something of a rubber stamp, justifying whatever dream-list progressive educators want. Everything from eliminating math and traditional grading to providing lessons on gender identity and privilege comes under the banner of SEL.
At the elementary and high-school levels, SEL is already ubiquitous—existing not just in standalone lessons but as integral parts of even math and physics classes. Thankfully, and notwithstanding the lamentations of SEL advocates, colleges have been slow to adopt and integrate SEL into their curricula. Nonetheless, a few advocates have, of late, suggested that this situation ought to change, and a few colleges are doing just that.
While perhaps understandable in lower elementary education, the inclusion of SEL in university curricula would, of course, infantilize what ought to be the serious work of a college education. One guide to incorporating SEL at the college level encourages professors to bring in pocket folders with inspirational quotes that students can decorate with fun stickers.
Yet whatever its future on the college level, it is indisputably the case that SEL in the K-12 system has its origins in the university. In particular, university schools of education often openly advocate for the inclusion of SEL in elementary and secondary-school curricula.
Consider just the North Carolina public-university system. Professors at UNC-Chapel Hill host webinars on and publish guides about the implementation of SEL in classrooms. Others at Appalachian State University populate their publication lists with studies and research into the topic. East Carolina University has even started international programs to foster the spread of SEL abroad. Across the system, professorial research about, specialization in, and advocacy for social-emotional learning in K-12 schools appears as popular as research into effective reading instruction or child psychology. University schools of education craft curricula, train the majority of teachers, popularize instructional practices, write influential articles both academic and popular, and lecture at conferences. Like an illness crafted in a lab, their ideas quickly spread through K-12 schools.
As I’ve written about elsewhere, university schools of education spend little time actually preparing their teachers for the practicalities of the classroom. Instead, they advance a radical, politicized conception of education. Leading professors question the use of traditional knowledge and the civilizing influence of schooling on children, preferring instead to let students discover an education on their own, free from the stuffy rules of adults or irrelevant literature like Shakespeare. Some go further, envisioning the K-12 classroom not as a place of learning per se but as the very source of political advocacy.
Across the UNC System, advocacy for social-emotional learning appears as popular as research into effective reading instruction.Such a disintegration of tradition and knowledge leaves our institutions of education without a distinct telos, and so we get vague, wispy, insubstantial goals like “social-emotional learning,” bereft of any academic content. If there’s no inherent worth to learning germ theory or reading Hemingway—things outside of ourselves—then the only natural alternative is a solipsistic obsession with our own insular interests and passions.
This parallels and even stems from the very crisis of identity that universities began experiencing in the 1960s. Student activists of the time didn’t just protest the Vietnam War but sought to remake the university itself. In the “Port Huron Statement,” arguably the most influential explanation of what these student radicals desired, the authors made explicit their desire to alter the very purpose of the university. The statement speaks derisively of university professors “searching for truth” and argues that these institutions ought to be the source from which a new-left agenda could begin. Scholars should not ask “what is true?” but rather, “If we wanted to change society, how would we do it?”
Compare the vision for universities within the “Port Huron Statement” to John Henry Newman’s vision in The Idea of a University. Newman argued that a university exists to disseminate and pass along our society’s existing traditions and knowledge—and that alone. Newman was wary even of professors acting as part-time researchers. Universities cannot be all things to all people—a professor’s time is limited—and so they ought to focus their energies on teaching. Ironically, Newman acknowledges that, through the discipline required for critical thought (which comes with advanced study), many students inadvertently develop the habits that modern advocates would call social and emotional skills.
Viewed in this light, the fight over SEL is more than a fight over how much time elementary school teachers should spend on phonics or emotions. It’s a fight about the very purpose of our educational system. Do classrooms, from kindergarten to graduate school, exist to pass along the best that has been thought and said or to form the next generation in a progressive mold? Are teachers the custodians of our shared cultural knowledge or therapists and co-advocates in a radical social project?
In a dark irony, many of these political notions of what it means to be educated all stem from schools of education themselves. If I had my way, more universities would follow the University of Chicago’s lead and shutter their departments of education altogether. Unfortunately, politics is the art of what’s possible, and such a move seems highly unlikely—in the UNC System as elsewhere. Instead, universities can contend with these ideas by at least reforming education departments. Namely, they can update their curricula for prospective teachers to include educational conservatives like E.D. Hirsch, readings on classical theories of education, academic studies into cognitive science and modern learning theories, or even practical manuals like those written by Doug Lemov on the day-to-day skills required for classroom instruction. Until they are reformed, schools of education will always have some new project, some new theory, some new practice that minimizes academic learning.
Ultimately, this all becomes a fight over what is worth learning. If Shakespeare and America’s founding principles are simply relics of the past, perhaps relaxation techniques or the anatomy of stress responses are better topics for discussion. However, if conservatives, or anyone who believes in a liberal-arts tradition for that matter, want to contend with questionable educational practices, we must do more than argue against concepts like SEL. We must continue arguing that some works of literature are beautiful, that some actions and habits are good, and that some truths can be known about this world.
Daniel Buck is a middle-school English teacher, a senior visiting fellow at the Fordham Institute, and the author of the new book What is Wrong with Our Schools?