Eleanor Bader: The Right Is Passing Bills That Ban the Teaching of Empathy and Care in Schools
At Truthout, Eleanor Bader covers the mechanics of how the right has shifted from attacking CRT to stamping out social and emotional learning.
Between 2021 and early 2023, at least 25 states saw bills introduced into their legislatures to remove social and emotional learning (SEL) from public school curricula. While most failed, the bills rely on talking points developed by right-wing SEL opponents who liken lessons meant to increase students’ emotional intelligence — teaching them skills like empathy, collaborative problem-solving and emotional self-regulation — to a Trojan Horse for left-wing ideologies of race, gender and sexuality.
Right-wing media continually amplify these tropes, and candidates and legislators eager to woo a pro-Trump base repeat their assertions as often as they can, promising their followers that they will not give up until SEL is forever destroyed.
Jennifer McWilliams, a former Indiana elementary school teacher who now works as an educational consultant, for example, told a Parents Defending Education webinar aimed at conservatives that “I like to tell people that critical race theory is the ideology, but social emotional learning is the delivery system of that ideology into our education system.”
McWilliams is not the only right-winger to conflate critical race theory (CRT) and SEL, but conservatives also have a raft of other arguments that they vent to supporters and those they are attempting to win over. Along with other members of Parents Defending Education and groups like Moms for Liberty, the conservative Manhattan Institute and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the right has grabbed on to numerous platforms to denounce anything and everything that they connect to SEL.
Max Eden, a research fellow at AEI and an education policy expert at the Manhattan Institute, for one, told congressional lawmakers that SEL has become a way to displace content instruction, burden teachers and turn educators into unlicensed therapists. Similarly, AEI staffer Robert Pondiscio has questioned whether SEL is “too personal, too intrusive, and too sensitive to be a legitimate function of public school and thus the state.” Meanwhile, Carol Swain, a senior fellow at the ultraconservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, calls SEL “emotional manipulation” and argues that it is responsible for a spate of adolescent suicides throughout the U.S.
These ludicrous assertions have gained traction, and as of late 2023, eight states (including Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Montana, Oklahoma and North Dakota) were considering bills to limit or ban SEL. Among the efforts is S.1442, a pending bill introduced by Oklahoma Republican State Senator Shane Jett in 2022 to prohibit the use of federal, state or private funds to promote, purchase or utilize social-emotional learning concepts in public or charter schools in the state.