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Opinion: SEL doesn't have to be a classroom culture war

Editor's Note: (Natalia Mehlman Petrzela (@nataliapetrzela) is an associate professor of history at The New School and the author of the book "Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture" and the forthcoming "Fit Nation: The Gains And Pains of America's Exercise Obsession." She is the co-host of the "Past Present" podcast and host of the podcast "Welcome To Your Fantasy." The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN. )

(CNN) "There are very powerful forces at work here," conservative commentator Glenn Beck intoned on a recent episode of his podcast, imploring his listeners to gird for battle against a what he called a "master grooming and brainwashing technique" threatening American children.

The enemy Beck and many other right-wing commentators are pointing toward is SEL, shorthand for "Social Emotional Learning," which, according to Beck, is the ideological "umbrella" for more familiar acronyms in our nation's most recent classroom wars: CRT (critical race theory) and CSE (comprehensive sexuality education).

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

Rage over these concepts and curricula has inspired legislation, cost educators their jobs and inflamed once sleepy school board meetings, but in Beck's formulation, all these are mere skirmishes. The "war worth fighting," he explained (amid advertisements for apocalyptic accouterments such as emergency food supply kits for "when SHTF") is against SEL, which according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning emphasizes "managing emotions," cultivating empathy and "making responsible and caring decisions."

Opponents like Beck and others view it as a nefarious plan to "get your kids" that begins with universal pre-K -- long before the language arts classes or liberal arts campuses often understood as the main arenas of conflict in the educational culture wars.

The right's treatment of SEL/CRT/CSE as a triple threat is not obvious: Teaching kids about White supremacy and sex is understandably incendiary to many parents, but what does encouraging kids to manage their moods or make motivational videos have to do with the "woke brainwashing" supposedly overtaking public schools?

Lots, history tells us, even as the familiar political fault lines that explain fights over fraught topics such as patriotism or pronouns don't easily apply to a curriculum that teaches apparently innocuous skills such as "self-management" and "responsible decision making."

To understand why these fights are so intense, it is crucial to grasp a longer, messier history of progressive efforts to educate "the whole child" and of conservative resistance to these programs that explicitly address children's emotions, attitudes and values -- especially when they challenge dominant ideas about power and identity.

But it is just as important to consider that unlike the schoolhouse fights that seem only to affirm and entrench political polarization -- whether about LGBTQ literature, antiracism workshops or trans sports participation -- contestation over SEL might just contain the seeds of something like common ground, if not quite reconciliation.

Both the most visible current classroom wars that conform to predictable political contours and the brewing battle over SEL are absolutely more profound than fake outrage. But contemporary clashes over SEL transpire in an environment in which therapeutic culture, over decades, has become much more mainstream -- and in which the traumatic impact of the pandemic on children's learning and lives is undeniable.

This unique circumstance could be a chance to begin a new chapter, in which schools teach children the critical skills and sensibilities to think and feel through who and how they want to be, for themselves and each other.

Over a century of the 'whole child'

Engaging kids on values and emotions is not new -- or newly controversial. For over a century, educational progressives have argued that education should be about more than academics, and conservatives have reliably railed against such suggestions.

In the early 20th century, philosopher John Dewey wrote that educators should focus on the whole child, "body and mind," inspiring a new approach to learning. In Dewey's estimation, children learn by doing (rather than just reading about it) and equal attention is invested in developing "intellectual and emotional disposition."

Dewey saw this approach as a form of social activism, but it was civil engineer and psychologist Harold Rugg who more explicitly, and experimentally, married such a holistic view of children with progressive politics.

Rugg's middle school social studies textbooks became famous for their critical analysis of American society, but it was his influential 1928 book, "The Child-Centered School" that pushed teachers and administrators to abandon the conventional "listening regime" in which passive, fearful students suppressed their identities and emotions in "outmoded allegiance to discipline and subject matter." Instead, "the new school" he advocated should be devoted to "maximum child growth" and "self expression."

American educator, philosopher, and author John Dewey (1859-1952)

By the 1950s, therapy was becoming more widely accepted, and schools began to reflect this shift. In "life-adjustment" curricula that emphasized "welfare" and "self-realization," "personal problems take precedence over the textbook," one advocate explained in 1954, and "sympathetic teachers" worked with a growing profession of in-school counselors to teach children how to be popular, when to go steady, and to just "snap out of it!," as one filmstrip was titled, to achieve "emotional balance."

If life-adjustment curricula used therapeutic concepts to reinforce 1950s conformity, the "values-clarification" programs of the 1970s were equally focused on self-improvement, but invested it with a New Age sensibility, encouraging children, in service of "mental health" and exercising agency over their own lives, to "choose freely" their beliefs untethered from restrictive right/wrong binaries.

For at least 50 years, these whole-child approaches mostly presented themselves as colorblind, universally applicable to all children. But as critics of racial inequality focused on the experiences of an increasingly diverse student body, rather than only on opportunity or access, some programs that promoted emotional wellbeing and ethics converged with those that challenged patriotic, celebratory narratives.

In one early 1970s curriculum, "Man: A Course of Study," children were encouraged to reconsider their own Western beliefs in the context of indigenous cultures and even the animal kingdom. In another, some teachers posed questions about America's role in the Vietnam War as a values-clarification exercise. By the 1990s, when magazine covers about an epidemic of "stress" proliferated and "multiculturalism" became an educational buzzword, schools that introduced yoga often equally emphasized its Eastern origins and its mental health benefits.

"Emotional catharsis," in curriculum and the broader culture, historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn reflected, had become intertwined with racial reconciliation. This was an optimal environment for "social and emotional learning" -- which originated as a Yale University School of Medicine pilot in two underperforming African-American schools and was popularized in a 1995 book by Daniel Goleman -- to gain traction as a way to address the psychological issues that perpetuated inequality and even put "lives at stake."

The conservative backlash

As long as such programs have existed, the right has consistently attacked them, especially when they openly acknowledge the aim of addressing the needs of minority children ill served by public schools and society. Curricula addressing ethics and emotions conveniently affirm two (contradictory) evil-teacher archetypes long in circulation in right-wing circles: the scheming radical seeking to brainwash innocent children and the lazy union hack who collects a paycheck despite leaving children academically ignorant.

For decades, conservatives attacked Dewey for masterminding the transformation of schools into "totalitarian" institutions under the control of "behavioral scientists."

"Comrade Rugg and his surreptitious sort," American Legion magazine seethed in 1941, "are weakening and smearing the minds of kids in this nation." Addressing the "whole child," these skeptics feared, gave teachers too much power to indoctrinate children with anti-American attitudes larger than any academic lesson. Sex education programs and "sensitivity training" sessions meant to promote cross-cultural understanding were efforts to brainwash children into the religion of "secular humanism," that supplanted godliness with solipsism, or worse, revolutionary sentiment.

Eighth-grade students sit in an integrated classroom at Mary E. Curley School in Boston on September 12, 1974, the first day of school under the new busing system put in place to desegregate schools.

"We must pull California out of the moral decay into which it is descending," Gov. Ronald Reagan announced in 1969 when he convened a statewide Moral Guidelines Committee to counteract the convergent threats he perceived in the schoolhouse: political radicalism, sexual libertinism, and teachers newly restricted from invoking God but who enthusiastically espoused moral relativism and the pursuit of pleasure.

The problem was not only political radicalism, but the psychological manipulation progressive teachers were supposedly using to promote it; one popular film screened by conservative groups across the country, "Pavlov's Children," blamed "mind-benders" and teachers for using these techniques to push "involuntary bussing, sex education, and sex sensitivity training."

In the 1980s, "Back to basics" became a rallying cry of conservative educational reformers advocating for strictly academic content, as they depicted "whole child education" as both a dangerous form of political indoctrination and an unserious diversion favored by teachers who inappropriately prized relevance, entertainment, and "feeling good" over skill acquisition. In 1993, Alabama banned yoga in schools (the ban was overturned last year).

A way out of this acrimonious stalemate?

Of course, schools have always implicitly reflected the values and sensibilities of the dominant, white, middle-class culture to which many faculty and staff belong, but which is often out of step with the communities they serve.

Even so, and for all their criticism, the right has often espoused its own explicit educational agenda regarding sentiments and values: promoting patriotism, school prayer, and "character education" that props up parental authority and personal responsibility. And as therapy becomes more common, in terms of Americans in treatment and in popular culture, this emphasis on emotions has become more acceptable.

Most recently, in a significant shift from the "f**k your feelings" ethos of the Trump years, it has been conservatives more willing to acknowledge the adverse mental health effects of long-term Covid-19-related school closures, and it was their complaints that White children are made to "feel discomfort, guilt, or anguish" about their identity that galvanized early opposition to teaching about structural racism.

Even as progressive efforts to address "the whole child" have sometimes sought to challenge the attitudes and ideas conservatives espouse, or at least to make them visible and to mitigate their harmful effects, it's indisputable that conservatives and progressives alike now agree more than ever that emotional and ethical development is an integral part of education -- even as they diverge on how to achieve it.

You wouldn't know this by only listening to the extreme positions that get the most air, whether nightmares of "government schools" orchestrated by a global network of socialist pedophiles or equally dystopic definitions of "harm" so broad that they condemn concepts necessary to keep school and society functioning, like "a sense of urgency," ambition, or even "standards."

But 90% of American children continue to attend public school, and a recent NPR/Ipsos survey showed most parents are generally satisfied with the schools in their own communities.

As a parent, a teacher, a scholar and a citizen, I am confident that most educators, parents and children agree that children deserve to be academically competent, kind, happy and self-sufficient and that the school should play a role in achieving those goals.

Given our lamentably acrimonious environment, SEL could very well be our next educational classroom war, but it need not be. It could be the beginning of an era of repair, in which children learn the critical thinking skills integral to understanding themselves and the world -- and engage each other on the thornier curricular questions of race and sex that adults keep failing to figure out.