Earlier this month, Congresswoman Elise Stefanik sent New York education commissioner Betty Rosa a letter expressing concern that the New York State Education Department (NYSED) might use its federal Covid relief funding to promote critical race theory in education through the vehicle of social and emotional learning (SEL). Stefanik wrote that the NYSED planned on providing “social emotional support within a culturally responsive sustaining framework,” which it called “Transformative SEL” and said would be “leveraged . . . to support the work of anti-racism and anti-bias.” Stefanik asked for more transparency on the NYSED’s plans, writing that “shrouding the racist and divisive ideology of Critical Race Theory with vague and seemingly innocuous terminology does not diminish the harm it poses to students.” Rosa replied that Stefanik falsely “conflated social-emotional learning, the process through which young people . . . develop healthy identities,” with critical race theory, added that this “canard appears to have originated with Christopher Rufo,” and said she was “disappointed” that Stefanik would traffic in such “conspiracy theories.”
This fascinating exchange can serve as a useful vocabulary lesson for parents. Sometimes, the term “conspiracy theory” properly identifies a false allegation based on improper inferences between misunderstood facts. Other times, it’s wielded as a stigmatizing weapon, denoting something that certain authorities don’t want people to know. Stefanik’s concern fits squarely within the latter definition.
Stefanik did not make a broad accusation about social and emotional learning itself. Rather, she focused on “Transformative SEL.” Calling Transformative SEL a Trojan Horse for critical race theory would be an insult to Odysseus, who hid his fellow ancient Greek warriors within the horse and smuggled them into the city. The Transformative SEL strategy is effectively to place social-justice advocates on top of the horse, in open view, and gain entry by calling anyone who points them out “conspiracy theorists.”
For decades, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) emphasized a vision for SEL that focused on student “competencies” such as “self-awareness,” “self-management,” and “social awareness.” It gained bipartisan support because these competencies sounded useful, yet there was an emptiness to the endeavor. Self-awareness is good, but what exactly is the self? Self-management is good, but toward what ends should the self be managed? SEL 1.0 was, in essence, an attempt at values-free character education.
But in 2020, CASEL embraced Transformative SEL. For anyone who respects the English language, the word “transformative” should raise a red flag. To transform something is to turn it into something else. And given that SEL is defined as the process of developing “identities,” Transformative SEL suggests that the project is to transform children’s identities into something else. But into what, exactly?
CASEL’s website highlights a report that lays out the full vision. According to Transformative SEL, “self-awareness” now involves adopting an “integrated identity,” which “requires an intersectional approach,” rooted in “Black feminist theorizing that recognized that each person belongs to multiple social categories that occur in historical and sociopolitical contexts that may subject them to multiple oppressions simultaneously.”
“Social awareness” now involves “public regard of one’s racial group” and “critical social awareness,” which is defined as “an evolving understanding of cultural, economic, and political systems—how these systems shape society and how societal definitions impact one’s own status within society—to guide individual and collective sense of efficacy . . . and actions to ameliorate oppression and injustice and to realize liberation.”
And “self-management” now involves “resistance” and “transformative citizenship,” which is defined as a type of citizenship “most closely aligned with critical democracy, as it refers to actions taken to advance policies or social changes that are consistent with human rights, social justice, and equality. Such efforts might be inconsistent with or violate existing local, state, and national laws.”
Anyone slightly versed in critical race theory can see that Transformative SEL is infused with that left-wing ideology. It’s one thing for students to encounter arguments about “intersectionality”—a concept pioneered by Kimberlé Crenshaw—in a high school reading assignment. It’s another entirely to train students to understand their “identities” through an “intersectional” lens, or to teach that “social awareness” requires public regard for race and framing social relations through the prism of left-scripted historical narratives about “oppression” and “liberation.” Indeed, it’s hard to think of a more textbook definition of anti-American political indoctrination than a program that promises to train students to engage in a form of “citizenship” that may, through its means or intended ends, “be inconsistent with or violate” American law.
And yet, when a leading congresswoman expressed concern about Transformative SEL to a state commissioner of education, she was accused of trafficking in conspiracy theories. Stefanik would have been more honestly accused of demonstrating reading comprehension.
Parents in New York and across the United States are right to ask for more transparency about what’s being done under the name of SEL. And if schools don’t provide transparency—or if they simply dismiss these concerns—then parents should run for the school board or start looking into other educational options.
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