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After deliberating for two years, a national commission is pushing to implement social-emotional learning (SEL) in all government schools. The commission, led by The Aspen Institute, is farming the movement as a benign matter of developing “the whole child.”

SEL is a red-hot item on the panacea shelf in the fad-prone realm of mass education right now, as is computerized personalized learning. Hence, a plug from Aspen’s globalist thinkers could be an added boost.

The first recommendation of Aspen’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Achievement is that policymakers “set a clear vision that broadens the definition of student success to prioritize the whole child.”

The whole child phenomenon is not at all original. It stems from the theories of progressive-education ideologue John Dewey. Dewey believed that educators should nurture students’ hearts as well as heads and let them learn largely by doing. For many decades, this so-called child-centered approach has been in conflict with the ideal of teachers directly transmitting essential knowledge to their students.

Unfortunately, the freshly minted SEL whole child model is wired to be far more systematic—and yes, potentially insidious—than the old permissiveness. Aspen’s panel, co-chaired by well-known progressive Linda Darling Hammond, declared that “children require” a wide range of “skills, attitudes, character traits, and values to succeed in school, careers, and life.” Furthermore, SEL personal traits, the commission emphasized, “are increasingly demanded in the American workplace, which puts a premium on the ability to work in diverse teams, grapple with difficult problems, and adjust to rapid change.”

Federal and foundation partnerships aim to embed SEL into the daily fabric of government schooling. When powerful elites and institutions—such as Aspen—speak of attitudes, dispositions, and values that schoolchildren “require” in order to be “whole,” they use gentle-sounding terms such as collaboration, perseverance, a sense of responsibility, and the abilities to “think critically, consider diverse views, and problem-solve.”

Unfortunately, the reality is that subjective judgments by government employees using predetermined guidelines will decide how children rate on their ideological views. SEL opens a pathway for encouraging collectivist groupthink—a socialistic mindset—in ways more stealthy than already practiced in government schools.

Aspen advocates “standards” (not unlike Common Core) so that all schools follow the “whole child” model by building SEL “skills and competencies” into all academic content and even into recess, the lunchrooms, hallways, and extracurricular activities. The commission also wants SEL assessments to “capture the full gamut of young people’s knowledge and skills,” and cadres of bureaucrats trained to interpret and use the data. No where is there any mention of protecting students’ privacy rights from dumps of the vast data collected on their innermost feelings.

Nor do Aspen’s cosmic thinkers exhibit regard for parents’ rights to supervise the upbringing of their children and to have a reasonable expectation that taxpayer-funded schools are not going to transmit values diametrically opposed to those taught at home. The commission does briefly speak of having discussions with families and mentions “home visits” as one possibility. One must wonder if that would be akin to the universal home visits by state health authorities that Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) currently is seeking to implement for all newborns in the Beaver State. 

The whole child movement depends on the raw exercise of totalitarian power to erase parental rights. To thwart it, parents must gain the clout to select schools that respect family values and help children become well-rounded, independent-thinking individuals. Education savings accounts, tax-credit scholarships, private-choice vouchers, and homeschooling are among the most promising options for safeguarding the freedom necessary for the American dream to survive.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.

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