BY: Jane Robbins

It’s no surprise that a federal education program is moving beyond assessing academic knowledge and into the realm of attitudes, mindsets, and dispositions. For years now, the federal government has openly advocated teaching and measuring the “appropriate” (that is, government-approved) mindsets for students. The concept is known as “social/emotional learning,” or SEL.

Where did this concept come from? The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) cites research arguing that education should focus on non-cognitive development as well as academic knowledge. CASEL, the major player in this arena, has identified five “SEL domains” (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making skills) and advocates that schools take responsibility for developing these traits in students from preschool through grade 12.The first objection that leaps to mind is that, for the most part, school personnel are not qualified to plumb the depths of a child’s psyche. As warned by clinical psychologist Gary Thompson, placing this type of responsibility on largely untrained personnel is playing with fire. And since the federal government is actively relaxing the privacy restrictions applicable to student data, the chances of this sensitive information getting into the wrong hands are enormous.

The more fundamental issue, though, is who should be responsible for helping instill these personality traits: schools (i.e., government) or families? Each of these non-cognitive domains is nebulous, and the desirability of a particular outcome will vary from individual to individual. For example, a child’s parents might hold a different view about what types of “social awareness” are appropriate, compared to the government’s desire to sensitize children to “global problems” such as climate change. Or the government might value the “relationship skill” of acquiescing to the consensus of the group, instead of the parents’ preference for developing the backbone to stand up for the right and true in the face of contrary pressure.

In short, the dangers of transferring this type of child development from parents to the government are mind-boggling. Do we really want the government determining what types of attitudes and mindsets are necessary to be a “good citizen and worker”?

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