Vintage typewriter with text "words have power"
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[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts … if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language

Barth Keck

Orwell’s renowned essay is included in the curriculum of my “Advanced Placement: Language and Composition” class mostly for its timeless message: Language, while often misused, is also employed skillfully by those promoting a targeted narrative.

Such is the case now with “social-emotional learning” (SEL). The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

Sounds like an earnest, positive initiative – because it is. But that doesn’t stop political operatives from labeling SEL as the latest public-school program to “indoctrinate kids” with “progressive ideology,” especially as it pertains to sexual identity.

“Conservative groups argue that social-emotional learning has become a ‘Trojan horse’ for critical race theory, a separate academic concept that examines how systemic racism is embedded in society,” reported NBC News in November. “They point to SEL lessons that encourage children to celebrate diversity, sometimes introducing students to conversations about race, gender, and sexuality.”

That intentional misrepresentation of SEL has made its way to Connecticut, most recently in West Hartford, where school board members faced questions earlier this month about the school district’s new SEL framework.

“Public comments revealed that the district’s social and emotional learning curriculum – particularly the components that deal with gender, sexuality, and identity – remains a point of contention or confusion for many, months after its introduction,” according to a recent Hartford Courant story.

The pushback is not surprising, considering how the National Review last fall featured the West Hartford school system in an article whose lead paragraph stated how students “are being forced to undergo social-emotional learning” and then went on to highlight nothing about SEL except the books on sexual identity included in the program.

The reality is that sexuality is but one very small part of social-emotional learning, a fact that conservative critics conveniently ignore when they appropriate the term “SEL” for their own cause – much as they did with critical race theory. Moreover, they often pair “SEL” with another term – “grooming” – to convince impressionable parents that the singular goal of social-emotional learning is to convince children to scrutinize their own sexual identity.

Fox News host Laura Ingraham provided a vivid example of this linguistic strategy when she unabashedly asked on one show last month, “When did our public schools, any schools, become what are essentially grooming centers for gender identity radicals?”

George Orwell would nod his head in recognition: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

Similar to West Hartford, the school district where I teach adopted a SEL program this year that students experience as one portion of the weekly advisory periods that were built into the schedule years ago. Among the SEL lessons for my high-school advisees: “Applying Student Success Skills,” “Taking Full Responsibility,” and “Reviving Digital Zombies” – not exactly the type of topics “identity radicals” use for “grooming.”

But once again, just like the outcry over critical race theory was stoked by outsiders who flooded Connecticut with disinformation about CRT, astroturfing organizations like Parents Defending Education are defaming social-emotional learning with hyperbole and flat-out lies. One would think Connecticut citizens would prefer to address this situation in true Connecticut fashion – at the local level – rather than follow the lead of outside groups.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened in West Hartford where portions of the curriculum have been revamped and some books removed from the reading list “as school officials reached ‘mutual understanding’ with parents and caregivers,” according to the Courant story.

“That was because of the communication between the parents and caregivers and administrators,” said board chair Dr. Lorna Thomas-Farquharson.

Honest communication. What a concept. Unfortunately, it can’t be achieved when deceitful groups use disingenuous language to corrupt thought. George Orwell recognized this fact in 1946. Connecticut citizens would do well to recognize it, too, in 2022.

Barth Keck

Barth Keck

Barth Keck is in his 32st year as an English teacher and 18th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him here.

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