Republicans want kids to be bullies like Trump: The hidden agenda of the right's attack on SEL

Empathy and kindness are right wing kryptonite — so Republicans want to stop schools from teaching social skills

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published April 25, 2022 1:07PM (EDT)

Donald Trump | Children in a classroom (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | Children in a classroom (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Republicans, led by Florida's Gov. Ron DeSantis, aren't slowing down their war on public education. They really do seem to think they've got a winner with this strategy of misappropriating educator jargon, lying about what it means, and using that to scare gullible parents and (mostly) bigoted old people into joining the fight to gut a child's right to an education. This is how the state of Florida has reached beyond the scare tactics of lying about critical race theory and the "don't say gay" bill to banning a whole slew of math textbooks, claiming that the textbooks had, uh, "Woke Math" in them

A better picture of what the hell Republicans consider "Woke Math" finally started to emerge and, unsurprisingly, was largely centered on the latest right-wing hysteria. 

RELATED: What is "social emotional learning" — and how did it become the right's new CRT panic?

Republicans are suddenly furious now about another educational bit of jargon: "Social-emotional learning," typically shortened to "SEL."  Conservatives are complaining that kids are learning social and emotional skills like learning to say "please" and "thank you." Yes, you read that right. Being reminded to share and to clean up after yourself is being equated with communism. Telling little kids to play nicely together is the end of civilization itself.

Successful, well-adjusted adults are the GOP's kryptonite

It would be hard to believe, until you remember that these are the same people who practically worship Donald Trump, an illiterate bully with absolutely no redeeming qualities.

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If they consider Trump a role model, of course, Republicans don't want kids learning either math or basic social skills in the classroom. Generating new Republican voters means cultivating a generation of mean-spirited dullards. By god, DeSantis isn't going to let some soft-hearted schoolteachers get in his way. 

This is truly no exaggeration. As Kathryn Joyce reported for Salon, SEL is just a systemized way for educators to incorporate life skills into lesson planning, with an eye towards "helping students understand and regulate their emotions, cooperate with classmates and be more empathetic." It's also about presenting subjects, like math, in ways that encourage kids to get better at problem-solving and critical thinking, rather than rote memorization. 

The debate is about the journey to the right answer. Are they simply told the answer and expected to parrot it back? Or are they being taught how to think through problems?

Judd Legum, Tesnim Zekeria, and Rebecca Crosby at Popular Info examined the banned math textbooks and found that the supposedly offending sections were mostly focused on teaching young kids to be patient with themselves and others while dealing with difficult math problems. "How can you show you value the ideas of others?" a level 1 textbook asks. Other supposedly offensive book suggested kids work together on problems, and ask, "What can I learn from others' thinking about the problem?" And as the New York Times examination of the books found, some of what angers Republicans is centered around the "growth mindest" approach to education, where kids are taught to puzzle out ways to solve math problems creatively, instead of simply being told to memorize multiplication tables. 

DeSantis doesn't hide that all this creativity and empathy is what is teeing him off.

RELATED: Banning math books and attacking libraries: Republicans ramp up their mission to spread ignorance

"Math is about getting the right answer, not about feelings or ideologies," he tweeted in a video where he demagogued about how there's "a right answer and a wrong answer and we want all our students getting the right answers."

His framing is meant to imply, falsely, that kids are somehow writing "2+2=5" and getting As anyway. Couple that with his press secretary claiming, falsely, that teachers were saying the right answers are "white supremacy" and the conspiracy theory they're peddling comes into view. This is classic "Bell Curve" white paranoia, a racist belief that the "liberal elite" is promoting supposedly less intelligent people of color over supposedly more qualified white people.

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In reality, of course, the kids are still expected to get the right answers. The debate is about the journey to the right answer. Are they simply told the answer and expected to parrot it back? Or are they being taught how to think through problems? The latter is a far more valuable skill, of course. But it's also threatening to authoritarians, who prefer an unthinking citizenry that simply follows the commands of their right-wing leaders. The battle is not over whether two plus two equals four. It's over whether students know why that equation works. If they do, then they are less likely to believe Trump or DeSantis when they push alternative facts

The Republican loathing of the larger social and emotional parts of SEL isn't exactly mysterious, either. For the kids themselves, of course, lessons in working well with others, active listening, and exhibiting empathy all cultivate invaluable skills. Kids who learn those skills are far likelier to grow into successful, well-adjusted adults. But successful, well-adjusted adults are the GOP's kryptonite. They need voters to be maladjusted miscreants, the kind of people who think that someone like Trump or Tucker Carlson is worth following. So of course they object to any school lessons that put kids on the pathway to being decent adults. They need a voting population of assholes to keep holding power. 

RELATED: The secret plan behind Florida's "don't say gay" bill: Bankrupting public education

These fights are nothing new, to be clear. Conservatives have long championed writers like Ayn Rand, whose entire life philosophy was a belief that kindness and empathy are weaknesses. Being a bully has always been aspirational on the right, which is why there seems to be no end of loudmouthed talk radio jackasses in the mold of Rush Limbaugh. It's why there was a massive meltdown in the '90s over Hillary Clinton's book "It Takes A Village," and it still causes red hot right-wing anger today.  They really hate Clinton's notion that children should be raised to be empathetic members of society. The ideal child-rearing on the right is about an authoritarian father dictating his child's life, which produces incurious and small-minded bullies. In other words, people like Trump.

As Joyce reported, a big talking point on the right now is that SEL is a covert form of "critical race theory." This is dumb on its surface, but actually makes more sense if you view it from this Ayn Randian point of view. After all, kids who are raised to be good listeners, critical thinkers, and empathetic human beings are, in fact, more likely to be skeptical of bigoted beliefs like racism, homophobia, and sexism. To liberals, this sounds great, and certainly better than raising the next generation to be a bunch of ignorant buffoons like Trump. To conservatives, however, it opens the door to kids who move to the big city, have friends who are different races, and who may even, heaven forbid, start pushing back when their own parents say prejudiced things. Given a choice between raising kids to be well-functioning members of society, or raising them to be dim-witted bullies, Republicans clearly choose the latter. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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