School Children Taught 'Empathy,' What Godless Nonsense Is This?!
Two families in Pennsylvania are suing the West Shore School District because, they claim, a social emotional learning program called "Character Strong" that is meant to teach kids empathy and kindness violates their religious beliefs as Christians. The parents have refused to say specifically which aspects of these lessons that are designed to "teach character traits and go in depth into what these traits look like and then follow up with practical ways to improve them in our own lives and with those around them" violate the Christian religion, and the school won't let them opt their children out until they do so.
Moms for Liberty, one of the groups supporting the parents' lawsuit, says this tramples over their constitutional rights. After all, the 11th commandment is "If we told you, we'd have to kill you."
"A lot of parents believe these are topics that should be talked about at home not with a teacher or in an educational environment," said Moms for Liberty spokesperson Allison Shipp. This would make sense if it were not something that directly affected other students.
Schools, employers, etc. are absolutely required to provide reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs. However, because the school has a compelling interest in teaching children to be kind and to not bully other students, it is reasonable to require parents to explain precisely how something like this violates their religious beliefs. In fact, if the program does violate the rights of Christians in some respect, surely it would be helpful to know exactly how so that corrections can be made.
In the lawsuit, one of the parents explained that they did not want their child to be taught about empathy because "Not every human is deserving of my child's empathy." The local CBS station found exactly one example of a lesson on empathy for their child's second grade class, and it was literally just learning what empathy is and singing a song about walking in other people's shoes. (Do yourself a favor and click on the link to watch a news segment in which a reporter reenacts a controversial exercise in which children stand in a circle and then step into the circle if a statement — like "I like cooking and baking with other people" — applies to them, in order to see the things the have in common with other students. It's pretty hilarious.)
The parents are being represented by America First Legal, which describes itself as "the long-awaited answer to the ACLU." Given that the ACLU represents people of all belief systems, we can only assume that they are specifically in opposition to the concept of "civil liberties."
The only explanation offered by anyone for what the issue with the curriculum might be was given by the very rightwing Washington Examiner, which stated that conservatives believe social emotional learning is a "Trojan horse" for critical race theory and the concepts of white privilege and systemic racism.
The CBS article on the lawsuit notes that "[w]hen the School Board approved the curriculum last July, the Superintendent said it had nothing to do with hot button issues like Gender Studies or Critical Race Theory."
Yes, but here's the thing — why are Gender Studies and Critical Race Theory such "hot button issues" for them to begin with?
Because when you really think about it, people don't actually get this kind of mad about learning about different philosophies and schools of thought outside of this particular framework. In no other circumstances do we argue that people shouldn't learn what people they may disagree with believe. It is simply an objective fact that many Black academics have called for prison abolition and reparations, but Florida wants to ban AP Black History because they don't want kids to find out about that. Queer and Feminist writers and thinkers have factually existed and have had an influence on our culture, but Wyoming Republicans keep trying to ban state colleges from having courses on gender studies and women's studies classes.
If we were to apply Kant's categorical imperative to this, it would be illegal to teach students what Kant's categorical imperative is.
There is no reason to be afraid of these topics unless one is afraid that the end result of learning about them is that their kids will become empathetic to other people or, worse still, become more aware of systemic injustices they face themselves (and more likely to demand change as a result). Empathy and compassion, not the idea of simply being informed about what other people believe, is what is at issue here, as these things undermine the power structure. There's a reason there some Christians who argue that empathy is a sin.
I think a compromise can be reached here. The kids would have to stay in the program in order to help them learn what is acceptable behavior during the school day but in the interest of balance the school can set up an afterschool consensual bullying program, so that Christian children of conservative parents can practice saying things to one another like "Ew, why are you wearing that?" and "You can't sit here" and "My mommy says you're going to hell" and give one another swirlies to their heart's content.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse