In case you missed it, in a Fox News interview with author turned politician, J.D. Vance, this past week, Tucker Carlson said that he was bewildered by the fact that the fathers of students weren’t storming into classrooms and “thrashing” teachers for “sexually grooming” kids in schools.
You can’t see me right now, but I want you to know that I just took about a minute break from what I am writing just to let my opening sentence sink in—it gave me a quite unexpected and somewhat emotional, even visceral reaction as I reread those words. I can’t describe exactly what I’m feeling other than to say that it is somewhere between fighting mad and profoundly sad. I’m used to Tucker Carlson saying outrageous lies and incendiary things, but I’m still coming to grips with what has become of J.D. Vance. To Tucker, I’d just say, anytime you want to come into my classroom to try and thrash me, the door is wide open. Carlson isn’t really worth the time to get into because he is just a clown. But I do want to take some time to ponder the points J.D. Vance was making in the first place, and to use him as an example of how political ambition is a path to destruction.
For the uninitiated, J.D. Vance became well-known with the success of his best-selling memoir called, Hillbilly Elegy (2016). I read that book and was very moved by it. In it, Vance tells his story of growing up in the stereotypical, for lack of a better phrase, “white-trash” environment of Appalachia. He was emersed in a trauma-filled family beset by alcoholism, drug abuse, and poverty. He spent much of his time growing up with his grandparents because of the volatility of his own family situation. Long story short, Vance managed, almost miraculously, to escape his upbringing and, with a lot of help from some key people who invested in him, advance through college, and wound up with a law degree from Yale. Beyond the inspiring poor boy makes good biographical aspect of Hillbilly Elegy was an even more poignant message that hit home with me. The book very clearly revealed the cycle of poverty and trauma that so many kids grow up with and so few are able to escape—it also provided evidence that it’s an almost impossible thing to accomplish without help from others (a pretty liberal viewpoint). In addition, Hillbilly Elegy, intentionally or not, reveals how much people like J.D. Vance’s family and millions like them have been used as political pawns by politicians for years—how they have been manipulated by the Right to vote a certain way because of their strongly embedded faith-based values and patriotic nature. I came away from my reading of Hillbilly Elegy with the sense that J.D. Vance, a man who grew up in a very “Red” part of the nation, had managed to separate himself, at least to a degree, from his ultra-conservative bloodlines and become much more centrist, if not a bit left-leaning. Maybe that was my mistake, but that’s how I read him at the time. (I endorsed Hillbilly Elegy in an article I wrote back then which you can read here.)
Now, it appears to me that J.D. Vance has been changed by his fame. His book came out in the same year as the Trump/Clinton election. In the couple years that followed his book—and the bad movie that was made from it—it began to become clear that Vance was going to use his new high profile to start making some political waves. To my chagrin, he started sounding more and more like a hard-right Trump-et. As it turned out, he made a big wave and is now running for the United States Senate from his home state of Ohio. The worst part of this story, to me, is that he seems to have adopted the hardline, anti-public education stance that so many of his Republican colleagues have. This, to me, is a tragic development. It’s one thing for a guy like Vance to adhere to some conservative values and be a Republican, but he, of all people, should be a great champion of public schools. He was a product of public schools. He got his bachelors’ degree from a public university (Ohio State). He benefited greatly from the benevolence of others every step along the way. And now he goes on Fox News and spreads mendacious fallacies about how public schools are grooming students to be gay or transgender. He has jumped on this train of lies purely to advance his political career. He has sold his soul. That makes him, in my book, worse than a clown like Tucker Carlson. Tucker has shown us who he is from-the-get-go. The way I see it, Vance has betrayed who he is in order to gain public office and do further damage to the very people from whom he sprang.
Public schools are NOT, I repeat, NOT grooming children to be gay, trans, or anything else other than productive citizens. Show me an example of a teacher anywhere who has suggested to a student that they should be gay or trans. If you find one, then you’ve made the case for removing a single teacher because, clearly, that should not be happening. But that’s just it, it isn’t happening. What is actually happening is that kids are being raised in a world that their parents and grandparents don’t recognize. Older people went to school during eras when the LGBTQ community were being forced to live secret lives because they were shamed, vilified, ostracized, and had no rights. The fact that older people didn’t see a lot of evidence of the LGBTQ community out and about in their schools as they grew up makes it seem to them that the community didn’t exist. Because society has opened up and become more inclusive, a fact that has the far-right in a panic, it makes it seem to some parents that all of a sudden, gay and trans kids are popping up out of the woodwork. So, it must be that evil, godless, liberal teachers are grooming them. That is poppycock! What we have seen in the last decade is that more kids now feel less threatened if they dare to be more open about who they really are in schools. Since public schools are public—meaning all races, creeds, colors, faiths, and huddled masses yearning to breathe free are welcome and have the same rights to an education in the least restrictive environment possible—it becomes incumbent upon schools to foster mutual respect and empathy for all stakeholders. Bullying can be a real problem, and the best way to solve bullying is to create a culture of acceptance, empathy, and inclusion from early grades right on through high school.
That’s where the hotly debated topic of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) comes in. I’ve written about SEL here before. Public schools have come under attack for including SEL in their curriculum. In reality, SEL isn’t “grooming” whatsoever. But since SEL encourages students to try to understand and get along with their peers who may have different world views, values, or orientations, small groups of radical-right parents (I wrote about one such group here) are extremely threatened by the idea that their children are being encouraged not to hate other kids because they are different. So, they twist the concept of SEL into something that is unrecognizable to anyone who has actually seen it in action. In short, they spread outright false propaganda to try to scare and stir up more rational conservative parents.
Below, you will find the scaffolding for what Social and Emotional Learning truly looks like. I think you’ll find that it isn’t grooming any child to be anything other than a productive, kind, and empathetic person.
- Developing your interests and passions
- Setting and achieving your goals
- Handling changing relationships
- Managing your thoughts and emotions
- Dealing with social conflicts
If you are threatened by children being encouraged to find understanding and empathy as they navigate through a world that has evolved well beyond where it was when you were their age, then I would suggest that you are so indoctrinated by an exclusive, judgmental, divisive, hateful, bastardized understanding of faith-based values that you are far past the ability to comprehend it.
Most of the people who are so threatened by Social and Emotional Learning defend their stance based upon their understanding of Christian values. Most of them probably got a kick out of it when Tucker Carlson bemoaned the fact that dads weren’t storming schools to “thrash” teachers for “grooming” their kids to be gay or trans. I couldn’t help noticing that J.D. Vance chuckled to himself, somewhat uncomfortably, when Carlson said that on Fox (you can watch that exchange here).
My question to the Christians who are buying into such outrageous propaganda is this: Would Jesus have gotten a kick out of Tucker Carlson’s comment suggesting the committing acts of violence against teachers for simply trying to cultivate a culture of empathy and love for their neighbors in school?