Social-Emotional Learning’s New Age Origin

And Its Quest to Transform America

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is the non-profit organization that coined the term “social and emotional learning.” It has been promoting this educational philosophy for nearly three decades. Nearly every K-12 school in America, public or private, is now using it as an integral part of educating its students.

On the “Our History” page of CASEL’s website, however, you see an obscure description of the beginning of both CASEL and Social-Emotional Learning:

In 1994, a passionate group of people came together to develop a field that would address the “missing piece” in education.

No exact date. The identities of the members of this group are unclear. Yet,

The group emerged from their meetings with a name and a mission: Both CASEL and the term “social and emotional learning” were born.

Why were the participants not named? Was it due to their humility? Or was it done on purpose? To find more details, you have to go to the website of another organization: The Fetzer Institute.

John Fetzer & The Fetzer Institute

Click on this link, and you will see the following Fetzer Institute action item under the heading 1994-2001 Integrating Inner Life of Mind and Spirit with Action and Service in the World:

Support of Dan Goleman on early stage of what has become known as emotional intelligence. This work also helps establish the Collaborative for the Advancement of Social and Emotional Learning at Yale Child Study Center.

Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, is CASEL’s co-founder. The founder of Fetzer Institute is John Earl Fetzer. Understanding these two men helps us understand Social-Emotional Learning’s origin and mission.

Let us start with Mr. Fetzer. On Fetzer Institute’s website, you will find the following description:

In his private life, John Fetzer had an intense intellectual curiosity about the “unseen elements” of life. He studied various forms of meditation, prayer, philosophy, and positive thinking, and explored various healing modalities.

Then, you read this:

The interests that shaped John Fetzer’s life are the seedbed for the questions that define the work of the Fetzer Institute: How can the secular and sacred elements of life be better integrated?

Aren’t America’s public schools supposed to be free of religion? What was he up to?

For that, you need to read his biography, John E. Fetzer And The Quest For The New Age. It is recommended reading by the Fetzer Institute.

He was a successful radio engineer and businessman in radio and TV broadcasting. He attended a mainline Christian church for the sake of his business, but his own belief is a mixture of Christianity and Buddhism.

He grew up in a Methodist church and had a religious experience when he was ten or eleven:[1]

He found himself in an elevator at a local Decatur department store called Shortel’s. He dreamed he was in that elevator shaft and that he was holding onto the leg of Jesus Christ. He was going up, and I was hanging on going up the elevator shaft with Him. He looked down at me. That connotation is that “I will always be there for you.”

Later, his mom joined the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church, founded by Ellen G. White, who claimed that she spoke to God’s angels and, occasionally, God himself. Under his mother’s influence, young Fetzer attended Emmanuel Missionary College, an SDA institution, where he built and ran the first radio station in southwestern Michigan.

After his graduation, he left the SDA Church. The book recorded:[2]

Once John Fetzer had broken with Seventh-day Adventism in 1930, he no longer felt he needed to be bound to a single religious tradition to seek the spirit. From then on, he ceased, as he put it, “to be addicted to church activity.” He did join the Presbyterian Church later that year, but he was very frank that he did so only for the sake of his business interests and was never active in the congregation.

In the 1930s, Fetzer was interested in Nicolas Tesla, who believed that the interconnection of all human beings by invisible “ties inseparable” was the basis for all true religion. He came to believe that just as there were “energy waveforms,” such as radio that connected human beings by sound, so there might be “more subtle waveforms” yet to be scientifically detected that connected people directly mind to mind.

That belief led him to consult with spiritualists in Camp Chesterfield, Indiana. Through one medium, he heard from his baby brother and father, both long deceased. He made frequent pilgrimages to the camp for readings well into the 1970s. One of the practices he picked up was consulting a Ouija board for making business and personal decisions.

He started to sample many spiritual traditions, accepting some of their elements and rejecting others, all in an attempt to create a worldview that would work for him. He was particularly interested in unifying all religions through a recovery of ancient wisdom from East and West.

Over many years, he eventually formed his theology. In 1967, he wrote an essay titled “This I Believe” to express his understanding. Here is his view of the cosmos:[3]

Around the central Sun of our Universe is a huge electronic ring composed of the seven colors of the rainbow which flashes with perpetual motion and brilliancy, as though a thousand million suns were being woven into it, to feed its transcendent luster. From every part of this rainbow-ring dart long broad shafts of light, sometimes forming into circles, small or great, whirling around the enormous girdle of the intelligent, scintillating, jewel-like, opal-tinted flame of the Central Sun within. It is this nucleus of the great Sun-Globe itself, revolving upon its own axis, that constitutes the sublime scene - the Center of the Universe - the Cause of all Creation, the Universal Mind, the Supreme Principle, the Primal Cause, the Cosmic Field, the Divine Spirit, Infinite Intelligence, God the Father!

He believed that human beings could be elevated to higher planes in the cosmos with the guidance of “Ascended Masters,” such as Jesus Christ, Buddha, and Lao Tzu, through the process of reincarnation. He was convinced that he went through several reincarnations, in one of which he was St. Paul the Apostle.

The way to communicate to Masters in the higher planes is through meditation. One practice is to use affirmations such as “This day in every way Cosmic Force is making me better and better” or “I am God Power; I am all abundance and free from all limitations.”[4]

In one of his efforts to ascend to a higher plane, in the 1970s he directed his foundation, originally established for the tax benefit, to focus on parapsychological research. He wanted to reconcile science with spirituality and explain and understand psychic phenomena in scientific terms.

To make sure people who worked at his foundation followed his vision, Fetzer made explicit his foundation’s commitment:[5]

We manifest the universal Christ Consciousness in order to bring true healing and harmony to ourselves and humanity.

We affirm the universal Christ light radiates through our body, mind, and spirit within the John E. Fetzer Foundation.

Today we affirm our mission of sacred service to humanity.

Fetzer said in the “Founder's Statement”:[6]

“...that there has been a great outpouring of energy and that humankind, on a mass level, is [now] seeking to bring into embodiment [a] great balance, individually and collectively” that will lead in the end “a world peace, a world government, a world financial system, a world language, a world religion, a world of one mankind.”

In the years after Fetzer’s death in 1991, the Fetzer Institute has grown, and its programs have diversified. Throughout the 1990s, the Institute continued to pursue programs in energy medicine and holistic health broadly conceived. It also focused on mind/body health education:[7]

Funded under this rubric were the popular PBS documentary series and book Healing the Mind with Bill Moyers, the “Courage to Teach” program of the spiritual educator Parker Palmer, and the work on education for emotional intelligence by Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, & the Dalai Lama

Daniel Goleman is best known for his bestseller, Emotional Intelligence. According to Wikipedia:

Goleman studied in India using a pre-doctoral fellowship from Harvard and a post-doctoral grant from the Social Science Research Council.While in India, he spent time with spiritual teacher Neem Karoli Baba, who was also the guru to Ram Dass, Krishna Das and Larry Brilliant. He wrote his first book based on travel in India and Sri Lanka.

Goleman is also a board member of the Mind and Life Institute, which was established to foster dialogues between the Dalai Lama and scientists, most of whom are psychologists, psychotherapists, neuroscientists, and social activists.

He is a big fan, if not a devout follower, of the Dalai Lama and wrote three books with the Dalai Lama. His latest is A Force for Good, The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World.

In the Acknowledgments section, he wrote:[8]

My gratitude goes first to the Dalai Lama, whose message to the world I have attempted to share here. He has always inspired me, since our first meeting in the 1980s and in our encounters over the years.

… For decades his message has guided me personally, and I am delighted at the opportunity to share it with a wider audience.

According to this book, the Dalai Lama is concerned with the wrongs of today’s world and wants to create a better world. For that, he needed a counterforce, a force for good, as he calls it.

The force begins by countering the energies within the human mind and that drive our negativity. To change the future from a sorry retread of the past, the Dalai Lama tells us, we need to transform our own minds—weaken the pull of our destructive emotions and so strengthen our better natures.[9]

The Dalai Lama has a plan:[10]

…the Dalai Lama has fashioned a plan that can bring hope, drive, and focus to us all—a map we can turn to in orienting our own lives, in understanding the world, assessing what to do, and how to shape our shared future.

The Dalai Lama himself only articulated bits and pieces of his vision. The responsibility fell on Daniel Goleman:[11]

With his guidance, I’ve sketched that vision here as a set of interlocking scenarios that combine his articulation with living examples, people and projects that are already making his vision a reality.

Here is the vision as laid out by Goleman:[12]

  • Start with taking responsibility for better managing our minds and emotions to form a “universal ethic” based on the oneness of humanity and best expressed as compassion towards all.
  • A muscular compassion” powers forceful action to expose and hold accountable toxic social forces like corruption, collusion, and bias.
  • A compassionate economy” reflects concerns, not greed.
  • Care for those in need—the poor, the powerless, and the disenfranchised.
  • Healing the planet.”
  • Solving conflicts “by dialogue, not by war.”

To make his vision a reality, the Dalai Lama puts his focus on education:[13]

… an “education of the heart” should help students cultivate tools for self-mastery and caring and for lives in keeping with these human values. If such education became a universal standard, coming generations would naturally act with compassion.

He wants to put a moral foundation into today’s education system:[14]

He notes that, for centuries, religion provided an ethical base—but with the spin-off of philosophy from theology, postmodernism and the “death of God,” many people have been left with no absolute foundation for ethics.

Like Fetzer, the Dalai Lama also wants to reconcile spirituality and science:[15]

Spirituality and science, he told me, are not in conflict—rather, they are alternative strategies in the quest for reality. The Dalai Lama envisions a partnership where the two work together, particularly in the service of compassion. As a basis for an ethic of compassion, he says, science can speak to a broader swath of humanity than can any religious faith.

But his view of science may be different from the conventional sense. For example, he sees Buddha as an ancient Indian scientist. He didn’t like the phrase “a dialogue between Buddhism and modern science” and would like to change it to “a dialogue between inner science and modern science.”

Regarding economics, I was surprised to read:[16]

“I’m a Marxist,” the Dalai Lama has often declared, at least when it comes to socio-economic theory. With its emphasis on a more equitable distribution of wealth, he clarifies, Marxist economic thinking appeals to him because “there is a moral dimension.”

It seems he was influenced by Marx or Hegel to have a dialectical worldview:[17]

… he wished the Eastern European countries, with their strong history of socialism, would come up with a new synthesis of socialism and capitalism. Instead, of course, those nations embraced the free-market models of capitalism.

His view of religions is that they’re really all the same:[18]

By his long-standing practice of making pilgrimages to the holy sites of the world’s religions, he affirms the underlying unity of faiths. As he told me, “The real purpose of faith is the practice of love—it’s all the same.”

To realize his vision, he puts hope in education:[19]

The only hope is the younger generation. Education can overcome distorted ways of thinking. That’s the only way.

He wants to have an education revolution:[20]

He sees modern schooling as needing fundamental reform, beyond the standard body of knowledge. The Dalai Lama calls for an education of the heart, with ethics and the capacity for living by compassionate values being essential.

This education would include basics of how the mind works, such as the dynamics of our emotions; a healthy regulation of emotional impulse and the cultivation of attention, empath, and caring; learning to handle conflicts nonviolently; and a sense of oneness with humanity.

… He looks to this radical overhaul of our educational system as one key to lasting answers.

… In short, his vision for the world would be passed on to coming generations as they are schooled.

Goleman made the following observation:[21]

Reinventing how children are schooled has been a theme the Dalai Lama returns to in outlining virtually every aspect of his vision of a force for good.

… He calls for a movement, “a revolution in modern education,” based on new ideas and new thinking.

The Dalai Lama was personally involved in this revolution.[22]

That visit led [Victor] Chan to found the Dalai Lama Center for Peace + Education. And that visit triggered a movement to include “social and emotional learning” (or SEL) in schools throughout the entire province [British Columbia, Canada]. By 2013, 90 percent of schools in British Columbia had such programs.

That is just the beginning:[23]

… his hope is that one day this approach would become part of universal standards for education, similar to standards for math.

Such an education in emotions could be part of the curriculum for every child, from kindergarten on, the Dalai Lama proposes.

… Part of this curriculum might even draw from ancient Indian psychology, combined with recent psychological findings, to widen and deepen our understanding of emotions and lay the groundwork for change.

Lest you think he is only interested in K-12 education, Goleman shared this:[24]

Over the years, the Dalai Lama has become ever more interested in meeting with fresh younger faces, like college students—people who can carry this vision forward into our future.

Goleman co-founded CASEL with Eileen Growald and Tim Shriver, one of whom is a member of the Rockefeller family and the other a member of the Kennedy family.

Inspired by John Fetzer and the Dalai Lama, both self-proclaimed spokesmen of New Age spiritualism, came the birth of CASEL. No wonder CASEL wants to keep its founding history vague.

For so long, we have been told that prayers and God have no place in our public education system. Yet, CASEL sneaked in New Age Spirituality. We need to examine its goals and methods to ensure our children and grandchildren are not being misled and taken captive to New Age religion.

Both Fetzer and the Dalai Lama have visions of a future America, and they recognize that education is the key to achieving them. But do you agree with them and want your children and grandchildren to become agents for making their visions real?


[1] John E. Fetzer and the Quest for the New Age, p. 8

[2] Ibid, 32.

[3] Ibid, 113.

[4] Ibid, 116.

[5] Ibid, 198.

[6] Ibid, 208.

[7] Ibid, 206.

[8] A Force For Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World, p. 221

[9] Ibid, 4.

[10] Ibid, 13.

[11] Ibid. 18.

[12] Ibid, 18.

[13] Ibid, 19.

[14] Ibid, 47.

[15] Ibid, 65.

[16] Ibid, 99.

[17] Ibid, 101.

[18] Ibid, 168.

[19] Ibid, 176.

[20] Ibid, 178-179.

[21] Ibid. 184.

[22] Ibid, 184.

[23] Ibid, 188.

[24] Ibid, 219.

grew up during China's Cultural Revolution and immigrated to the US in 1995. He became a high school math teacher after having worked as an engineer for 20 years. Disillusioned with the current schooling model, he became an independent math teacher/tutor in 2018. He writes mainly on education and culture.

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