Controversial group tries to spruce up its image with its own brand of back-to-basics schooling
by Enzo Di Matteo
Quaint Clarkson, tucked away on the westernmost edge of Mississauga, seems as unlikely a place as any to find L. Ron Hubbard, sci-fi-writer-turned-icon and founder of the much-vilified Church of Scientology.
But here, just past the picket fences and over the train tracks where the old post office used to be, the portrait that graces Hubbard’s opus Dianetics: The Modern Science Of Mental Health — sailor cap, face turned upward, blue sky in the background — hangs in the foyer of the Ability School, depicting the prospect of endless possibilities. Ability is one of four private schools in the country that use Hubbard’s Study Technology, or “study tech,” a back-to-basics method of learning that emphasizes dictionary use and “clearing” the meanings of words.
Books with titles like Learning How To Learn and Study Skills For Life are part of the curricula. But some of the other titles stacked on glass shelves nearby seem to go beyond the three Rs that are the focus here. Among them, Hubbard’s The Way To Happiness and Clear Body Clear Mind.
The titles recall Scientology’s teaching that psychiatry and psychology, “armed to the teeth with tools derived from animal experiment,” are responsible for all that ails the education system and have made the classroom into “a psychological factory for social reform.
I’m here to meet Ability director Maguite Wilkens — my encounter with her, complete with a subtle invitation to lunch later, is alluring — but I’m not sure exactly what to expect.
The group is highly suspicious of the media and rarely allows outsiders a glimpse inside. I’ve read the stories about reporters who’ve written critically about Scientology being harassed, private investigators put on their tail. Accounts spread by former members across the Internet — Scientology’s Vietnam, says one — range from the harrowing to the nearly unimaginable. “A hate campaign,” Scientology calls it.
There was also that nasty legal episode in 1984 when the group was found to be in possession of stolen documents from Ontario’s attorney general’s office. And it was later hit with a $1.6 million libel judgment for trying to discredit Casey Hill, the Crown attorney who tried the case.
Organization members say that’s all in the past. It seems Scientology is trying to remake its image here, much as it has been doing in the U.S. And, as in the States, it’s also trying to win charitable status.
South of the border, there have also been forays by Scientology into poor, minority neighbourhoods where Hubbard’s learn-to-read study tech is being sold as a way out of a life of crime, teen pregnancy and drugs.
These efforts have raised eyebrows, given some of Hubbard’s pronouncements on race, even as the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) honoured the group with three awards last April. ”
The turnabout — similar forays into minority communities are in the works here — seems a curious one for an organization that’s known more for “helping the able become more able,” as one former Scientologist puts it, and for embracing Hollywood movie stars.
Former members say that what’s behind the minority manoeuvring is marketing and a first step toward indoctrinating new recruits.
Not so, says the organization. Although study tech is identified by Scientology as a religious practice, officials in the group also say it’s nothing more than an approach to learning.
Up and running in minority communities in 26 cities in the U.S. under the umbrella of the Compton, California-based World Literacy Crusade, and with singer/songwriter-turned-Scientologist Isaac Hayes as its international spokesperson, study tech is buying the group influence in black communities in America. In a ceremony largely missed by the media south of the border, the western regional office of the NAACP honoured Hubbard, Hayes and Scientology International president Heber Jentzsch with three of the its most prestigious awards for bringing study tech to African-American communities.
Over the phone from Compton, where the World Literacy Crusade rose from the ashes of the L.A. riots in 92, co-founder and CEO the reverend Alfreddie Johnson is singing the praises of study tech with that familiar Baptist repartie. I can picture him in the smart white suit and carnation he’s wearing in a photo among materials sent by Scientology.
“We have more African-American males in prisons than we have in colleges and universities,” he says. “This is a very serious indictment of our education system. You have no idea how much insanity exists in our community.”
Johnson, who also works as a family counsellor in L.A. county, was introduced to study tech at a seminar when he was running Genesys, a community-based program for problem youth. He says the learn-to-read effort has attracted the support of judges, members of Congress, police officers and other high-profile members of the community, and that 1,500 young people and adults have benefited from its teachings.
“For me, it’s always been an issue of being able to understand words,” Johnson says. “If they can’t understand, they can’t communicate, they can’t have power to be able to control their environment. It sounds like an over-simplification, but it’s actually very simple.”
Johnson speaks the language of the converted, and it comes out during our conversation that he’s “gone on course,” dabbled in Scientology’s teachings and is attracted to its “pure old common sense.” He quotes liberally from Hubbard’s writings, according him prophet status.
“A true messenger brings you solutions,” Johnson says. “If he brings you a religion that brings you emotionalism and causes you not to be responsible, then he is a false prophet. If he brings you information that makes you responsible, then he’s a true prophet, a messenger of god.”
When the conversation turns to study tech as a recruitment tool, Johnson scoffs.
“Absolutely ridiculous,” he says.
He’s caught more off guard, though, when I read him Hubbard’s less well-known pronouncements on race. “From what I’ve seen (of Scientology), it’s just been very positive,” Johnson says. “I wish you would fax me over some of this.”
In the end, however, it’s Johnson who’s doing the faxing. He sends over a three-page letter Sunday night.
“What disturbs me immensely is that there are some media who continue to look for loopholes to sensationalize,” Johnson writes.
The letter goes on to describe a study tech success story of one student “who came to us caught up in gang-banging and a life on the streets” and is now a manager at a Taco Bell. The letter’s carbon-copied to the vice-president of Scientology.
When Al Buttnor, Scientology’s Toronto director of public affairs, is asked about Hubbard’s pronouncements on race, he answers, “You didn’t know anything about Scientology (during an interview) yesterday,” he says. “I mean, your magazine publishes articles about porn.”
The NAACP is the oldest, largest and most influential civil rights organization in the U.S. Its total membership exceeds 500,000. Awards like the ones given to Hubbard et al. — Hubbard posthumously received the leadership award named after NAACP co-founder W.E.B. DuBois — ordinarily go through the NAACP’s national board.
But that’s not what happened in Scientology’s case. Instead, it was the western regional office in Los Angeles, then headed by Ernestine Peters, that decided to confer the awards. Peters has since gone on to work with the NAACP’s Image Awards. “I don’t know why it’s so interesting to so many people, why L. Ron Hubbard or the Church of Scientology is controversial, because I look at them as just another religious group,” she says.
This past March, however, when Boston Herald reporter Joseph Mallia wrote a stinging five-part series on Scientology’s study tech and its “targets” in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, the NAACP’s Boston head, Leonard Alkins, told the black weekly Bay State Banner that he was under instructions from the NAACP leadership not to attach the NAACP’s name to a Scientology effort to discredit the series as “racist.”
Scientology had earlier approached Alkins about joining a media watchdog group to protest the Herald series. Mallia says the Herald’s offices were picketed and bombarded with angry e-mails and faxes. Alkins, for his part, did not return calls from NOW to both his office and home.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson in the Baltimore head office of NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, referred all questions about the Scientology awards to the NAACP’s western regional office.
There, Peters’ successor, Frank Berry, is distancing himself and the NAACP from the situation.
“It was under the previous administration of the regional office. As a national organization, we normally promote our own programs. I don’t know of any instruction or directive as far as us embracing the World Literacy program or anything else outside of our organization. So that may have been a recognition of the personalities. My personal feeling is personal. I don’t want to get into that.”
Neither, it seems, do other prominent black-led organizations like the Chicago-based Rainbow PUSH Coalition. “We have no stance,” says spokesperson Dina Anderson.
Stacey Young was a Scientologist for 15 years in the U.S. before leaving the group in 89. She’s one of four former senior members interviewed for this story.
Young says, “What you have to understand is that Scientology was created in the McCarthy era. That fundamental thinking colours the whole movement. The leadership at this point is not particularly interested in helping underprivileged people.”
Young adds, “Some of these people no doubt believe in what they’re doing (but) the motivation of the Scientology leadership is less altruistic. It’s all surveyed. It’s all ‘How are we going to get Scientology into this? How are we going to get Scientology into that?’”
Up here, north of the 49th parallel, Scientology’s study tech forays have been most impressive out west.
The programs started as home schools for children of Scientologists. By the mid-80s, study tech found its way into a junior high school class taught by a Scientologist in Dawson Creek, a vocational rehabilitation program run by the Alberta government and one native community. A Scientology newsletter from the time proclaims, “There is still a lot of territory to capture.”
Today, there are private schools in Vancouver and Edmonton, both of which receive some government funding, another in Montreal and the Ability School near Mississauga. There’s also a small home school operating out of a bungalow in the former East York under the name Education Alive, a community-based program at a boys and girls club in Parkdale, and similar programs planned in Regent Park. An information conference is scheduled for this April in Toronto.
Liz Zahari is a Scientologist and director of Applied Scholastics, the Scientology offshoot that licenses the use of study tech in Canada.
She says there’s “no doubt” the group defines study tech as a religious practice, but that “there’s no religion or religious instruction of any sort” in schools using the technique.
“Many” of the people who run the schools may be Scientologists, but Zahari says the operations are purely “secular.”
She sends NOW glowing handwritten testimonials from young people and adults who’ve been taught using study tech.
Says Zahari, “I’ve seen kids. They change. Their whole faces change because now they know they’re going to be able to control their life and do what they want in life, and that makes all the difference in the world.”
However, the teaching tool, which emphasizes dictionary use and uses phrases like “absence of mass,” “skipped gradient,” and the word “clearing,” to describe what are basically back-to-basics principles, has not played to great reviews in eastern Canada.
Patrick Kakembo, an assistant director of African-Canadian studies with the Nova Scotia department of education, remembers when a black learners advisory group researching alternative education programs was approached in 1995 about study tech by a group calling itself Education Alive.
Kakembo says it was only later that he discovered Eduction Alive’s connection to Scientology. “They were not straightforward about this from the beginning.” Twelve parents were eventually trained in study tech under a government-funded program. The government later decided to discontinue funding, Kakembo says.
The books that tutors and students are required to buy are too expensive, he says, and of “very little value. A page has two words and a diagram.” And the $10 an hour students were charged did not go to the tutors but to Education Alive.
Harvard University literacy professor Victoria Purcell-Gates, who reviewed study tech’s Basic Study Manual, says the merits of study tech are suspect.
“There isn’t anything new. It’s also sort of sketchy. What we know about teaching comprehension skills and study skills is a little more complex.”
Purcell-Gates says the program’s emphasis on use of the dictionary “is probably not the most effective tool for learning word meanings, because dictionary definitions tend to be very decontextualized. Teachers wouldn’t use that as a primary vehicle for teaching vocabulary.”
The mean streets of Compton are a long way from the playground at Ability School, where a dozen children are playing.
And Maguite Wilkens, who has been the perfect picture of chirpiness during the tour this morning, lowers her voice for just a minute. She mentions that the children feel they’re not getting enough recreational time. The moment is gone as quickly as it arrives, and she enthusiastically shows off the room they call “Qual.” It’s here where students are tested to make sure they’ve learned their lessons.
Two kinds of students attend the school, the ambitious “intellectual type,” as Wilkens calls them, and problem children who’ve dropped out of the regular system. The school motto is “Knowledge, Responsibility, Achievement.”
This place is supposed to be about encouraging the individual, much in the vein of Ayn Rand. But all the students wear Catholic-school-style uniforms. Today, it’s casual green track pants and pullovers.
The students seem happy enough, except maybe for the brooding one who’s fingering a copy of National Geographic.
Wilkens demonstrates what the word “integrity” looks like in the physical world by forming it with clay, another practice emphasized at the school. It’s only when Wilkens begins talking about how psychiatry and psychology are ruining the education system and indiscriminately putting kids on Ritalin that the tension level rises.
“These guys are useless. They’re in charge of our psyches and our morals, and society has been declining ever since. They’ve taken over our mental health, for crying out loud. We’ve got more violence, more this and more that, and no one charged, and they don’t like Scientologists going off into prisons and saying, ‘Hey, instead of talking to that psychiatrist, why don’t you sit down with me and we can go over some principles of right and wrong?’
“Do we recruit? No. Are we extra-proud to show off Mr. Hubbard’s study technology? You bet your bottom dollar.”
Out in the foyer, a clutch of children are excitedly chattering. Someone has bought in a flying squirrel for them to see.
The Toronto “org,” as the group’s Yonge Street office is known, is not exactly a hub of activity this morning as public affairs director and reverend Al Buttnor takes me on a guided tour. Signs outside read, “Now recruiting. Apply inside.” Scientology basically teaches that we go through life after life. Negative influences from our past lives keep us from achieving “clear” or pure awareness. “The thing that makes Scientology different,” says Buttnor, “is that there is actually a methodology to achieve that.”
That methodology begins with “auditing” with an E-meter, a spacey-looking contraption — on sale in the Scientology bookstore — attached to two electrically charged cylinders that measure skin responses, much like a lie detector. Buttnor jokes that he’s going to shock the hell out of me, hooks me up and asks me who’s causing the most stress in my life. I tell him my editors. I’m not cooperating. In a nearby room, the “auditing” being done on another subject is more intense. “Invade. Are you suppressing anything?” The subject sits quietly, eyes shut.
Next is an empty, cordoned-off office left as a shrine to Hubbard, who died in 86. There’s a pen, top off, and paper, written on, lying on the desk as if he’d just stepped out for a moment. The tour ends in a sunlit room upstairs. I can hear intermittent clapping in the next room as Buttnor tells me how he’s found what he’s looking for spiritually.
Earlier, he seemed more interested in asking questions, wanting to know where the story’s going. Those demos that have been going on outside their office on an almost weekly basis seem to be unnerving the group as it seeks charitable status from RevCan. It currently has nonprofit status.
Buttnor wants people to know that there’s another side to Scientology, the one that entertains in seniors homes. But what about the private investigators sent in pursuit of journalists?
“Well, we have set up mechanisms to protect our people,” he says. And the stories about Xenu, the space traveller whom only Scientology higher-ups know about?
“I’m not at that level yet, so…” he says.
He closes by saying he wants to send some info on a source I’ve been talking with. He faxes copies of tickets for drunk driving. A caption on the thank-you note reads, Scientology: Improving Life in a Troubled World.
© Copyright NOW Magazine, Toronto