The (UK) Times Online ~ Will Smith’s school deserves to avoid cult status

June 30, 2008 under Will Smith / NVA

LA Notebook: The actor must prove there is no Scientology link to his pet project

by Chris Ayres

As hard as I’ve tried – and believe me, I’ve tried – I have never been able to get particularly upset about Scientology. Yes, it’s a hugely profitable supplier of dubiously scientific self-help techniques that also manages to enjoy the tax-exempt status of a religion. Yes, it has a long and dark history of trying to silence critics through intimidation, not to mention all those run-ins with the taxman and the FBI. Yes, it sometimes comes between cult members – sorry, Scientologists – and their families.

And yes, it sues over the copyright of its “religious” texts and sends internal troublemakers (Suppressive People) to an Orwellian-sounding Rehabilitation Project Force, where they perform manual labour to make up for their sins. And that’s before we get on to Tom Cruise’s thousand-yard stare (or alien overlords called Xenu, for that matter).

I suppose that the reason I’ve never been able to get upset about Scientology is that it has never seemed any crazier to me than any other religion.

As for the charge that Scientology rips people off by flogging them endless books, DVDs, and personal improvement courses – well, people buy all sorts of nonsense, don’t they?

Any time that I hear someone complaining that they spent 20 years of their life and the contents of their pension fund on Scientology but now believe that the organisation is a dangerous cult, I just think, more fool you – if hadn’t been Scientology, you’d have probably e-mailed your bank account details to a spammer posing as a Sudanese prince, who told you that he needed a safe place to put his billion-dollar oil holdings while plotting his escape to the Moon.

But what happens when an A-list celebrity with links to Scientology sets-up his own elementary school in a wealthy mountain-top suburb of Los Angeles, with 40-100 pupils and annual fees of up to $12,500 (most students will receive financial assistance)? Is that enough to get me worried?

Yes, it is.

The actor Will Smith – for whom I have a great deal of respect – claims through his spokespeople that the New Village Academy in Calabasas is a “secular” school that will merely use a teaching method developed by the late L. Ron Hubbard, who created Scientology in the 1950s. (“Faculty and staff do not promote their own religions at school,” Jacqueline Olivier, the school’s director, insists.)

Critics say that the method, known as “study tech”, is simply a way to indoctrinate children with Scientology jargon and establish Hubbard as an authority figure, leading them to the organisation later. The Scientologists deny this and argue that study tech has been used effectively in other secular schools around the world.

To which I say, prove it. As with all belief-systems, I imagine that there are some genuinely helpful elements of Scientology. But if the organisation wants people to take its methods seriously, and see them as benign educational aids, rather than brainwashing tools, it needs to come out of the closet.

If I were Will Smith, I would invite some independent researchers into the school and let them publish their findings in a leading educational journal. Unless he does, the school will always have the whiff of a Scientology front organisation, along with Applied Scholastics and (my favourite) the Cult Awareness Network. If Smith really wants to help the kids of LA – as he undoubtedly does – that would be a shame.

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