By Mark Walsh
The California Department of Education received a request last year from a Los Angeles publisher to place five study-skills books on a state list of approved learning materials.
Such requests aren’t unusual. The list includes thousands of books that California districts are authorized to buy with public dollars and that teachers may use in their classrooms.
The five books from Bridge Publications, however, were all based on the works of L. Ron Hubbard, the late science fiction author and the founder of the Church of Scientology.
The books, with such titles as Learning How to Learn and How to Use a Dictionary, have drawn increasing scrutiny in the wake of a recent proposal for a Los Angeles charter school that had plans to rely heavily on the materials. As it turns out, there has been scattered use of the books by public school teachers in California and elsewhere for years.
The Church of Scientology has long been a subject of controversy over its efforts to gain acceptance as a recognized religion and its sensitivity to media scrutiny. In 1993, the church won its years-long bid for tax-exempt status from the federal government.
But much less has been known about its involvement in education.
For teachers and administrators, the attention sparked by the charter school proposal in Los Angeles highlights important questions about the quality of the study-skills books as teaching materials, their possible links with Scientology’s religious teachings, and the legality or appropriateness of using them in public school classrooms.
For now, many of those questions remain unanswered. Few education experts have studied the materials for their instructional value, though some critics charge that they are overly simplistic and that they contain subtle references to the church’s teachings.
“I have some fairly serious questions about the constitutionality and, from a public-policy standpoint, the propriety of using these materials in public schools,” said Douglas Mirell, a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, who has examined some of the study-skills books and compared them with materials from the church. “It seems like the books go out of their way to use terms that have a technical definition within the religion.”
Officials who oversee Applied Scholastics International, the Los Angeles-based organization that licenses the use of Hubbard’s educational methodology, insist that its mission is purely secular.
“Applied Scholastics, for 25 years, has been and will always be a nonprofit organization that uses the Study Technology of L. Ron Hubbard,” Rena Weinberg, the president of the Association for Better Living and Education International, said in a recent interview. ABLE oversees Applied Scholastics as well as several other Hubbard-inspired organizations, including groups devoted to drug-abuse prevention and prisoner rehabilitation.
“Should L. Ron Hubbard be precluded from writing a book on grammar education?” Ms. Weinberg said.
Critics of the Church of Scientology charge that organizations such as ABLE and Applied Scholastics are “front groups” whose purpose is to gain wider social acceptance for the church itself.
“The idea is to create a link across the church-state chasm so you drag people across without them realizing they are going across,” said Robert Vaughn Young, a former public relations official of the Church of Scientology who is now one of its most outspoken critics.
Ms. Weinberg vehemently disagreed. “Vaughn Young knows nothing about my organization,” she said. “He has a personal ax to grind.”
The books, she added, “are clearly not religious.”
California education officials weren’t sure what to make of the Hubbard-inspired materials, so they submitted them to a review process that all supplementary books go through.
While core textbooks receive far more rigorous scrutiny, supplementary materials need only satisfy “social content” requirements. For example, they must not disparage ethnic groups or show men and women in stereotypical roles. Nor can they encourage religion.
A review panel that looked at the Hubbard-inspired books concluded that the books did not appear to advance the religion of Scientology. But the panel was concerned about some of the images in the books.
“Males and females were shown doing only traditional activities,” said Anna Emery, a curriculum analyst with the state education department. For example, Learning How to Learn depicts girls holding brooms and learning how to sew, while boys play sports and use tools to build a doghouse.
“There was very little representation of nonwhite groups, and little or no representation of the disabled,” Ms. Emery said.
Bridge Publications, a church-affiliated company that also publishes Scientology-related books such as Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, told state officials the books would be changed. By July of this year, state officials gave preliminary approval to the proposed revisions and promised that as soon as the revised texts were produced, they could be listed in an education department catalog.
The whole process gained little public notice until this past summer, when the Los Angeles school board began reviewing a charter school proposal by one of its teachers, Linda Smith. Ms. Smith, a veteran special education teacher and a longtime Scientologist, proposed opening a charter school for about 100 students in grades K-8 in the San Fernando Valley area of the city.
But Ms. Smith didn’t mention in her lengthy charter proposal that she planned to build the school’s curriculum around L. Ron Hubbard’s “Study Technology” approach.
When they learned of the link to the founder of Scientology, some school board members worried that approving public funds for a charter school using the texts might run afoul of the constitutional prohibition against government establishment of religion.
They have asked their lawyers to look into the matter, and the charter proposal is on hold until at least next month.
In addition to state education department officials, some others who have examined the five Hubbard educational books have concluded that they are not overtly religious.
J. Gordon Melton, the author of the Encyclopedia of American Religions, has researched the Church of Scientology and examined the books.
“Many people coming into the church were dysfunctional in literacy,” said Mr. Melton, a research specialist in the department of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “So Hubbard wrote some materials that would help.”
The Study Technology materials are used widely within the church, he added, “not to proselytize for the religion but to teach people how to read.”
“They are used within the church in much the same way as, when I was in seminary, we used speech manuals in preaching class,” said Mr. Melton, who is an ordained Methodist minister.
Barriers to Learning
“Study Technology” comes from a series of writings and lectures on education by Hubbard, who died in 1986. He believed that most obstacles to learning could be traced to readers’ inability to get past words they did not comprehend.
Hubbard argued that there are three central barriers to learning: the absence of a physical representation of an object being studied, too steep a “gradient” for learning a subject, and the misunderstood word. (“Hubbard’s Education Theories Focus on ‘Barriers to Learning,’“ in This Week’s News.)
The Hubbard books all emphasize a principle called “word clearing,” in which the reader is supposed to stop and look up in a dictionary any word he doesn’t understand. The materials also call for “clearing” words used in the definition of the first word, and they describe a procedure by which two readers can work together to clear words.
“The only reason a person would stop studying or get confused or not be able to learn is because he has passed a word that he did not understand,” states the book Learning How to Learn, which is for 8- to 12-year-olds.
The books have struck some educators as common-sense tools that may be appropriate for some learners, but others say they are repetitive and overlook some current theories about how children learn to read.
Helen Magee, the principal of St. Antoine Elementary School in Lafayette, La., recalls that one classroom in her public school used the Hubbard materials about five years ago.
After learning of the materials’ affiliation with L. Ron Hubbard, Ms. Magee said, she scrutinized them closely. But she decided they were not religious, and she allowed some of her teachers to be trained to use the books with their children.
Ms. Magee said achievement scores for the children exposed to the Hubbard books “went way up.” “They never mentioned anything about religion,” she added. “I think it was just good [reading] strategies.”
After a year or so, Ms. Magee said, the local Applied Scholastics representative moved, and the school went back to using district reading materials.
Applied Scholastics touts the success of the program at St. Antoine in its promotional materials.
MaryEllen Vogt, an education professor at California State University-Long Beach, said she becomes wary when materials for teaching reading rely heavily on such testimonials.
After reviewing some of L. Ron Hubbard’s writings on education and some of Applied Scholastics’ promotional materials, she said the methodology’s emphasis on “word clearing” concerned her.
“The reading process is so complex,” she said. The principles in Hubbard’s three barriers to learning focus primarily on reading at the word level.
“But there is a whole other aspect of the reading process that is ignored,” added Ms. Vogt, who is a former president of the California Reading Association and a past board member of the International Reading Association.
“For older readers, we sometimes say, ‘Skip a word you don’t understand and try to gain comprehension from the whole context,’“ she said. “We don’t say that for young readers. But for older readers, it is extremely cumbersome to try to attend to every word.”
Church Terms Questioned
Although some educators have not found the books to be overtly religious, some legal experts and Church of Scientology critics believe they contain words and lessons that subtly advance the religion.
The church, which claims some 8 million members worldwide, stresses spiritual-counseling sessions called “auditing” through which members overcome past mental obstacles.
Mr. Mirell of the ACLU said that he met last month with Ms. Weinberg of the Association for Better Living and Education and with the president of Applied Scholastics, Ian Lyons, to learn more about the books. Mr. Mirell, a lawyer who has handled several cases for the ACLU chapter involving church-state issues, compared at least two of the texts with publications of the Church of Scientology.
Mr. Mirell said he is concerned that the books introduce the vernacular of the church.
For example, Learning How to Learn “uses a number of terms such as ‘mass,’ ‘gradient,’ and ‘demo kit,’“ he said. “Those are all terms which have specific definitions in the Dianetics and Scientology Technical Dictionary, by L. Ron Hubbard.”
A Scientologist employing these materials in a public school classroom “could very easily provide entree into the religion through class discussion,” Mr. Mirell said. “And it would be very difficult for parents and others on the outside to detect it.”
Mr. Young, the Church of Scientology critic, said the textbooks’ lessons on “word clearing” have an obvious similarity to the Church of Scientology’s concept of “becoming clear,” which according to the church’s definition means achieving the end result of Dianetics–a state in which a person is free of past negative experiences.
The textbooks contain some lessons that also tie in with broader Scientology themes. At least one of the books, for example, contains a brief but disparaging reference to Wilhelm Wundt, a 19th-century German researcher and theorist of experimentalpsychology.
Wundt was “the originator of the false doctrine that man is no more than an animal,” says the Basic Study Manual, a book written for teenagers and older students.
Modern psychology and psychiatry are frequent targets of criticism by the Church of Scientology.
Charter on Hold
Ms. Smith, the teacher who proposed the Los Angeles charter school, could not be reached for comment for this article. She has been a special education teacher at Esperanza Elementary School in Los Angeles for several years, and told the Los Angeles Times in July that she had used the Hubbard-related materials in her classroom.
Rowena Lagrosa, the principal of Esperanza Elementary, recalled that a few years ago, Ms. Smith asked her about having the school purchase some of the books. Ms. Lagrosa said she looked at some of the materials but concluded they were “not necessary.”
“I suggested to her that there were a variety of other materials for special education students that were more appropriate,” Ms. Lagrosa said.
Ms. Smith has temporarily withdrawn her charter application, said Joe Rao, a district official who oversees the charter process. He and other administrators were waiting last week to hear whether she would resubmit the proposal.
As of last week, the principal said, Ms. Smith had not reported to Esperanza for the new school year.
Officials with ABLE and Applied Scholastics said they are not involved in the charter school application. They said they have no current plans to promote the purchase of L. Ron Hubbard’s education books by public schools.
“They are not especially promoted to public school teachers,” Ms. Weinberg of ABLE said.
Applied Scholastics licenses the use of its materials to a variety of mostly private literacy programs and neighborhood foundations. It also conducts training for adults, including teachers, in the use of the methodology. The organization estimates that more than 1,300 educators underwent training in the United States last year.
In addition to their use within the Church of Scientology, the materials are used in several inner-city literacy programs involving children. The Rev. Alfreddie Johnson, a Baptist minister from Compton, Calif., runs the World Literacy Crusade, with a reported 35 chapters around the world using the books to help children learn to read.
The musician Isaac Hayes has promoted efforts of the literacy crusade in New York City and Memphis, Tenn.
Other prominent Scientologists, such as the actors Anne Archer and John Travolta, are pictured in promotional materials supporting the World Literacy Crusade and Applied Scholastics.
Ms. Weinberg said that Applied Scholastics also licenses the materials to a small number of private schools around the country. And, she said, “there are a lot of public school teachers who use these books on an individual basis.”
State Is Waiting
As for the effort to win a spot on the California education department’s list of approved supplementary materials, Ms. Weinberg said that is being done to help those teachers who want to use them. “It’s not something we are trying to get into the core curriculum.”
State officials stressed that the review for “social content” does not address the books’ pedagogy.
“It’s not appropriate to imply that the department of education or the screening committee has approved the content,” said Ruth McKenna, the chief deputy superintendent.
So when Ms. Weinberg mentioned in an opinion column in the Los Angeles Times that the state “has approved statewide use of these textbooks,” department officials quickly wrote a letter to the newspaper to point out that they were still waiting for the final corrected materials.
“Our concern is that they are using us and the process to imply pending approval,” Ms. McKenna said. “The books on sale today are not approved. They should not be in use at all in California classrooms.”
The Association for Better Living and Education Web site provides more insight into this organizations goals, including an overview of the organization’s activities and a letter from Rena Weinberg, the president of ABLE.
Read more about the background of Applied Scholastics, including L. Ron Hubbard’s ideas on education.
The Rev. Heber Jentzch, president of the Church of Scientology, answers the most commonly asked questions about the controversial faith.
The American Civil Liberties Union Web page provides an overview of issues surrounding religion in public schools from this organization’s perspective.
© 1997 Editorial Projects in Education
HUBBARD’S EDUCATION THEORIES – Sept. 17, 1997
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR – Oct. 8 and Oct. 22, 1997