Going Clear, by Lawrence Wright
I just finished Going Clear, the eye-opening, bone-chilling, spleen-emptying account of Scientology, from the earliest days of its founder to the state of the church today.
There are any number of lessons to draw from Lawrence Wright’s book. One may conclude that what sets Scientology apart from mainstream religions is the coercive nature of the Church, rather than the particulars of its belief system. One could also learn about how a marginalized group used its resources – particularly its access to celebrities and its zealous followers – to grow into an institution powerful far beyond its numbers. (Only about 54,000 Americans identify as Scientologists, according to the US census.)
But I’m a teacher. So, for me, what’s most interesting is what the story of Scientology can illuminate about teaching. Here are a few lessons:
SCIENTOLOGY LESSON 1: People will work hard in the pursuit of meaningful goals.
Too many teaching tips comes down to entertainment. What activities are the most fun? How do we get students out of their seats? Going Clear shows us, with fresh eyes, that people are looking for purpose – and that, in the pursuit of purpose, they are willing to work hard. Like for a billion years. (see below)
Scientologists spend many thousands of dollars on auditing (counseling + e-meters) and study mind-bending theology to go up a spiritual hierarchy known as “the Bridge.” Many words have been used to describe this grueling process. I don’t think “fun” is among them.
Teachers need to spend more time on meaningful lessons and less on “fun” activities. (Indeed, few things are less fun than wasting time in class.) Teachers also need to be more comfortable with students getting bored and frustrated in the service of learning something important. Students come to class to pursue the kind of learning that can only be achieved outside of one’s comfort zone.
Most of us can have fun at home. We come to class to be in an environment where someone else will make us work hard to do something meaningful. Make your lessons meaningful and students will work harder than you’re probably willing to push them.
SCIENTOLOGY LESSON 2: People want to help.
Scientology entices new members with the promise of awesome powers: levitation, mind control, remote viewing… But it is also built on the premise of saving the world. Scientologists believe that only they can save the human race.
Granted, this is what many religions believe. The difference between many Scientologists and most Christians (for example) is that, to build an organization able to save the world, hundreds of Scientologists have signed billion year pledges to the church. How’s that for commitment?
It’s easy to write that commitment off as crazy (and unenforceable). But I think it’s more interesting to ask, What makes someone sign a 1,000,000,000 year pledge? The Church of Scientology insists that it’s symbolic. But even then, do people make that symbolic statement just to make more money? I have to think they are motivated by service to teach other, their institution and to humanity at large.
The overwhelming trend in education today is to focus on how students can make more money. But none of us are motivated by cash alone. Like society itself, education should be founded on the notion of working in the service of our fellow citizens, in the broadest sense of the word. To ignore the notion of service is to go down a slippery slope of teaching only what is guaranteed to help students earn more money at the expense of everything else.
And if you only teach job skills, when will you teach critical thinking?
SCIENTOLOGY LESSON 3: Critical thinking is as important today as it ever was.
No discussion of Scientology would be complete without at least acknowledging its tremendous human rights abuses. False imprisonment, corporal punishment and child exploitation by the Church of Scientology are all well documented, both by investigators and former Scientologists themselves. (Disclaimer: The Church of Scientology denies all claims of abuse.)
What makes people sign themselves and their kids up for this abuse? The possibility of achieving one’s goals and saving the world – the same forces I just suggested harnessing for the good of teaching.
But something else is obviously at work, and that is the forceful suspension of disbelief. Scientology trains its members to ignore anything that contradicts its belief system. It does so through estranging members from non-believers (“suppressive persons” in Scientology-speak); through physically isolating its clergy from the rest of the world; and through the teachings of the church itself, which are so convoluted or absurd that they defy rational analysis, which forces the individual Scientologist to accept them en toto or risk losing their souls. (There’s a reason Wright calls the religion a “prison of belief.”)
What defines a cult? I’d hazard that, rather than focusing on whose belief system is more absurd (spoiler alert: It’s a tie), we should instead ask which religions allow critical thinking and which suppress it. Catholics routinely ask if Judas really sinned, because Jesus had to die to save humanity. Jews have millennia of debate about how to best interpret the Torah. And millions of Muslims define their own personal jihad, the nature of their individual spiritual struggle.
Part of what defines critical thinking is the ability to dispassionately analyze one’s own beliefs, to be able to ask, Why do I believe ‘x’? What if ‘x’ isn’t true? There’s none of that in Scientology. Everything L. Ron Hubbard ever said is gospel – to quote Ned Flanders, “even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff!”
Perhaps the most chilling words in Going Clear come from Wright’s original Scientology story in the New Yorker, where Academy Award-winning director Paul Haggis says, “I was in a cult for thirty-four years. Everyone else could see it. I don’t know why I couldn’t.
Haggis was up against a religion that he had already put countless hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars into, one which preyed on his best instincts and subverted any thoughts that contradicted it. If education has any greater purpose, I think it’s to prepare students to hold their own against such predatory institutions.
Do you agree?