Is There Good Mind Control in Education?

Authors's Note: While this personal meditation on coercive techniques uses the National Writing Project Summer Institute as an example, it should be noted that almost every elite institution has similar characteristics. The extraordinary work of NWP, its participants and leaders, has made an incalculably positive contribution to education.

I Was a Cult Buster For a Brief Time in the 1990s

Many institutions feature coercive cult-like characteristics. I learned this over Sanka and sugar free Coffeemate when volunteering for Freeminds, a mind control recovery group in 1994. One day a week, I'd sit in a circle of forty  ex-witches, ex-Bloods, and shaky ex-disciples of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, all  fidgeting on folding chairs in a Minneapolis  gymnasium that smelled like mold and vulnerability.

Weirdly, about ten members escaped from a local clown cult, validating my long-time aversion to big shoes and face paint--an antipathy originating in a terrifying pre-school encounter when a clown--apparently clown-kissing my identical twin--smeared black nose paint on his tear-stained face while hoisting him from the front row bleachers into a magic teacup at the Ice Capades. Adding to my trauma, my brother is an ugly cryer. 

I've never been in a cult. But spending time with ex-cult members allowed me to a) try and be of service by helping them write brochures; b) learn about coercion and how to disrupt it; and c) learn about the brain. The pain of betrayal was profound in those meetings where disassociated people whispered their stories like a circle of shadows.

Over the course of several meetings, the stories took on a familiar pattern. A lonely person would be washing clothes in the laundromat when a happy group of people would love-bomb (flatter) them. There would be an invitation to a party where more happy people seemed to "have something special." Then there'd be a meeting in the country, an initiation, intensive socialization, and then loss of identity and purpose. Nobody I met was dumb. In fact, recent college graduates are usually the target. But all of them had one thing in common: before joining the cult, they were all idealists. 

After six weeks, I stopped attending the Freemind sessions. Super-vulnerable members kept looking at me with suspicion or wouldn't look at me at all. Finally, a former Moonie asked if I was a cult spy. When I said I was not, he didn't seem to believe me and I got the message. That was my last meeting.

Coersive Technquies

Steven Alan Hanssan, a leading cult-buster describes four ​characteristics of cults, called the BITE Model: 

  • Behavior Control: Major time commitments, need to report thoughts, and group rituals.
  • Information Control: Keeping members so busy that they can't think straight; extensive use of cult-related information.
  • Thought Control:  The group doctrine is unassailable; no criticism is tolerated. There is an "us versus them" orientation that dominates.
  • Emotional Control - Members are made to feel that they cannot be fulfilled in the future without being in the group. 

Of course, each of these characteristics have relative levels of intensity, but how many exemplary high school football teams, bands, debate clubs, and elite courses can you remember that exhibited some or all of these features? Could they have retained their success without them?

The "Transformational" National Writing Project

One of my favorite groups is the National Writing Project, where I served as a site co-director and SI participant for three years. Like cults members, NWP participants at all levels use the word "transformational" consistently. I heard the term dominating Writing Project discussions. The word was used in speeches that Teacher Consultants gave to senators and congressional aides while doing advocacy work in Washington, DC. Transformation and NWP have become synonymous enough to warrant a dissertation on the subject, titled Teacher Transformation Achieved Through Participation in the National Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute--scholarship that explores changes that occur among summer institute participants as they hunker together for four to five weeks, talking, writing, reading, relating, and bonding with their “fellows” while closely observed and mentored by institute facilitators. 

Across the country, teachers rave about their NWP experience. How does enthusiastic and sometimes ecstatic attachment within NWP occur so quickly? Does NWP use socializing drivers similar to unethical religious groups? And if so, even if most participants and outside observers agree that the purpose is to empower teachers, what are the positive and less positive implications? Are the socializing practices of the Summer Institute so different from other groups that quickly create enthusiastic allegiance: Skull and Bones, Navy Seals,  summer camps, medical schools?

Jose-Manuel Navarrom, an SI graduate, describes being “convert[ed]” through the “socializing forces” of SI readings and conversations. 

"She couldn’t decide between going catatonic and just shattering all over the floor."

​The process of trusting others can happen too quickly, SI participant Keith Tandy argues, describing one woman barely “surviving” the first day and “as wired as anyone I’ve ever seen absent controlled substances. She couldn’t decide between going catatonic and just shattering all over the floor.” Another participant announced, “I know everyone in this group better after four days than I know anyone at my school after four years!” Despite these EST-like anecdotes, Tandy ultimately concludes that “...we must take time to go through exercises that help build trust among, and break down the natural barriers between, the members of the group.” From my vantage point, Tandy seems to suggest that such drama is worth it.

So how do SI bonding rituals relate to mind coercion? After all, nobody in the SI is getting beaten about the ankles with bamboo sticks. But torture is not essential for coercion say experts Richard Ofshe and Margaret Singer. Peer pressure, control of communication, and manipulation of the environment are powerful enough tools to modify thinking and behavior. 

"In society there are numerous elaborate attempts to influence attitudes and modify behavior...Thought reform programs rely on organized peer pressure, the development of bonds between the leader or trainer and the followers, the control of communication, and the use of a variety of influence techniques. The aim of all this is to promote conformity, compliance, and the adoption of specific attitudes and behaviors desired by the group."
- Margaret Singer

Educator Carol Jago writes that the NWP Summer Institute does not “involve brainwashing or cult-like membership." She's right in thinking that SIs don't involve waterboarding and severe hair cuts. However, many drivers of coercion are present when sixteen sleep deprived participants spend all day writing and talking in a room together, acquiring a new lexicon. Notably, the SI initiation is a pre-requisite, one of the few mandated by NWP--for later continuity experiences as a teacher consultant.

False Knowledge: The Problem of pedagogical Certainty

In his 2006 NWP Annual Meeting Keynote, Sheridan Blau (who is wiser than I will ever be) defined the NWP experience, fundamentally, as a process in which teachers “experience a transformation in their sense of who they are professionally and personally, what their responsibilities are, and what they aspire to accomplish as professionals and as members of a professional community...Hence writing is an instrument for true as opposed to false knowledge [bold is mine], for the further learning that it enables rather than obstructs.”

Wait. Wasn’t pedagogical certainty relegated to Sunday school and E.D. Hirsch decades ago?

Next, Blau shifts into a register both ecstatic and ecclesiastical, re-imagining God explicitly as Jim Gray, one of the founders of WP. In this context, “Adam and Eve might have written their way to provisional and productive new knowledge every day in their reflective journals and essays, and never have fallen prey to the temptation of false knowledge (...) And we would be sitting now in our national meeting in naked bliss, celebrating the intellectual accomplishments of all children on a planet where all teachers are like writing project teachers.” 

Isn’t Blau’s oddly prescriptive (but also winking) WP theology antithetical to personal and professional transformation? To inquiry? To respect for diverse learners and contexts? Naked bliss to me involves Niagara Falls, a heart-shaped bed, and velour towels--not indoctrination into "best practice"... If everyone uses best practices, then my Niagara Falls fantasy is replaced by a Stepford Wives cul-de-sac.

Educators get a pass for using coercion because of the argument that compliance-producing techniques are for kids own good. But how many classrooms resemble Mao's China?

Three Principles of Re-Education Used During China's Cultural Revolution 

1) Repetition- Going through the same subject over and over again until it is known by heart.

2) Activity Pedagogics - The participants are never left alone nor give any private time of their own; they are always in an activity.

3) Criticism and Self-Criticism - The subjects are supposed to feel uncertain; under the constant threat of being humiliated and despised.

"That’s Not Writing Project"

In the mid aughts, I was more participant than NWP co-director, as the other co-director took lead over my first Summer Institute. One day, as we observed a participant at a sister site conduct a demo, a ten year veteran of WP whispered, “That’s not Writing Project.” But how did he know? What constitutes an authentic WP experience? And why is it couched as a binary? 

Many of my favorite colleagues and friends are WP members and enthusiasts. One described her personal and professional identity as intertwined with NWP. Nevertheless, from the first day of the SI, I felt removed from the enthusiasm. As a co-director and participant, I felt guilty for questioning socializing rituals that so many teachers described as empowering. But all cults promote themselves as empowering, don’t they?

Of course, transformation can be a good thing. One day, during the Summer Institute's North Carolina hot-o-rama, I had an epiphany. After reading an excerpt from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, I realized that I fell into the camp of wanting to be a writer more than I wanted to write (a head space that lasted two more years). The realization made the room tilt. But because I was in a room of others who talked about their doubts--Will and Jonathan and Jennifer and Stephanie and Terry and Daniel--I did not have to face my fear of authorship alone. Our Summer Institute was a spiritual polis and I felt emboldened by my fellows. Writing might be a war, but together we were Spartans! I made it a mission to concentrate on process more. The writing act, I vowed, would be my discipline. I’d let publishing take care of itself. 

The Expert Conundrum

Individuals in groups are drawn to a powerful leader--participants want to give trusted leaders power. To counter the authority associated with being a co-director-expert-associate professor (but still a rookie SI participant), I began to wear a Palestinian desert scarf and flip-flops during the Summer Institute. I adopted adolescent behaviors to deflect authority, repeatedly and idiotically inserting the topic of Kodiak bears into pedagogical discussions. 

By week two, I came to accept that I was more participant than expert, more learner than leader. I continued to feel myself being transformed. Meanwhile, pictures of Kodiak bears started appearing randomly in other participants’ PowerPoint slides.

My co-director suggested that the tension I felt about the NWP process  was because I'm not a joiner. But I've been married to the same person for decades, worked at the same college for 16 years, and never let my gym memberships lapse. I'm a joiner, just one that likes to participate in groups on my own terms after I've considered the big picture.  As kid, when the church congregation stood to sing, I never sang the hymns until I'd read all the words. 

Special NWP "Discourse"

One day in the SI, a participant asked about what word might go in the title of his academic essay. When I suggested “discourse",  my co-director dismissed the term, saying, “'Discourse' and 'meta' are out, but 'literacy' is okay."

I couldn't tell if he was serious.

Because of my Freemind experience, I learned that when cult leaders use fuzzy language that sounds good but is actually confusing, this serves to disorient you, especially when a bunch of participants nod approvingly.   

Twice I asked why "discourse" shouldn't be used. Each time, my co-director shrugged. Was he being playful? Inarticulate? I felt like an intellectual Neanderthal—too dimwitted for him to bother with explanations. That same week, my co-director gave a lovely sounding, impromptu, and seemingly erudite speech on “bridging expository and poetic forms.” It sounded good, but I was lost after the second sentence. When mouths had dropped in the room, he said,  “See how I do?”  A bunch of participants nodded approvingly. 

As a couple weeks passed, the process of feeling socialized by the SI process left me increasingly disoriented. I was being composed rather than composing. I bought myself new slippers and a blue hoodie. I washed and dried it twice with New Mountain Spring Bounce so I could disappear into the soft cotton and hide. To stabilize myself, I listened to nothing but Wilco's Impossible Germany.

But this is what love is for
To be out of place
Gorgeous and alone
Face to face 

One premise of our summer institute (which might not be the case for other sites) was that "writing can't be taught"- which partially serves as a justification for the multi-week Summer Institute socialization. I resisted that notion as pseudo-spiritual frufaw.  Teaching writing is a process, but not magic. As an elementary teacher, I'd watched instructors take Kindergarteners from writing the alphabet to writing paragraphs in nine months. Teaching composing takes skill, creativity, and intuition, but not magic.

A big topic of conversation at the end of the institute was grades. What should the portfolios look like? Is there a rubric? Page limit?  Participants were concerned. My co-director muttered to me: “They think this is a class.” 

I didn't tell him that the Summer Institute is a class--a class without grades--because the purple Kool-Aid was already swishing in my belly. By not saying anything, I capitulated my agency out of worry that someone might think I didn't "get it." 

What Do You Call It?

Whatever you call it--"intensive socialization" or "cult techniques" or "coercion"  or "emotional manipulation" or simply "teaching"--will continue to feel like institutionalized betrayal to me when it goes too far, when participants experience membership as a kind of enchantment. People should not be socialized to love institutions. That should be reserved for the other people who are going to love you back and for your Higher Power and dogs. Love is never wasted on dogs. 

The day that we stop cuing members to believe--tribally--in our organizations' exceptionalism is the day when we will have mastered the mechanics of empowerment. 

23 Mind Control Techniques

Here is a list of mind control techniques used in "schools, hospitals, the army, religious cults, totalitarian states..." Click the link at the end of the list for further explanation.
1. Hypnosis
2. Peer group pressure
3. Love bombing
4. Rejection of old values
5. Confusing doctrine
6. Meta-communication
7. Removal of privacy
8. Disinhibition
9. Uncompromising rules
10. Verbal abuse
11. Sleep deprivation and fatigue
12. Dress codes
13. Chanting or singing
14. Confession
15. Financial commitment
16. Finger pointing
17. Isolation
18. Controlled approval
19. Change of diet
20. Games
21. No Questions
22. Guilt
23. Fear
(Source: pHinnweb)
Thank you for reading. If you liked this post, you might enjoy Dinkytown Braves, my new teaching memoir. 
"The secret to being a teacher in an Ojibwe urban school: learn fast." 
"I'm Todd.
"His mouth hangs open for a moment.Nothing moves behind his dark eyes. "Dodd?"
"Todd,"I repeat, more loudly."What's your name?”
"—Migizi Brown!" he shrieks, on a one-second delay like a foreign correspondent.
"Migizi, what’s there behind your back?"
"Why are you holding a rock behind your back?"
"Not hiding it!"
"Okay. What're you doing with it?"
Is he baked? "Migizi, a classroom rock is not an extra great idea.”
He shifts it in front of him."Ain't behind no more."
Some kids giggle. He smiles like a happy cat.
"Why do you have a rock in class?"
"This one?"
"You're not going to answer me, are you?"
"Answer what?"
With the class at a fever pitch, I give up.
"Alright, keep your rock."
As soon as these words come out, I realize I’ve made a seriously bad call.
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Todd Finley

Edutopia Blogger and Asst. Editor || ECU Ed Professor || Founder of Todd's Brain at || Books: Dinkytown Braves and Rethinking Classroom Design.

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