Nxivm’s Super Kids Program vs. Scientology Applied Scholastics

Two weeks ago, we wrote about the similarities between Scientology and its founder and the group Nxivm, whose founder, Keith Raniere, had been arrested in Mexico and extradited to the US on charges of running a bizarre sex slavery ring, where the women in the group were branded in their lower abdomen with Raniere’s initials.

Today, we follow up with another comparison, this time, focusing on the similarities between Nxivm’s “Rainbow Cultural Garden” program, designed to teach kids seven different languages at the same time and the Scientology “study tech” program pushed into often unwitting schools by its Applied Scholastics front group.

We look at how the similarities may portend a common feature of well-established personal development cults, pressured to come up with ever greater “super powers,” and ways to create second-generation members. 

Logo of Rainbow Cultural Garden. Source: FrankReport.com

About “Rainbow Cultural Garden”

The basics of the program: In 2006, Nxivm founder Keith Raniere launched “Rainbow Cultural Garden,” an oddly-named company designed to raise “super kids” who are fluent from an early age in multiple languages.  One of Raniere’s web sites describes RCG as “a revolutionary child development program promoting children’s cultural, linguistic, emotional, physical and problem-solving potential,” implying that language skills are the foundation for far greater achievement.  One news article suggested that the method also included exposure to certain music and physical exercise, in addition to language lessons.

Keith Raniere. Source: Albany Times-Union

The purported breakthrough technology was to teach kids seven different languages (English, Mandarin, Arabic, Russian, German, Hindi and Spanish) using intense instruction of around 12 hours per day, with a different language being taught on each day of the week.  Parents are forbidden from interacting with their children when they were unable to speak the language being taught that day. Needless to say, there’s no evidence suggesting that such an approach to learning languages will actually work.  Leading Nxivm critic Frank Parlato suggests that the RCG program has produced kids who aren’t even fluent in their parent’s native language, much less any of the others.

The business model: Rainbow Cultural Garden has offices in London, New York City, Miami, Mexico City and Guadalajara. It was also recruiting people for programs in Guatemala City, Provence (southern France), Madrid, Ireland and potentially other locations.  Several locations, particularly Miami, offered non-Nxivm introductory classes such as “Mommy and Me” sessions, presumably to attract potential customers not affiliated with the various Nxivm groups.

RCG hires “nannies” from foreign countries and pays them relatively low wages consistent with day care workers, typically $10 to $15 per hour.  One-on-one tutoring for a child thus costs RCG about $50,000 per year to provide for in-home clients, but the company charges about $125,000 per year for these services.  Even 50 clients a year results in $3 million to $4 million in gross margin to the group, a profitable enterprise indeed.  The nannies were given Nxivm workshops and may have been channeling their earnings back to the group.

There’s no evidence that RCG centers have filed for any needed license or regulatory reviews.  Rainbow Cultural Garden UK was highlighted in a UK news report and the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), which regulates schools and child care facilities, said in December 2017 that it was not aware of the group. One can presume that an investigation is under way.  From hiring advertisements, it appears that there are no particular qualifications needed for hiring such as being a licensed teacher or day care provider; RCG only requires an applicant to declare that they’re fluent in the targeted language.

Risks and concerns of the Rainbow Cultural Garden approach: the combination of long hours isolated with a non-parent teacher plus the prohibition for parents to speak with their kids in anything other than the language being spoken that day essentially marginalizes the role of the parents in the child’s life.

The low wages paid to the nannies virtually guarantees high turnover, especially in expensive cities where RCG offices exist, so even loyalty to a particular nanny could easily be transitory when turnover occurs.

Parents wishing to send their child or children to Rainbow Cultural Garden training would need to either move to be close to a center, or would need to find some sort of temporary custody arrangement to board their children, further lessening their involvement in their children’s lives.

About Hubbard’s “Study Tech” and Applied Scholastics

How the “tech” works: In the early 1970’s, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard introduced “study tech,” a method that he modestly claimed would always cure all known study problems that anyone might encounter.  Hubbard apparently blatantly stole the basics of this technique from two of his followers who came up with it.

The “study tech” method is based on three beliefs:  that misunderstood words are the basis of all learning problems; that even the most abstract and conceptual ideas have to have “mass” in the real world to be understood fully; and that you must not skip ahead to harder material without properly progressing through all the lower-level material because you can only move smoothly up the “gradient” from easy to hard.  At a high level, these ideas sound reasonable enough, but Scientology quickly loads them up with jargon and with exercises driven by quack theories of reading comprehension that have been comprehensively disproven by countless studies. And in the Scientology context, these techniques are used to control members and reinforce their loyalty to the group.

To understand a concept, in “study tech,” one must first “get its mass,” by rendering it into a physical form.  Scientologists use a “demo table” with a random collection of household objects such as keys, bits of paper, paper clips, etc.  They are required to explain the concept to a course supervisor (who may not have any training in the subject) until the course supervisor “passes” the student.  Hubbard claimed (and no evidence has been offered in support of the claim) that a picture is how the brain processes words; abundant research shows that the opposite is true — the brain processes stories and words to access images. But in Hubbard’s world, the lack of mass is dangerous.  He says, “Such an absence of mass can actually make a student feel squashed. It can make him feel bent, sort of spinny, sort of dead, bored, and exasperated.” (Basic Study Manual, pp. 25-30)  So if you buy into Hubbard’s quack theory, not following his instructions is quite dangerous.

When reading about something, the student is told that any misunderstood definitions of a word will actually make them almost sick.  If they skate past even a simple word that they don’t understand the definition of, they will get “a distinctly blank feeling or a washed-out feeling. A not-there feeling and a sort of nervous hysteria will follow in the back of that.” (HCOB 25 June 1971, “Barriers to Study”)   In other words, failing to memorize enough dictionary definitions will be catastrophic to your well being!  Several different elaborate and complex “word clearing” procedures are supposedly used to make sure that people comprehend what they read.  Staff are required to use the most onerous method to process any memos from Scientology founder David Miscavige, often spending hours poring over a brief memo, wasting time and living in fear of not understanding his “command intention” accurately.

The business model: Study tech is widely used inside Scientology as Scientologists study.  There is a basic course that teaches the methods of “study tech” but it can be used in all Scientology courses.

Scientology has long used “study tech” as a recruiting tool through its Applied Scholastics front group.  This group attempts to take advantage of lack of familiarity with the connection to the cult and to introduce Scientology methods to schools as a recruiting tool.  In most cases, where publicly funded schools have been caught with the material, they’ve quickly backed away.  In some cases, Scientologists have become administrators at charter schools, driving the material into the curriculum even after objections have been raised by parents and teachers.

In 2012, Scientologists involved in a Clearwater, Florida charter school almost in the shadow of Scientology’s “Flag” building, looted the school, charging exorbitant fees to introduce Study Tech.  In only two years, performance on standardized tests went from approximately average to the second-worst school in populous Pinellas County, beating only a special education facility for severely handicapped kids.

We don’t believe Scientology reaps a significant amount of money from pushing study tech via the Applied Scholastics front. Negative publicity has caused most districts who unwittingly adopted this quackery to back away from it as soon as it was publicized.  Even schools founded by Scientologists to use study tech have faltered.  New Village Leadership Academy in Los Angeles was funded to the tune of over $1 million by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, but shut down after five years when demand for a school using Scientology methods unsurprisingly failed to materialize.  It thus appears that Applied Scholastics and “study tech” are far less of a concern than they were in the past, though vigilance to guard against further outbreaks is still necessary as Scientology is not going to walk away from Applied Scholastics even if there’s no viable economic opportunity for it.

Psychological harm to users of study tech:  Study tech creates a climate of fear that makes people far more afraid of failing than confident of success. Making members doubt even basic abilities is key to making them fearful of the outside world and more likely to be repeat customers, stuck in the cult for a long time.

The real effect of this fear of misunderstanding and of the essentially punitive nature of looking up words in the dictionary and of performing the elaborate “word clearing” rituals to demonstrate understanding is to unleash hypnotic trance states to make the member more compliant to other directions of cult leadership, and to wear down the member’s autonomy and self-confidence over time, making them more dependent on the cult.

Reasons for Creating Study Programs

So why create these learning programs, when they’re based on dubious science and when they can never really produce meaningful results?  Beyond simply broadening the product line and offering existing members more ways to spend money with the group, we think there are several common elements that drove Raniere and Hubbard to engage in this bit of quackery, and we believe this will become part and parcel of self-improvement cults as the wave of Internet-driven cults continues to build.

Validate the founder’s “super-genius” origin stories:  In both cases, Nxivm’s Rainbow Cultural Garden and Scientology’s “study tech” seem to be aimed in no small part at bolstering the legendary biography of the respective cult’s founders, placing them among the world’s greatest polymaths.  Both Nxivm founder Keith Raniere and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard have official biographies laughably filled with easily disproven lies about their early childhood achievements.  Both have a tendency to try to couch their cult dogma as brilliantly simple solutions to exceedingly complex problems.

We suspect that cult leaders are easily tempted to tackle learning as a natural extension of their cult dogma, and because perennial frustration with the school system in general and specific educational issues in particular leads people to believe that an outsider could come up with an innovation that educational insiders have all missed that provides an easy answer to complex problems.

Create Second-Generation Cult Members: recruiting loyal cult members from the general public is difficult and labor intensive.  It’s thus a great business practice to create time-intensive kids’ programs to ensure that the cult, not the child’s parents, is the main source of information and input. Children thus become loyal to the cult above their parents, and since they know no other life, are far less likely to leave the group, even if their parents do.

Recruit additional members through offering these methods to the public:  Both Nxivm and Scientology offer their study methods to the general public.  They disguise the connection between the organization marketing the study methods and the main cultic group, either by burying it entirely or by having a message to deflect the association.  In both Scientology and Nxivm’s case, it’s unclear whether a significant number of people were recruited through the marketing efforts of these ideas to non-members.

Author: John P.

John P. is a Wall Street money manager and IT technologist fascinated by irrationality in all its forms, and Scientology most of all. He's a lifelong Steely Dan fan.