Suri Cruise is attending a Scientology-influenced school. What's that like?

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Sept. 20 2011 4:45 PM

Edu-netics

What will Suri Cruise learn at her Scientology-influenced school?

Suri Cruise and Katie Holmes. Click image to expand.
Katie Holmes and Suri Cruise, who has begun attending a Scientology-influenced school

Suri Cruise attended her first day of school last week. The daughter of the world's most famous Scientologist matriculated at the New Village Leadership Academy in Calabasas, California, which employs educational methods developed by L. Ron Hubbard. What happens at a Scientology-influenced school?

Independent study, sculpting, and possibly a little grade inflation. The schools that employ Hubbard's "study technology" system aren't directly affiliated with the Church of Scientology, so there is some variation among institutions. Generally speaking, students begin the day with a check sheet of things to accomplish. It's usually a series of short lessons followed by tasks that require the students to apply their knowledge. For example, a student may have to read the first chapter of a novel, then write a brief essay on what she learned. When she completes a task, a teacher or a more advanced student checks the task off the list before she moves on to the next. Since each student works from her own sheet at her own pace, teachers usually do not lecture the class as a whole. Instead, they circulate to support the students' independent activities.

Sculpting is a big deal at Hubbard-influenced schools. The founder of Scientology believed that an absence of "mass"—that is, the physical presence of the object under study—frustrates a student. (The official website for study technology says the absence of mass makes students feel "squashed, "bent," "sort of spinny," "sort of dead," or "bored.") Whenever a student is having trouble understanding a concept, like the orbital path of planets, the teacher encourages her to sculpt it using clay.

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In addition to following their check sheets, students are required to track their progress using a graphing system. Different tasks earn different points, and the student fills them in on a chart to visualize her progress. Critics of the point system say it's a farce, because students can pad their numbers by quickly accomplishing simple tasks like drawing a sketch, which masks their deficiencies in more challenging subjects. The schools use letter grades, but former students say it's unheard of to receive a grade below a B.

Aside from Suri's school, the Delphi Schools chain is the most visible of the study technology institutions. It has a flagship boarding school in Oregon and other centers in major cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston. The schools accept non-Scientologist families, but the overwhelming majority of pupils are part of the church.

Hubbard's antipathy toward psychiatry and psychology, an integral part of Scientology, is also on display in study technology. Study tech schools reject the idea of learning disabilities, and the official website even puts "learning disorders" in quotation marks. In study technology, learning disabilities are viewed as mere misunderstanding of individual words that disappear when those misunderstandings are cleared up. In fact, Hubbard characterized misunderstood words as the most significant barrier to learning, and viewed yawning as a physical indication of having misunderstood a word. Yawning at a study tech school will usually bring a teacher over, stat.

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Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.