Minot Edwards is juggling three knives.
This is one of the better ways to get kids' attention. The dozen children and adults in the Project CALL learning center are focused on the short distance between the tips of the blades and Edwards's nose.
Add to this show Edwards's gregarious, self-deprecating humor, and you've got someone who can make both children and adults feel at ease.
Edwards uses the knives (and balls, and bowling pins) to demonstrate the technique he uses to teach kids and adults how to study. It's called "study technology," and it's based on the works of L. Ron Hubbard.
Now, just in case the people sitting around the tables in this Missouri City strip-mall space don't know who Hubbard was, Edwards is there to explain. Hubbard, he tells everyone, was a humanitarian who founded the Church of Scientology. He was a novelist, educator and World War II officer. Study technology grew out of his educational research and is used in classrooms around the world. His followers also developed a drug rehab group called Narconon, which also works in some public schools.
So what exactly is study technology? Edwards says it isolates and defines the three barriers to learning. These common-sense concepts are uniquely labeled as "mass," "gradient" and "misunderstood." Mass means that if you're trying to teach a kid the meaning of the word "boat," it's best to show him an actual boat. Gradient means that a child needs to learn incrementally; just because the kid now knows what a boat is doesn't mean he knows how the engine works. And misunderstood is the most important of all. When kids encounter a misunderstood word, they will not be able to understand anything past that word. They will often feel sleepy, nauseated, dizzy.
Students of study technology (which, like Church of Scientology, is a copyrighted concept) are told to immediately consult a dictionary when they encounter a misunderstood. If, say, they still didn't understand the meaning of "Scientology," the dictionary would tell them it's a religion based on self-knowledge and spiritual fulfillment.
What it wouldn't tell them is that the church is an extremely secretive, controversial, complex organization that charges members thousands of dollars to achieve spiritual fulfillment, at which time they are told that the galaxy was once ruled by an evil alien named Xenu and that humans evolved from clams. There will be no mention of Hubbard's claims that most ailments, including arthritis, tuberculosis -- and possibly cancer and diabetes -- are psychosomatic.
The dictionary won't tell them that Hubbard, who died in 1986, misrepresented his military and school records and said he'd visited heaven and Venus. It won't tell them that the church was behind the biggest burglary of federal government offices in U.S. history.
It won't tell them about Hubbard's internal memos, leaked by defectors, telling Scientologists that their sole purpose is to recruit new members -- what he called "raw meat."
Critics say that organizations like Project CALL are really fronts for sanitizing Hubbard's questionable background and setting the stage for recruiting raw meat.
Scientologists say their idiosyncratic concepts are leaked out of context to a prejudiced press, perpetuating the myth of their religion as a cult.
Whether it's a cult, a pyramid scheme or a religion, one thing's for sure: As with the world's major religions, a lot of money works its way up the echelon. These "fixed donations" are the price members pay to shed "engrams" -- negative buried thoughts -- on the way to becoming "Clear."
As Hubbard once wrote in an internal memo to the church's financial office: "Make money, make more money, make others produce so as to make more money. However you get them in, or why, just do it."
Edwards hopes to bring his study technology into public schools. But his ties to Scientology may be working against him.
Minot Edwards was certified to teach study technology by St. Louis-based Applied Scholastics. The company is not legally connected to the church, but it deals in Scientology-related material.
Applied Scholastics satellites in other cities have tried for years to get their books into public schools, succeeding mostly in California. Some districts embraced the material, while others were wary of potentially violating the separation of church and state. In July, the University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac dropped a study-technology course after a parent complained about the school's perceived religious endorsement. But in Boston, city officials said they received only a few complaints after the city awarded a $1,000 grant to a study-technology tutoring center.
Project CALL already has a working relationship with Fort Bend Justice of the Peace Joel Clouser. Clouser gives first-time truants the chance to spend a day volunteering or being tutored at Project CALL instead of paying a fine.
"I've had a lot of parents and kids to say they've really improved once they went to them," Clouser says. "It's like anything: You get out of it what you put into it."
Clouser says he was unaware of the Scientology connection, but he's never received a complaint about religion being preached at Project CALL.
"I'm not concerned about Scientology," he says. "I'm not a Scientologist the only thing I was interested in was the program."
Project CALL was started seven years ago by Fort Bend dentist Willis Pumphrey. According to a Web site that posts excerpts from the Scientology magazine Freewinds, Pumphrey has been a Scientologist since at least 1996.
Pumphrey did not return phone calls from the Press, so it's impossible to tell if he found Scientology the way some dentists have: through a church-affiliated consulting firm called Sterling Management. The Los Angeles Times reported in a series of articles that for years Sterling has targeted dentists and chiropractors, inviting them to seminars where they learn Hubbard's keys to business management. In turn, many of these professionals joined the church.
After holding workshops in various locations for years, Project CALL moved into the strip mall in 2002. Since then, Edwards says, he's helped hundreds of kids improve their grades. He's well aware of the debates over Scientology, and he says he's careful to avoid discussing Scientology matters during the tutoring.
"I am very wary of, very aware of, and very overexaggerated about the separation of church and state," Edwards says over the phone. "I have no problem with that policy. I think it should be that way Applied Scholastics was formed so that this study technology could be used by people of any religion, or of no religion."
Moreover, he says, study technology works -- mostly because it demands parental involvement. Overcrowded public schools mean even the best teachers can't reach all of their students, he says. Parents need to offer crucial one-on-one time. Edwards points to Applied Scholastics studies that show study technology has been successfully implemented in schools around the world.
"You can blame schools and you can blame teachers, but that's not been my experience," he says. "The problem is that, frankly, parents are leaving the education of their children to the schools, and it's really their job."
Juanita Copley, an associate professor and chair of the University of Houston's College of Education, was not aware of study technology. But when explained the approach of mass, gradient and misunderstoods, she said they are just different names for major concepts that have been around for years.
"If they're implemented correctly, I think those are probably good educational ideas," she says. "They've been around forever, and I use them in public education. I haven't heard any uniqueness there."
As the spokesperson for Austin's Church of Scientology, Cathy Norman has an unenviable job. The church receives mostly negative media attention, as a result of what Norman and other Scientologists say is a push by the American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association and drug companies to paint Scientologists as wackos.
In her 27 years with the church, Norman has worked her way up to "OT-Five" level. Until OT-Three data turned up in an ex-Scientologist's court case in the 1980s, most members had no idea that 75 million years ago, Xenu the evil spacelord banished all beings to Teegeeack (now called Earth), piled them up around volcanoes and blew them up with hydrogen bombs.
Norman says the tale of Xenu, and other stories, are taken out of context. She says the "make money" quotation, for example, is just one bit of "thousands of pages of administrative directives" -- it is about keeping the church financially stable, not just about recruitment.
But Norman says that throughout history, groups that challenged conventional thought have been persecuted or ridiculed. Sixty years ago, shock therapy and lobotomies were acceptable medical treatments. History is rife with allegedly overzealous groups who, years later, are vindicated. Scientology, she says, might just be ahead of its time. (Norman speaks only for the church, and is not a spokesperson for Applied Scholastics, Project CALL or any other church-affiliated group.)
Scientologists are so wary of contemporary medicine that to progress up the ladder of levels, they must sign waivers allowing their peers to intervene if they become mentally or physically incapacitated. The waiver allows the person to be isolated from friends and family and kept under 24-hour watch. It was created following the death of a mentally unstable church member who had been locked in a church-owned Florida hotel room for 17 days.
The depth and complexity of Scientology's concepts are so different from Judeo-Christian thought that they are difficult for outsiders to grasp, Norman says. There's no Old Testament narrative to sink your teeth into.
"It's not a story like that," she says. "It's a philosophy" -- one with applicable principles, she adds.
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However, the Scientology philosophy may be hindering the tutorial program's progress in the Houston area.
Edwards had hoped that a proposed grant from Alief ISD's Smith Elementary would open the door for him to deliver monthly workshops to parents. School officials are looking to team up with a nonprofit in order to gain the grant that would bolster their onsite parent-learning center.
Principal Helen Wilk said she initially was unaware of the program's ties to Scientology. She stressed that the proposed grant would not include the use of any study-technology books in the school -- it would be limited to having Edwards speak to parents about helping their kids study.
However, late last week, school officials dropped Edwards from contention for the grant. Their decision: Utilizing a method related to Scientology could violate the separation of church and state.