Making a Case for the Prevention of Cult Influence in the National Education System

Elena Merzlyakova, candidate at the Institute of Pedagogics and Psychology at the Professional Education Academy for Pedagogic Science of Ukraine,
practical psychologist Vladimir Petukhov, representative of the Family & Personality Protection Society, social psychologist


This paper presents our test of work with specialists in the educational system, and is the result of the implementation of a social-psychological program for the prevention of psychological manipulation and negative cult influence on students at state educational institutions.

We tested the following conditions and primary instances of given cult groups intruding into the educational system:

  • The potential to elevate one’s own authority and conferring the appearance of legitimacy upon their operations at the expense of personnel of state educational institutions;
  • The potential to propagate one’s own ideology under the appearance of educational information;
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  • The potential to exert mass influence and mass recruitment of new adepts;
  • The potential to advertise their “socially effective operations” through spiritually training the upcoming generation.

We note that the cults’ own influence is exerted in a complex manner at all levels of the educational system.

With the support of central and local administrative apparatuses of the educational system a large-scale recruitment seminar was arranged and held in the form of a training seminar for staff. The popularization of cult ideology and cult technology occurred in the form of the latest preventive and informative psychological developments.

Cults, which profit from poor material and business conditions in educational institutions, establish a close relationship with their management and administration by organizing sponsorial and humanitarian aid and setting up excursions and summer camps for students and teachers. This leads to the administration permitting its spaces to be leased to organizations of dubious reputation to conduct their ritual activities. This often leads to intrusion on a level with ordinary education program methodology, but not going through the appropriate expert appraisal, done without parental agreement, and maintaining elements of cult ideology and dogma. At the expense of time diverted from study, cult representatives give lessons and lectures to students and teachers, frequently hand out literature, informational booklets and other informational materials from the organization’s recruitment texts.

Particular acuity and specificity of the problem is attained at a level of cooperation between parents, children and teachers, if the former and/or latter are members of a cult organization.

During the implementation of preventive work on reducing the risk of negative influence from cults among the personnel system of education, we noted certain objective and subjective difficulties, the surmounting of which would have permitted a greater capacity to approach the stated problem. Specifically:

  • Churches traditional for Ukraine were notified of the absence of a state religion and of the separation of education from the church, but not cult organizations on the whole. This especially applied to New Age, which often held itself out as a philosophical school, and to psychotherapeutic cults;
  • False interpretation of the term “freedom of conscience,” often understood as an all encompassing permissibility and a denial to an analytical and critical approach to any particular doctrine;
  • Absence of a clear conception of differentiation between something historical to Ukraine that has a positive emotional slant toward Christianity and the use Christian terminology during their insinuation of their preventive program (for a healthy life style, against narcotics, etc.);
  • Low level of informedness in teaching terms like: cult, cultic, dependence, recruitment, psychological coercion and exploitation, manipulation and consciousness control, critical thought;
  • Inadequate level of psychological awareness of teachers, which is related to academic instruction for bases of psychology in the state system of personnel instruction and qualification enhancement often having only a theoretical character and containing outdated information.

Taking into account all the above, we proposed and realized measures and programs for preventing negative influence of cults in the education system, both through students and through the specialists themselves in the educational sphere (including management and administration of the educational establishments.)

The Family and Personality Protection Society arranged a complex series in the 2003-2004 year of measures that included work in educational establishments, round table discussions, counseling, seminars and conferences, a result of which two preventive programs were created.

The social-psychological program “Prevention of psychological manipulation and consciousness control” is meant for the senior class of the public educational establishment.

Secondly, there was the educational training program “Psychological security – for the teacher,” which includes remote training, a column and a specialized magazine, materials, assignments on a web page, specialized seminars and training for specialists in the educational field. This program has already reached maturity in the framework of the all-Ukraine innovative educational project “Open Pedagogic School,” which is conducted with support from the Academy for Pedagogic Science of Ukraine.


This report distinguishes the basic reasons, methods and mechanisms of the penetration of the ideology of cults into educational establishments on the basis of the practical psychological, pedagogic case of action. Possible reasons were analyzed as to the success of the intrusion of totalitarian and destructive cult ideology into schools in the academic field. Possible preventive measures are examined as are the results of the realization of the social-psychological program for the prevention of psychological manipulation and negative cult influence on students in state educational institutions of Ukraine.


Education on the whole is associated with the acquisition of new skills and knowledge, with psychological and spiritual growth of a person for his successful subsequent activities, and for the formation of a free, independent personality. Everything connected with education and the educational structures are perceived in the public consciousness not wholly unequivocally, but on the whole – positively. So while conservatism of educational structures can prompt criticism among us for the discrepancy between educational programs and the demands of the contemporary age, it can also stimulate pride for tradition and for the continuity of relation to our Alma Mater. However, we can definitely say that nobody leaves the field of education indifferent, neither parents nor children nor the specialists in this area themselves.

The theme of education did not come to our attention wholly by accident. The great significance for the period of instruction in educational establishments during a person’s life was observed not only by us, but also by persons and organizations of various cult persuasions that are trying to use the educational system for their own purposes.

In making this case we examined the reasons for the potential of penetration by cults into the state system of mandatory secondary education, which has a secular character in Ukraine. Analysis brought us to a not very comforting conclusion: the people who stay in school today either have a great love for their profession, have no place else to go, or have recently changed their profession; the level of knowledge and social-psychological informedness of teaching staff is very low; managers tend to select directive and authoritative methods of leadership; a large number of teachers apply elements of the Soviet system of education in their practice.

To illustrate we offer a small comparison of consciousness control according to S. Hassan in destructive cults with Soviet methods of education.

Destructive cult – Orientation of Soviet schools

Behavioral control

  • Regulation of individual physical reality: with whom one lives, how to dress, wear one’s hair, and financial dependence.
  • Large share of time devoted to group ritual.
  • Requirement to ask permission for important decisions.
  • Reward and punishment.
  • Resisting inclination toward individualism, prevalence of group thought.
  • Cruel regulations and directives.
  • Requirement for submission and dependence.
  • Requirement for mandatory uniforms, “school” hairstyle, etc.
  • Summoning parents to school for any reason, refusal to settle a complex situation directly with the child.
  • Appeal to the collective opinion on any occasion.
  • Moral reward and punishment being associated with this same collective opinion.
  • Demand for strict fulfillment of an unwritten “Rule of school conduct,” by which is meant, “Teacher is always right.”

Control of Information

  • Use of deceit and lies; concealment of information and its misrepresentation to make it acceptable.
  • Access to other sources of information reduced to a minimum.
  • No free access to information.
  • Shadowing encouraged, thoughts, feelings and social environment reported on.
  • Widespread use of “correct” information and propaganda.
  • Use of confessions, information about “faults” used for further manipulation.
  • Information released to great advantage in view of manipulation at the given moment for: first, the administration; second, parents; third, students and; as required, teachers.
  • Requirement to respond exactly as HE (teacher) SAID, and not what the student thinks or read somewhere.
  • Encouragement of tattling and denunciation. The only correct information is that which the teacher presents. Student faults are used for manipulation, and for curbing willfulness.

Control of Mentality (Thought)

  • Requirement to accept group doctrine as the sole “truth.”
  • Application of a special “loaded” language (clichés).
  • Encouragement of only “good” or “correct” thought.
  • Techniques of stopping thought, rationalization, justification.
  • Prohibiting critical questions about a leader.
  • Prohibiting alternative systems of belief.
  • Forming a set unanimity in the class of “who is not for us is against us.”
  • Teachers’ search for guilt, rationalization and justification of students.
  • Prohibiting critical discussion about teacher’s conduct.

Control of Emotion (feelings)

  • Manipulation and narrowing the spectrum of individual feelings (“shameful weeping,” “inane pleasure”).
  • Activation and excessive use of feelings of guilt (origins, status, personal history).
  • Activation and application of fear (fear of the outside world, natural disasters, “enemies”).
  • Extreme emotional highs and lows.
  • Inculcation of fear awareness.
  • Imposition of personal vision, which feelings pupils can (cannot) display.
  • Activation and excessive use of feelings of guilt (origins, status, personal history). duplicate
  • Activation and use of fear (fear of the adult world and of the principal, fear of parents).

A little research of organizational structure, which we conducted among pedagogues, showed the predominance of an authoritarian bureaucratic system in the administration (real organization) in academic establishments. During this the dream of the teachers (ideal organization) is connected with activity in the capacity of independent self-realized individuals who jointly resolve common goals. This discrepancy between the real and the ideal picture leads not only to psychological problems for the teachers themselves, but also to an inclination to select manipulative and authoritarian methods when dealing with teachers.

During our involvement with teachers, which we discuss below, they came to the collective conclusion that psychological manipulation was a very widespread phenomenon in the domestic secondary education system. Sometimes the participants of our seminars experienced a certain shock: “I, a manipulator! I always did this,” “We ourselves trained psychologically dependent people.” The second feature includes the social and psychological unstable state of the teacher, the feeling of personal desperation often pushed him into a search for comfort in various types of cults and sects. And then teachers begin to bear a direct threat to the psychological health of their pupils.

For instance, in one of the Kiev lycées there was a teacher who could be said to be of the “teachers of the old school,” who became an adherent of one of the New Age groups, and in several classes told students that the end of the world was near. Naturally she did this with the best of intentions and with a sacred belief in her personal correctness. But this created hysteria in the homes of several children. The hysterics spread to the parents, then the lycée administration when the parents told them. The conflict then died down. The parents were told about a difficult life situation the teacher had experienced – her grandchild had died. The incident seems to have been closed, but the potential threat to the psychological health of the students remains.

The third reason is that the world of teachers is very ill informed about the activities of totalitarian and destructive cults, about terms such as cults, cult dependence, recruitment, psychological coercion and exploitation, manipulation and consciousness control, and critical thought.

This does not relate to a non-existence of such problems. Taking this up at a gathering of nearly 50 teachers for all the Ukraine, a short 15-minute video film was shown about the danger of cult effects from one charismatic church in the city of Kiev. The discussion, with breaks, lasted until late evening. Many questions were put to us, and in our turn we heard many new things about specific activities of destructive cults in various regions of Ukraine. However, any mention of serious danger was only made by a few people who had first-hand experience with the consequences of cult influence. For the rest this was just an interesting topic, nothing more.

To illustrate the informational and psychological unpreparedness of teachers to meet with cults, we would like to present the following as an example. One of Kiev’s colleges turned to us with a request for assistance. The problem had to do with creative, active, non-standard young people who had gotten in over their heads with the Society for Krishna Consciousness. They started to preach in college dormitories and to instruct their small community. The administration did not know what to do with these students, it had neither methodical recommendations to give the teachers to interact with them, nor recommendations on how to avert similar incidents in the future. We spoke at a teachers’ meeting and informed the teachers of the legal, religious and psychological viewpoints of this organization. We were astonished at the teachers’ reaction. Many were puzzled – why do anything at all? Good for the children – they had found themselves, they believed in something lofty and radiant. Any could believe in that which they freely chose. In this lay freedom of conscience.

The biggest difficult was in explaining that the case at hand did not have to do with freedom. The place where destructive cults emerged and used psychological techniques of mind control are those where there was no real freedom of choice. Teachers who had direct contact with the young Krishnas were in the audience, and they helped us bring the others’ attention to how the children had changed after joining the cult. Finally an understanding of the following methods of situation development was found.

The absence of understanding in the teachers’ world of the difference between a destructive cult or sect and a traditional church led to these being put all in the same row, according to their effects. Usually one can hear teachers say something like the biggest totalitarian sect in Ukraine is the Orthodox Church. This, too, opens new possibilities for manipulating information. So one cannot permit representatives of the Orthodox Church, which is traditional for Ukraine, basing this on the separation of church and state, but one can allow representatives of new religious movements to give lessons in schools under the pretext of being a social organization, a philosophical or educational movement, or a sports committee.

With official permission from the administration of educational institutions, in the form of lectures about drug abuse, about healthy life styles, about preparation for family life, about advanced methods and forms of mental and spiritual self-improvement, members of cults and sects actively propagate their own religious views and worldview doctrines.

For instance, on a level of city and district departments of public education, Moon’s Unification Church has used daughter organizations to arrange mass seminars for school principals, directors of study and educational work, and for teachers.

For periods of from three to five days these people assembled as directed in boarding houses or health centers. The program was filled with intense lessons of a “teacher-student” character, and also had a group cultural program. This sort of seminar was conducted at many of our colleges. One of the psychologists who participated in the seminar to this day collects songs with which she and other management staff at the school would pass the time caroling in the evening. She recalls this seminar in light humor, but notes that far from everybody had an attitude similar to hers. A group of teachers got very absorbed with the theories brought to their attention for the first time and subsequently went through a “wedding ceremony” that was organized on the city’s central stadium one sunny summer day. But after a similar seminar a resourceful group from one of the city’s grammar schools instituted seminar lessons on the premises of their own educational establishments for this cult’s methods.

The interest and application of various methods that cults use in the educational system has unfortunately already become very visible. This sort of pedagogic and psychological innovation is released as some sort of exclusive know-how.

In conducting seminars with psychologists in our preventive program, “Prevention of psychological manipulation and consciousness control” in a large industrial and cultural center in Kharkov, eastern Ukraine, we brought attention to the great number of advertisements on the city’s streets about the Dianetics Center. And because our program uncovers issues of cult influence and its prevention, a discussion commenced about all the increased influence of individual cults on the life of the city in general and on the education system in particular. The discussion started to get specific with regard to the Scientology movement. We were surprised at the starkly overt, explicit propaganda – where were the administrative organs looking? What local teachers said surprised us even more. It turned out that it was by marshaling individual officials of the regional forces that Scientology technology was being openly propagated in the educational system, and in the voluntary-mandatory curriculum it was being recommended for lessons with the students.

It was no surprise that during the meeting Scientologists did their best to show their wares to people: technique of teaching children speed-reading, program for increasing literacy, technology to stabilize an emotional condition, and a drug prevention program (Narconon). It should be said that the techniques are really very attractive: compact, simple, and the main thing, functioning.

The only thing that can help decrease collaboration is the availability of complete information about this organization. Unfortunately, far from everyone possesses this sort of information.

Taking stock of the poor financing of schools, frequently incidents occur of cult organizations putting in applications to lease spaces for carrying out their various arrangements and lessons completely free for students of the school.

For example, in the lycée administration in which I work, representatives of one of the New Age movements “Iskusstvo Zhizni” (“Art of Life”) applied. They wanted to discuss lease of the gymnasium because the athletic mats were needed to carry out their lesson. Lycée management asked me for a professional opinion of their offer. I listened to a story about the speed with which the teachings were winning the world (having already won the Baltic, Russia and Belarus), I saw questionable ideology and sufficiently dangerous practices: suggestion, control respiration, etc. In sum the teachers of our lycée were left without “exclusive awareness” of “artful life.” But, unfortunately, there is no guarantee that this “awareness” will not be attained by teachers of other schools in the city of Kiev.

It should be said that the lease of school spaces – classes, assembly halls and gymnasiums – is a customary practice. Questionable seminars of a philosophical, spiritual or psychological tendency occur frequently enough in the spaces of one or another city schools. Invariable attributes of these seminars are the presence of a living “prophet” or “messiah,” the spirited eye of its adherents and the universal enthusiasm for a well-balanced (or not very) theory for reforming society.

Frequently methods chosen by cultic organizations to strike up a friendship with educational establishments do not, at first glance, arouse any suspicion: gifts to children who have not been provided for on New Year’s, arranging excursions for children and teachers, and organizing relaxation and leisure time. For example, various new religious movements of a pseudo-Christian current arrange summer camps for the senior classes. This is a very tempting offer for parents, because children are brought to the seashore or to ecologically pristine areas, absolutely free. What the parents are not told in advance about this concentrated cultural and educational program is that the students will be indoctrinated there.

In these ways cult influence in academic establishments is realized by:

  • conducting lectures for students and teachers;
  • rendering informational service, the upholding of which serves as cult ideology;
  • lease of school spaces for giving their lessons;
  • establishing close contact with administrations of educational establishments in the form of sponsorial and humanitarian aid;
  • organizing leisure time for children and/or parents;
  • distribution of their literature, informational booklets, etc.

Besides this, complexities also arise with teachers during the organization of contact with students’ parents who are adepts of totalitarian and destructive cults.

This can manifest itself in that parents do not agree with the information that disagrees with the doctrine of the cult. For example, the father of a ninth grade girl, members of the Jehovahs Witnesses organization, became indignant and wrote a scandalous letter to senior authorities asking why his son was being taught psychology, which was not in the public school curriculum. It needs to be said that it was in the framework of this discipline that our program for the prevention of psychological manipulation and consciousness control was being realized. The conflict died down when the parent was persuaded that every supplementary course was optional. He did not want to remove the boy from the educational establishment.

But not all cases are so guileless. For example a seventh grade girl was observed committing theft: money taken from first-graders, small office supplies, etc. The girl’s parents were also members of Jehovahs Witnesses. Some constructive dialogue with the parents on this occasion was not successful. They responded, “If the girl took some things, they were simply taken; this was not theft. Those who believe in God and pray every day cannot steal.”

We do not think that something will change anytime soon at the administration level in the understanding of the mechanisms and the risks of rendering influence of one or another cult in the education system. After all, penetration into government educational establishments gives cults definite advantages:

  • Possibility of increasing their own authority and giving visibility and legitimacy to their activities at the expense of the staff at the state educational institutions;
  • Possibility of propagating their own ideology in the form of scholarly information;
  • Possibility of exerting mass influence and mass recruitment of new adepts;
  • Possibility to advertise their “socially effective activities” through spiritual training of the upcoming generation.

In today’s stage of development of education it’s difficult to anticipate government support for our initiative to disallow penetration of cult ideology into the state education system. The main brunt of prevention falls to social organizations and to pedagogue-enthusiasts. It is in this direction that we put together a definite case which we would like to communicate.

At the international scientific-practical conference “Prevention of psychological coercion, manipulation of consciousness and development of critical thought in the youth environment,” which took place in May 2004 in Kiev, there were representatives from our program “Prevention of psychological manipulation and consciousness control,” as well as “Psychological security – for the teacher.”

The essence of the first program ended in the development of skills of assertiveness in young people (public constructive interaction), reflection (the ability to see and understand a situation), critical thought (practical knowledge of work with information: its analysis, conversion, the technology of making an independent decision), the presence of information about cults and cult consciousness control.

In the course of researching a control model for psychodiagnostic methods a positive tendency was observed of decreasing risks of negative psychological influence among students who were involved with the program and a reduction of danger among them in the development of psychological dependence.

Besides that, examination of students’ critical thought was held during the events of the “Orange Revolution.” This theme repeatedly presented discussion and psychological exercises on our lessons. Students saw and understood the basics of instances of psychological manipulation in the mass media, both on television and other sources of information. This means things could turn out better with regard to other possible attempts to influence their consciousness – they see and catch the attempts, and do not yield to their influence.

Those needing training for this program were instructors, teachers and school psychologists; we conducted seminars for employees of the educational system. And encountered problems similar to before, what to teach teachers, how to talk with children on the anti-manipulation theme – it’s necessary for the teachers to teach themselves to interact (and teach) without practicing psychological manipulation.

Unfortunately academic instruction in the basics of psychology in the state system of training specialists and the improvement of qualifications very often bears a theoretical character. Those teachers are most in need of concrete practical knowledge, methods, including the methods of neutralizing the results of manipulation and preventing the development of psychological dependence.

So our second program emerged, “Psychological security – for the teacher.” This program consists of four modules:

  1. Introduction into the anti-manipulation theme (this also includes information on cults).
  2. Everyday home interactions – social skills without manipulation.
  3. Psychology of professionalism – obligatory if effective teacher is a proven manipulator?
  4. School without manipulation: presentation of the program “Prevention of psychological manipulation and consciousness control” for senior class and education of teachers in their work methods.

It has proven very difficult to assemble a group of interested teachers who are ready to purposively work in an assigned anti-manipulation direction. Even if the management of one or another school is interested in this sort of work – teachers who are compelled to attend lessons give their best excuses to avoid them. More often than not there are several people who are well motivated toward education in every school. The question arises of how to unite them as a group.

At the present moment, the realization of our programs has been helped with cooperation from the Ukrainian “Pleyady” publishing company (a publisher specializing in psychological-pedagogic currents, issues a series of magazines for the public education system). For two years this publishing company has implemented the social educational project “Otkrytaya Pedagogicheskaya Shkola” – an alternative to the state system of improving teacher qualifications that is today supported by the Academy of Pedagogic Science of Ukraine. Organized in the framework of the project as long-distance (published in magazines on the Internet ) education, as “Psychological security – for the teacher” is also called, in which we also pose questions of preventing cult influence and cult dependence.

The realization of our program in the state education system demonstrated needs:

  • To conduct conferences, round tables, seminars with specialists to put broad public attention on the problem of negative influence from cults in schools, on the prevention of psychological coercion and psychological dependence in the school environment.
  • To prepare documents that make possible regulation of interrelations between cult organizations and educational structures on a legal basis. At the given moment there is no clearly prescribed legal basis specifying legal interaction of the state public education system with various non-commercial structures.
  • To create an expert structure that could make competent conclusions about (security) threats of various concepts, dogmata and ideologies. In this the question is vital of carrying out a social-psychological program of expertise which is deeply rooted in the education system in the form of a department with various social and religious organizations.
  • To form a wide understanding in the pedagogic sphere that democratization of administrative structures should enable formation of individual organizational culture of school establishments. A culture where the key words would be: openness, good-will and tolerance. Begin a similar system of internal school relations with the best prevention of of potential cult influence and the most reliable guarantee of maintaining psychological health both of teachers and students.
  • To consistently bring to the attention of Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science and of the management of local educational organs any breach of the principle of secular education in state educational institutions.
  • During the teaching of worldview disciplines in academic establishments, to pay special attention to forming critical thought in students, and also to forming mechanisms of psychological defense and assuring informational and psychological security.
  • To constantly learn ways and means of psychological influence used by religious organizations in a destructive current.

There is a necessity to form an understanding of the essentials of a totalitarian destructive cult as a social phenomenon in which a surge of new adepts are the core of its existence and development. A destructive cult can be compared with cancerous education. Its goal is not to support the organism on the whole (organism being a metaphor for human society), but to support its own existence and its security interests. The surge of new adepts secures the stability, stature and prosperity of the cult. Such a foreshortening of the educational system is a proper “land of plenty” of immature minds and souls who are already gathered in one place and are all ready to “listen up and pay attention.”