Landmark Education is most well-known for its flagship program, the Forum. The Forum promises transformation in three days of intense inquiry. While some people who have taken the Forum and other Landmark offerings have only good to say about it, others claim that it is a cult and urge potential enrollees to avoid it or be scarred for life. Which is true?
I took the Forum in 1992, and saw results in my life. I chose to review it again in 2011, and just completed the Advanced Course in January of 2012. Landmark Education has fulfilled what it promised for me, but I can see how some people are afraid that it is a cult. In this article I will examine thoroughly what a cult is, why Landmark can be misconstrued as a cult, and why only people who are functional and emotionally healthy should take it.
Landmark’s Curriculum for Living consists of the Forum, the Advanced Course, and the Self Expression and Leadership Program. It is designed to challenge your assumptions, emotional habits, and beliefs that limit what you are able to accomplish in your life. If you are attached to looking good, inflexible in your beliefs, or uncomfortable with change, the weekend will be very difficult. Since these descriptions apply to most of us, few of us actually enjoy the process at first. The Forum is intensely uncomfortable, especially during the first few hours.
Other inquiries have been made into whether or not the Forum is a cult. Two journalists enrolled to find out for themselves.
Jack at thirtytwothousanddays and Amelia Hill at the UK Guardian have written about what they experienced. I encourage anyone who is on the fence to read these examples, to get a realistic picture of what goes on during the weekend and what the results can be.
The material presented in the Forum is not new. It’s psychology in a digestible form, presented during a three day “conversation” that involves intense sharing and vulnerability by everyone who participates. Everyone learns from everyone else, and the language that is used, frequently called “jargon” by critics, is simply a way to encapsulate complex ideas into a language that participants can share and use later. The use of “jargon” does not make the Forum a cult.
Following are characteristics of a cult, why some people say that the Forum is a cult, and evidence that it is not.
These characteristics are condensed from a list compiled by The American Family Foundation.
1. The group is focused on a living leader to whom members seem to display excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment.
Landmark Education is a for-profit business that is owned by its employees. There is no one leader to whom members are asked to be committed to. The Forum leader who presides over the weekend intensive is one of many trained facilitators. The students of the Forum acknowledge the leadership of the facilitator for the weekend only, and may never see that person again. I have taken three weekend workshops and encountered three different leaders. None of them asked for or required loyalty to anyone.
2. The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
Landmark Education uses an aggressive marketing strategy. They do not advertise, relying instead on people who take the Forum to bring others who they think will benefit. There is a lot of hype and pressure on participants to do this, resulting in the label “cult”. Bringing in participants is how Landmark stays in business, and participants in a weekend workshop are not “members”. I disagree with Landmark’s marketing strategy but aggressive marketing does not make the Forum a cult.
3. The group is preoccupied with making money.
Landmark is a for-profit business, and they are in business to make money. I found it to be a good value for the money I spent. While they are in business to make money, they are also in business to deliver value. Participants who register in the Forum also get a ten week seminar to help them hold onto the changes they have made in their lives.
4. Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished. The leadership induces guilt feelings in members in order to control them.
Forum leaders are often confrontational. This can feel bad to a participant. However, participants can leave at any time. Forum leaders also say periodically, “none of this is true”. The purpose of this statement is to remind participants that the ideas presented are for their evaluation, they are not any kind of doctrine. Participants are not shamed or punished in any way.
5. Mind-numbing techniques (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, debilitating work routines) are used to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
While the hours of the intensive are long, there are breaks every 2-3 hours, and dinner is 90 minutes. There is water available in the room at all times, and there is a nearby break room for eating and conversing during breaks. Leaving the room is discouraged during sessions so that participants get full value. Contrary to rumor, there is no restriction on using the bathroom.
6. The leadership dictates sometimes in great detail how members should think, act, and feel (for example: members must get permission from leaders to date, change jobs, get married; leaders may prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, how to discipline children, and so forth).
Nothing remotely like this occurs in Landmark Education seminars. Participants are encouraged to think and choose for themselves. The Forum encourages participants to question assumptions they have made in the past and evaluate their actions and decisions in present time.
7. The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and members (for example: the leader is considered the Messiah or an avatar; the group and/or the leader has a special mission to save humanity).
People who take Landmark Education seminars are encouraged to “make a difference” in whatever way they feel called. That’s all.
8. The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which causes conflict with the wider society. Members’ subservience to the group causes them to cut ties with family and friends, and to give up personal goals and activities that were of interest before joining the group. Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
This is probably the most obvious example of why Landmark Education is not a cult. The workshops are specifically marketed as a means for people to be more effective in their relationships, in their work, and in society. Repairing relationships is on the agenda at every break. Making a difference is a recurring theme. Landmark graduates go out into the world and use what they have learned to make it better. You can find some descriptions of what graduates are doing on the Landmark website. Many Landmark graduates have started charities or written bestsellers.
9. The group’s leader is not accountable to any authorities (as are, for example, military commanders and ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream denominations).
10. The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify means that members would have considered unethical before joining the group (for example: collecting money for bogus charities).
Allegations that The Forum is a cult are unsubstantiated.
I did a thorough exploration on the internet, and the evidence that the Forum was a cult was not available. The videos, the “60 minutes” episode, etc. were removed due to inaccurate or incomplete information or failure to abide by guidelines that establish credibility. There were some first person complaints that sounded to me like they were from people who were offended by having their belief systems challenged. One such example can be found here, with a rebuttal by a retired clinical psychologist.
When I took the Forum in 1992, I was working in an environment where the CEO was a Landmark graduate, and everyone in her managerial staff was encouraged to participate in Landmark Education. The result was that Landmark language was part of our workplace vernacular, and this helped me to retain the positive changes that I had experienced with Landmark. It was a great place to work, and we accomplished amazing things.
Landmark Education and the Landmark Forum are for people who want to be more effective in their lives. If you are basically happy, emotionally stable and interested in moving beyond “fine” into “amazing”, the Forum is well worth your time and money. If you are deeply depressed, have a low tolerance for stress, or are mentally unstable in any way, therapy or a support group would be a more appropriate choice.
After taking the Forum and the Advanced Course, I am happier, less stressed and more effective. If you are considering the Forum, the worst that can happen is that you blow $550.00. No one will brainwash you and you will not be joining a cult. The best that could happen is that you change your life for the better.