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The Cult of Year 10

Last week, Amelie and Grace in Year 10 facilitated a very lively Renaissances Studies class, with a discussion on what constitutes a cult, leading to the burning question, is Wenona a cult?

Morning had broken, like the first morning. Blackbird had spoken like the first bird. The sun was shining, the air was full of the scent of flowers. And in the Independent Theatre, row upon row of identically dressed students filed in and sat obediently in rows, quietly waiting for their charismatic leader…sorry, that would be their teacher, Renaissance Studies Coordinator, Ms Poole! And they weren’t that quiet either. That’s because Year 10 were very excited as this was shaping up to be a Renaissance Studies session with a difference!

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Renaissance Studies is unique to Wenona. It focuses on the big ideas, encouraging students to adopt a genuinely intellectual approach to their academic work and to their view of the world around them. Over the course of this year, Year 10 have been exploring philosophy and sociology, with a focus on mindsets and social polarisation. It has captured their interest to such an extent that Ms Poole decided to mix things up a little by throwing the stage wide open for the students to facilitate a Renaissance Studies session of their choice. Amelie and Grace eagerly stepped up to the plate, convening what turned out to be a fascinating discussion on cults.

So, what is a cult? Well, if you’ve ever read Margaret Attwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale - or indeed watched the television adaptation – you’ll know all about the cult of Gilead, the hellish homeland where the Sons of Jacob preside with ruthless efficiency over the Handmaids in their long red dresses and white bonnets, as well as the Wives, the Marthas and the Aunts. Blessed be the fruit etc. etc!

Amelie and Grace kicked off their session by asking the students to think carefully about what the four-letter word ‘cult’ means to them. How would they define a cult? Well, said Year 10, a cult can be broadly defined as a core belief or a system of beliefs followed by a group of adherents. Or perhaps it’s a great devotion to a person. Or an idea. Or an artistic movement.

Hmmm, said Amelie and Grace, does that mean religious movements are cults? Are the Mormons or Seventh-day Adventists cults? What about all those people who are devoted to Star Trek or Dr Who? What about your die-hard Elvis fans? Are they part of cults too?

Good point, said Year 10! It made them think long and hard about the characteristics that cults have in common. They decided that cults share three primary characteristics.

First of all, they must have a charismatic leader, who can quite often become an object of worship for followers. This leader typically has no meaningful accountability and no tolerance for questions or critical inquiry. The leader is always right and is the exclusive means of knowing ‘truth’ or receiving validation. And they often become the single most defining element of the group and its source of power.

Secondly, most cults attract their followers through a process of indoctrination, coercive persuasion or a kind of brainwashing. This can lead to members of the group doing things that are not in their own best interest, but consistently in the best interest of the group and its leader. Often cults control their followers by making them develop unreasonable fears or beliefs about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.

Finally, there are often forms of exploitation in a cult, whether they are physical, sexual, emotional or financial. Cults typically have no meaningful financial disclosure either regarding their budget or expenses. Followers often feel they can never be ‘good enough’, which can lead to them feeling disempowered or fearful of leaving. And if they do leave, they are invariably seen as weak, wrong, negative or even evil.

This led Year 10 to decide that cults have the potential to do harm. After all, most people who leave a cult relate similar stories of abuse: isolation from loved ones, indoctrination, powerlessness and fear.

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Amelie and Grace then turned the discussion to the differences between religions and cults. They discussed Scientology, which was founded by the science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard in 1952 and espouses the idea that humans are descended from an exiled race of aliens called Thetans. They discussed the Rajneeshpuram and its controversial Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, his one-time personal assistant Ma Anand Sheela, and their community of followers. And they discussed Charles Manson and The Manson Family, who lived an unconventional lifestyle with habitual drug use, which culminated in the murder of nine people in a terrible rampage in Los Angeles in 1969.

So, what about Wenona, asked Amelie and Grace. If you define a cult as a group that has a universal belief system, a charismatic leader, and regular practices that everyone obeys, does that mean you’d define Wenona as a cult? 

Well, said Year 10, Wenona does have a motto, Ut Prosim, that I may serve, which we all believe in and support. And yes, Dr Scott is a charismatic leader. And yes, once a Wenonian, always a Wenonian, so you can never really cut your ties with the School. And yes, we all dress the same and follow rules, so if you put it like that, maybe Wenona does have some cult-like tendencies. But only in the broadest sense of the word. Because Wenona doesn’t make you cut ties with the outside world like cults tend to do. And really, the majority of us are here because our parents made the choice to send us here. So we haven't been exploited or brainwashed to join Wenona.  And come to think of it, we’re not actually brainwashed at all at Wenona. If we were, we wouldn't be doing subjects like Renaissance Studies, which exposes us to different perspectives and ideas and encourages us to have a voice and speak out.

Correct, said Year 10 Coordinator Ms Rodgerson, who had been quietly listening to Year 10 from the back row. You do have a voice. And there’s no way Wenona could ever be considered a cult because the School’s aim is to gear you up to leave. In fact, Wenona is the opposite of a cult, which tries to prevent its members ever leaving and often punishes them if they do. Wenona's goal is to educate and empower you, so you go out into the real world with actual skills and knowledge and use your voice to make a difference.

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Fabulous work Amelie, Grace and Year 10! And bravo to Ms Poole for giving the students agency to lead Renaissance Studies and encouraging them to listen, discuss and debate the big ideas.