The Landmark debate

The Bangkok Post/November 6, 2008

One evening, a friend of mine invited me to go to Landmark Education and attend an orientation on Landmark Forum. I had never heard of Landmark Forum. It sounded interesting, so I went.

One of the things I have discovered about the Landmark Education system is that it uses the final session of each programme to encourage participants to bring guests, who are potential participants in the next programme. The programme is inexpensive, and financially this approach seems to work.

The first 90 minutes of the programme were focused on explaining what Landmark Education and Landmark Forum are. This was obviously targeted at the 30% of us who were guests who had not attended a programme before.

In that hour and a half, we were told about adult learning theory and the difference between knowledge-based and experience-based learning (Landmark uses its own terminology, but the concepts are the same). We also heard testimonials from previous participants about how the Landmark experience had changed their lives. And finally we got a bit more overview, focused on tearing down who you are, giving you a blank slate to create a new you.

I'd heard all of this before, in various forms and from different sources. Although the Landmark people claimed that their "transformation" approach is unique, it is fairly evident that it is not. The concepts introduced regarding knowledge-based learning and "transformational" learning are a relabelling of Malcolm Knowles' theories regarding adult learning, the theoretical base of active-learning, and pretty much the norm in how any good training firm approaches training. (However, good active-learning practitioners get the participants involved in the first five minutes and don't keep them sitting in a chair being preached at for an hour and a half).

Three things bothered me about this presentation (I walked out as organisers were preparing to register guests).

First was the presentation "style". There was a lot of effort to be emotional, to put out a lot of energy, and some of the techniques used were clearly manipulative. There was no opportunity for questions to be asked.

Second were the testimonials. In each case, the description of behaviour prior to the programme and what life changes had been made afterwards sounded strikingly like someone who had gone through psychotherapy. As a matter of fact, the programme is considered "large group psychotherapy" in the various studies that have been done on it in professional literature. Yet, as far as I can determine, none of the trainers are trained psychologists, psychotherapists, or psychiatrists.

The third thing that bothered me was the part about the tearing down of who you are, giving you a blank slate to create a new you. I've heard this before too, in studying Communist re-education systems under Lenin, Stalin and Mao. This sounds suspiciously like the process used by the Soviets in preparing confessions for their show trials or the first stage of the brainwashing process.

It's a very powerful place to take someone, but also a very dangerous place to take someone. As a training professional, I think that the risk of taking participants to that place requires significant safeguards - safeguards that I do not believe are in place with this programme.

In France, Landmark Forum has been classified as a "possible cult". The Cult Awareness and Information Centre in Australia has listed the Landmark Forum among "psychotherapy cults". Given what I saw, I can understand exactly how that classification has been applied and why. Is it an accurate label? I don't know.

In the Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology [990; 58(1): 99-108], a study of participants compared with non-participating peers revealed that participants were significantly more distressed then peer and normative samples. There have been articles in the American Journal of Psychiatry (three articles), and in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica regarding the psychological effect of these seminars.

In the US, Landmark Education is required to screen participants for psychological issues prior to training. Maybe it does so here, but I didn't see any indications of that.

One of the claims made during the presentation was "change doesn't work". Change is the basis of life on this planet. We are constantly changing from the moment of conception until the moment in which we die. It doesn't work? Change can be scary, and many people don't want to change. Is this programme appealing to those who don't want to change, but need to and must be "reprogrammed" in order to?

A friend who is a psychologist told me that a significant reason programmes such as this are successful is because the participants create their social network out of the programme. Surrounded by others who say the programme is great, the natural reaction of a social creature (which man is) is to agree.

In doing some additional research, I discovered that it is very common for people to feel good or inspired at the end of a Landmark Forum session. The need for that feeling can become addictive, leading to more enrollments, involvement as an assistant, and eventual involvement as staff.

Would I recommend the programme? Based on what I saw, heard and have learned through research? No. I strongly recommend anyone considering this programme to do some of their own research. There are fairly detailed accounts on the internet from people who were very happy with the programme and accounts from those who weren't. Make up your own mind; don't let the sales pitch do it for you.Do you have a training question or issue that you would like to see addressed here? Please e-mail me and I'll see what we can do.

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