By Paula Bolyard
An Oprah-inspired program in public schools described by critics as an intrusive, emotionally manipulative effort with the laudable goal of ending bullying, cliques, gossip and other such behaviors, has been presented to a million students in 400 cities in 47 states.
Challenge Day, the subject of the 2010 MTV series, “If You Really Knew Me,” promises to provide schools and communities with “experiential programs that demonstrate the possibility of love and connection through the celebration of diversity, truth, and full expression.”
But critics contend Challenge Day, an independent, nonprofit program, can do more harm than good and pose a danger to emotionally fragile students, lacking privacy safeguards normally expected in counseling programs.
Schools pay $3,200, plus travel expenses, to bring Challenge Day to their students.
Focusing heavily on self-esteem and positive thinking, it regulates the environment, confining participants to a room for six half-hour periods during the school day. Everything from the room size, to the temperature of the room, to the windows (must be covered), to the chairs (no arm rests) is controlled. Challenge Day even dictates the number and size of tissue boxes schools must provide.
The first half of the day is made up of games designed to help the students break out of their comfort zones, so that later they are “willing to be vulnerable enough with one another to connect as human beings.” The students are encouraged to share very personal hurts they’ve experienced.
One episode of the MTV series featured Challenge Day at Royal Oak High School in a suburb of Detroit, led by a facilitator named Sela.
“The goal of challenge day is to bring students together, break down the cliques that normally separate them, and give them the opportunity to see who they really are inside,” Sela said.
Throughout the day, the students experience extreme emotional highs and lows, all led by the trained facilitator.
Many have noted that Challenge Day closely mirrors the processes of Large Group Awareness Training, or LGAT, which is often linked to the human potential movement. Timothy Conway, Ph.D., described LGAT this way:
The trainers are well-trained to be adept at “working the crowd,” pushing their emotional buttons – building people up and breaking them down, praising them and insulting them, inflating them and deflating them, saddening them and gladdening them, scaring them and relieving them, agitating them and relaxing them. … Through it all, people will predictably bond with each other – just like inmates or hostages in a prison, Marine recruits at boot camp, or any group of people put into a helpless position of stress.
Conway said the method promotes group-think, and he likens it to the Stockholm Syndrome. He explained that people in confined seminars “can very easily and quickly be turned into a pack of sheep with a ‘herd-like’ mentality and emotional needs.’
“Dynamics of inclusion or else marginalization and even ostracization are exploited to ensure that most people will conform with the agenda and identify with the trainers and their aims,” he said.
One person described the pressure to conform to the group at Challenge Day:
Kids were asked to sit in a circle and one-by-one go around and share an experience in which they were hurt. The boy recounting this story did not want to participate in that exercise. Then one boy announced that he was “gay” and most of the kids began to clap. Someone then told the group to stand up if they supported and accepted the “gay” boy. Next, a girl announced that she was bisexual. The standing and clapping continued. Only two students remained seated, but finally, because of the extended standing and clapping, the boy felt pressured to stand. He feared if he didn’t stand, someone would say something to him.
Challenge Day has ties to various New Age gurus and has added former Obama policy czar Van Jones, who resigned after his far-left political activism was exposed, as a member of the group’s Global Leadership Council.
An adult mentor in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District was very emotional about her experience as a Challenge Day leader:
For the first time in my life I cried in front of everyone. I did not feel embarrassed, I felt safe. Finally I was not afraid to be myself. I stepped out of my comfort zone, I had finally broken free.
We then broke off into our groups. For the first time I felt safe to be honest about my past. I began my sentence with: “If you really knew me you would know this about me.” Each person in the group was given two minutes to speak. To hear the students’ problems and their suffering ripped me apart. We held hands, we hugged, and we all cried together.
Cleveland schools spent $395,000 in “stimulus” funds to pay for the Challenge Day program to “improve school climate” in a district where just over 50 percent of the students graduate on time. Only 38.2 percent of fifth graders score proficient in reading and 24.9 percent score proficient in mathematics.
Group therapy net
As first reported by Laurie Higgins, cultural analyst for the Illinois Family Institute, authors Christina Hoff Sommers and Dr. Sally Satel, in their book “One Nation Under Therapy,” report that programs in schools employing “therapism,” such as Challenge Day, can be dangerous, contrary to the belief that it’s a “benign, constructive influence that comforts children, calming their fears and enhancing their feelings of self-acceptance.”
They contend the “therapeutic regime pathologizes healthy young people,” causing “normal” students to conjure up “problems” in an effort to please the facilitator and be included in the process.
“It encourages remedial measures for nonexistent vulnerabilities, wastes students’ time and impedes their academic and moral development,” the authors say.
“American students are, with few exceptions, mentally and emotionally sound; they are resilient.”