A Critique of the Learning Annex

The Learning Annex is a privately owned continuing-education school in New York. As a resident of New York City, I can testify to its success – its kiosks of free course catalogs are on nearly every street corner in Manhattan. It was founded in 1980 by Bill Zanker, who sold the company in 1991 and then repurchased it and resumed ownership in 2002. The 2007 Inc. 500, a list of the nation’s fastest-growing private companies, ranked the Learning Annex at number 346 and said that it makes over $100 million in revenue in each year.

On my lunch break last week, I picked up a Learning Annex catalog and flipped through it. Some of its offered courses are about professional software, how to found a small business, how to interview for a job, or other serious topics. Others are about dating, diet, or other self-help topics. But a great many of them are straight-up pseudoscience. A large number of Learning Annex classes promise to teach students how to develop their psychic powers, how to get rich or find the perfect spouse using the “Law of Attraction” (the Law of Attraction is a very popular course topic), how to communicate with dead relatives, how to “reverse the aging process”, how to heal using qi gong, how to improve your life with neurolinguistic programming (for the jaw-dropping price of $2500), and many more.

As a private business, the Learning Annex profits by people signing up to take its courses, so they have little reason to turn away anyone who offers to teach a class. This no doubt accounts for much of the bottom-feeding superstition in these pages. There are many self-deluded people who are eager to share their credulity with the world, and of course it’s much easier to claim to be a teacher of psychic powers than to be a teacher of Photoshop. One requires actual skill and education, while the other thrives on a lack of any discernible qualifications or results. The mantle of “psychic teacher” can be worn by any charlatan; if they’ve published a book or run a website, so much the better.

But it goes far beyond that. The Learning Annex, far from passively putting up with these miracle-mongers, actively works to promote them and boasts about their presence. The first page of its catalogue, as well as a later full-page ad, prominently advertises a webcast by noted psychic failure and free-speech enemy Sylvia Browne. The Browne webcast is presented as a tie-in for the launch of their own new pseudoscience-themed site, SpiritNow.com, whose index page is a gleeful mishmash of astrology, angels, psychics and feng shui. The back page of the catalogue, meanwhile, advertises a course taught by TV psychic Char Margolis.

Purely on an economic level, it’s hard to fault the Learning Annex. No doubt they, like much of the media, have found that peddling pseudoscience is a great way to rake in the bucks. Marketing to skeptics is an endeavor that some might say suffers from an intrinsic contradiction. But the credulous are huge in number and eager to be exploited.

But the problem with pandering to superstition is that, inevitably, it degrades one’s seriousness and credibility. The more this nonsense infects its pages, the more the Learning Annex will lose what real educators it has. After all, if you’re a genuine, credible expert on some important topic, why make yourself a laughingstock by sharing space with fly-by-night psychics, people who talk to angels, and hawkers of the latest get-rich-quick scams? Pseudoscience, like water, seeks its own level. Before long, if they continue at this pace, this is all the Learning Annex will have left – just one more outlet for every brand of nonsense our society has to offer.

Every educational institution has to confront the fact, at some point, that real teaching is a difficult, expensive business. It’s certainly possible to succeed doing it legitimately, but the temptation will always be there to lower the standards, throw open the gates, and make the easy money from people who flock to have their superstitions catered to and their prejudices reinforced. “What’s the harm?” is the usual rationalization – a rhetorical question which can be answered by noting that the harm, though subtle at first, is very real indeed. It consists in sending the message that pseudoscience is a legitimate area of study, worthy of being put on a par with genuine science. Inevitably, science suffers from that equation.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • David D.G.

    I am impressed with your diligence, evenhandedness, and overall professionalism in this article. It would be so terribly easy to just go on a major rant against the Learning Annex for promoting all that garbage, yet you respectfully give the company its well-earned props for being a successful firm and show great restraint in merely pointing out how the presence of all that claptrap undermines the credibility of its legitimate material and can only harm them in the long run. Very nicely done.

    In a longer, more thorough exploration of this topic, of course, one would also go through the motions of pointing out WHY these various topics are bogus. But I see two reasons for not doing so here: first, it would take a *lot* of space to debunk ALL of these various problem topics (heck, a proper job would take a good-sized book, simply because there are so many of them!); second, though it requires that the reader assume your premise (i.e., that this stuff IS bogus), you can be fairly sure that most readers here are already in agreement with this view — and, more importantly, that’s all you need to get on with making your real point, which is that the woo-woo subjects poison the credibility and value of the firm’s programs overall. With the recent infusion of so much of this flummery in medical schools and other colleges, it would be nice if this message got out to an awful lot of school administrations to warn them of what they are opening themselves up to — namely, the wholesale debasement of their integrity as educational institutions.

    Again, nice article. I have been enjoying your work a lot, reading it almost daily since I first encountered your site a few weeks ago. Keep up the good work.

    ~David D.G.

  • kraryal

    Not only does science suffer, but that comes down to saying “people suffer.” Science is made out of people and the knowledge is used by people.

    I know a fair number of nursing students who believe in random woo and conspiracies, and it really doesn’t help when their school has courses in pseudoscience.

    As you said, it makes the junk look like it is on par with the real medicine, and then how do you talk them out of it? Bah.

  • http://www.yunshui.wordpress.ocom yunshui

    I used to supplement my income with a reasonably successful sideline as a t’ai chi teacher, teaching it from the perspective of a martial art with benefits for balance, flexibility, relaxation etc. It was the constant association with what we in the book trade tend to refer to as “MBS” (Mind, Body, Spirit – or Mindless Blithering Stupidity, as it was informally known) that eventually made me give up – I got tired of my student’s nonsensical waffling about auras and chi energy and eventually packed it in. The pseudoscientific front is advancing inexorably, and I sometimes wonder if it might be our fault. Is the slow decline of traditional religious faith leaving a gap in the public psyche which is all too easily filled by crystals, psychics and plinky-plonky music? And if so, should we not be doing more to help fill it with something more substantial?

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommy

    What bothers me about the Learning Annex is that they keep peddling Robert Kiyosaki as some kind of financial genius.

  • http://www.jewelisms.com/blog Jewel

    yunshui – I’ve taken tai chi classes in the past and have been really turned off by the new-agey BS that some instructors and most of the other students subscribed to. I enjoyed the movements and I found them quite relaxing, but the Mindless Blithering Stupidity really didn’t appeal to me. I don’t blame you for packing it in.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Yunshui –

    Losing one’s religion leaves a vacuum in a person, because it removes a filter through which he or she sees the world. We all replace it with something new. In my case, I studied both science and math, until I realized that it was their underlying framework of reason which I truly needed to see the world clearly.

    Those who don’t cotton to reason will certainly pick up some pseudoscience on abandoning religion, unless they sink into apathy. Is this our fault? No. It is the fault of the person afraid to see with the light of reason.

  • Jeff T.

    If one has performed kata then I am not sure how you can dismiss ki so easily. There is nothing mystical about feeling energy in motion and the proper synchronization of technique, breath, and power. I have felt this energy and associate it completely with the physics of the body in motion—but it is an energy and it is flowing. I find the mind, body, and spirit to be symbolic terms for a wholistic approach towards life which means that you need a healthy lifestyle and balanced approach towards life.

    You can be the most gifted athlete in the world, and if you drink until the wee hours of each morning, sooner or later you will deteriorate. One of the key attributes of any Seahawk player is his off the field attitude and behavior. In my opinion, this exemplifies what is meant by mind, body, spirit.

    Then again, maybe it is just mindless blithering stupidity because I have been knocked out by a teenager with one kick, and sent to the hospital by a guy who was so much more skilled than me, that I know I will never peak anywhere near his level of ability. I have the mindset that if there is something that I don’t understand, like ki or fung shui, then I figure it is due to quantum mechanics or something and keep going.

  • Alex Weaver

    This seems like a pretty powerful rebuttal to the argument some have advanced that leaving education to private corporations in a free market would improve the quality of education for Americans, too…

  • http://dubitoergo.blogspot.com Tom Foss

    but it is an energy and it is flowing.

    What kind of energy is it? Kinetic, potential, chemical, radiant, heat, nuclear, electrical…there’s a limited number of options. Where does it come from? How can it be detected? Woos like to throw around the word “energy” as though it doesn’t actually mean anything. That’s not the case.

    I have the mindset that if there is something that I don’t understand, like ki or fung shui, then I figure it is due to quantum mechanics or something and keep going.

    And speaking as someone who knows something about quantum mechanics, I can fairly safely say that it has nothing to do with feng shui or qi. I figure if there’s something I don’t understand, then I shouldn’t go making unsupported proclamations and assumptions about what it is. Instead, I should probably try to examine whether or not there’s anything there to understand in the first place.

  • Doug

    I have always thought that prisons and penitentiaries would be the hot bed for ‘out of body’ practitioners but no, not a single known advocate. Perhaps the asylums? Not even a few. Out of body skills are rejected by those most in need, ummmm.

  • http://www.yunshui.wordpress.ocom yunshui

    Jeff T

    I was for many years one of the fervent faithful when it came to ki (chi in my particular brand of esoteric-speak, but same difference). I could physically feel it, direct the sensation within my body and perform “amazing” feats (becomming immovable, taking full-force punches, making my arms unbendable – I’m sure you have seen or done similar things). Once I started thinking about it, though, I realised that everything I was doing had a perfectly rational biomechanical explanation. The sensations I was feeling were either caused by increased blood flow to specific areas (that sounds a bit dodgy – I’m talking about my fingers and hands!) or, more likely, were psychosomatic in origin. Eventually, I realised all I needed was focused attention, good balance and posture, and a smattering of physiological knowledge. I miss the idea of chi – it’s kind of cool and mysterious to be able to ascribe your skills to some magical force – but just don’t need it any more.

    Thumpalumpacus

    You’re right, we shouldn’t feel guilty for other people’s delusions. I suppose I was being rather flippant; I’m just fascinated by how people fill the God-shaped hole, since I did much the same myself.

    To all those interested in this discussion, I strongly recommend Simon Singh’s new book on the scientific basis for alternative therapies, Trick Or Treatment.

  • http://www.stopsylviabrowne.com Robert Lancaster

    No surprise that The Learning Annex is pushing a Sylvia browne podcast.

    In years past, before Hay House publishers started promoting Browne’s lectures, many of them were Learning Annex classes.

  • Christopher

    Odd as it might sound to some people in here, I did the Tai Chi thing as well – but always took its claims about Chi with a grain of salt. My old instructor, on the other hand, was a firm believer in the idea (claiming to see “auras” and people’s “inner selves,” etc…) and credited all of his daily accomplishments/shortcomings to it: it was total nonsense to me, but through my brief relationship with him I discovered a different outlook on life – one not bound up in ritual and dogma.

    Even though I eventually quit Tai Chi upon realizing that its effects were just a placebo, it was through that quackery that I found a means to question my estblished worldview (which was that of a fire-breathing Charismatic Christian) and acted as a starting point for me to move away from supernatural thinking entirely – so I’d say that it was a positive experience for me overall.

  • Steve Bowen

    I have always thought that prisons and penitentiaries would be the hot bed for ‘out of body’ practitioners but no, not a single known advocate.

    You think? Those screws have no idea what I’m up to. Sleeping? Yeah right!

  • Steve Bowen

    Even though I eventually quit Tai Chi upon realizing that its effects were just a placebo

    I did the Tai Chi thing for a while, gave it up through lack of commitment rather than anything else. Not sure the benefits are all placebo though; good exercise, meditation and focus seems a perfectly rational excuse for doing it.

    when it came to ki (chi in my particular brand of esoteric-speak, but same difference). I could physically feel it,

    Some years ago my ex wife (Wiccan, may have mentioned this elsewhere)decided to become a Reiki “therapist”. Out of interest I went on the course with her and went along with the BS the Reiki Master spouted and oddly I too could feel the “energy” flowing, such is the power of suggestion. It does not surprise me that less sceptical people feel they are really getting genuine instruction and benefit from such “educational” programs.

  • DKrap

    Here in Sacramento, California, home of the actor/governors and woo-woo to the hilt, there are several “alternative” sources of education offering these types of classes. In some respects, the classes are decent and informative, such as the ones offered for landscape design, personal income tax preparation, or how to commute to work on a bicycle. However, too much of the offerings are woo-woo. It appears to me that they send out 10,000 announcements for a class and if they get 20 people to sign up, they make a profit. Yes, this is free enterprise at its finest, but the woo-woo practitioners get to prey on the ill informed through these “alternative” universities. Maybe I need to find my own calling and teach a class on how to spot woo-woo!

  • Steve Bowen

    Maybe I need to find my own calling and teach a class on how to spot woo-woo!

    DKrap you have a point! Critical Thinking 101 anybody?

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Sign me up.

  • http://nesoo.wordpress.com/ Nes

    Some years ago my ex wife (Wiccan, may have mentioned this elsewhere)decided to become a Reiki “therapist”. Out of interest I went on the course with her and went along with the BS the Reiki Master spouted and oddly I too could feel the “energy” flowing, such is the power of suggestion. It does not surprise me that less sceptical people feel they are really getting genuine instruction and benefit from such “educational” programs. [sic]

    Reminds me of my mom and I. She’s also some sort of Pagan/Wiccan and is a reiki “master” — she even teaches it. I decided to follow along on one of her group sessions and “felt” the “energy” and what not as well. I could even “feel” the “aura” around trees… but I eventually realized that I couldn’t “feel” it if I didn’t see the tree first! Needless to say, I don’t believe in any of that stuff any more.

    I’ve been tempted several times to ask my mom if she’d be willing to be brought in to a forest blindfolded and walk around avoiding trees by “feeling” their “auras”… Unfortunately, I’m not assertive (confident?) enough to do that and just avoid the subject whenever it’s brought up (same with the conspiracy theories…).

  • http://www.yunshui.wordpress.com yunshui

    Steve

    As it happens, I’m a “Reiki Master” as well, I have a certificate to prove it and everything! The “Master Initiation” class was actually one of my formative sceptical experiences. After a morning of learning to draw the “Master Symbol” (three Japanese kanji, took all of 30 seconds to learn and was mistranslated and miswritten badly by the instructor), we then spent a while meditating on it, learned how to make a crystal grid and a reiki wand, then got into “Psychic Surgery”. That was the killer, requiring one to “lengthen” their fingers with Reiki, then thrust them into the body of the client and “pull out” the negative energy, with as much drama and grunting as possible. It was embarrassing, humiliating even, and it was at this point that I started to seriously think, “but this is bollocks, isn’t it?”

    Christopher

    Sorry to hear you gave up on t’ai chi – although the whole chi thing is bobbins, the benefits to balance, flexibility and relaxation are well researched and documented (by proper scientists, not t’ai chi practitioners!). Sounds like some good came of it though. One of the reasons I find alternative therapies so interesting is the amount of extraneous BS that gets added – it’s not enough to have a system of movements that help to relax the body, you have to back it up with psychowaffle about meridians, ancient sites of power, angelic influences or whatever. Otherwise, the woos just won’t think it’s plausible enough.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    “Psychowaffle” — I love it.


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