HACKETTSTOWN, N.J. -- Waiting on the desks of about 20 freshmen enrolled in a new class at Centenary College were paper cups filled with fruit punch.
Already, a test.
Would they "drink the Kool-Aid"?
The challenge, posed by Professor Barbara Lewthwaite, was part of a new course offered this academic year, "Cults: Love Them or Leave Them."
Freshmen criminal justice and sociology majors were asked to research "cults" of their choosing, including the Ku Klux Klan, the Rev. Jim Jones and his People's Temple, Charles Manson, the Mafia--even Catholicism.
It's an unconventional topic to meet a course requirement for first-year students, said Cheryl Veronda, director of Academic Transitional Programs at Centenary" a college founded in 1867 by the United Methodist church.
"It's a hook, certainly," she said, "but it's a theme that serves as a springboard for everything else we want to get done in the class." That includes orienting students to college life and study habits, and introducing them to an advising professor and upper-class mentors.
Other choices for the required first-year course include "But Is It Art?" for fine arts majors, "Mass Violence, Atrocity and Genocide" for history and psychology majors, and "Major Decisions," for the still-undecided.
Students studying cults were invited to test the independence of their own thinking and examine the shades of gray in adult life, said Lewthwaite.
"Classically, an 18-year-old thinks in absolutes," she said. To counter that, she raised questions like, "Do you think that a cult is always bad?"
Not necessarily, Lewthwaite said. A cult is usually defined by characteristics like a charismatic leader, dedication to certain ideas, brainwashing, forbidding members to leave, the use of symbols, and violence.
"I think the word 'cult' is kind of emotionally charged," she said. "I think it has a negative connotation. It does because of things like Jonestown ... but historically, there have been examples of a few that were forces for good in some ways."
Fanaticism, she said, is what drives a cult to evil and makes it all-consuming. …