The post on the Internet message board is attributed to a London man going only by the name of Matthew. “One day one of my teachers, Mr. Howell, accused me of mixing the brown sugar with the sugar,” he writes. “He … ushered me into a small room off one of the corridors. After ten minutes of insistence that I admit my guilt, he tried to beat a confession out of me. He hit me with his open hand, around the face and the head, about 10 or 15 times. I remember another one of my classmates, D.L., being hit so hard around the head that his eardrum was broken.”
Matthew is referring to his time spent in schools run by the British-based School of Economic Studies, S.E.S., which, by way of its New York chapter, the School of Practical Philosophy, happens to be the same group that promises millions of straphangers that “THIS POSTER CAN MAKE YOU HAPPIER THAN ANY OTHER ON THE SUBWAY.”
According to the official spokesperson for the New York chapter, Dr. Monica Vecchio–an adjunct professor of English at Baruch who has been involved with group since 1967–S.E.S. and the School of Practical Philosophy are “the same thing with different names. There are 70 or 80 [branches] around the world. Each share the same course curriculum, with the same content. The principles are the same, the practices are the same, the stream of discussion is the same.” At its New York headquarters, in a mansion at 12 East 79th Street, the school offers both adult education and full-time schooling for children.
Thanks to the ubiquity of the subway ads, New Yorkers know of the School of Practical Philosophy without really knowing anything about it. Getting in the school’s front door is easy enough, but once inside, the group’s practices are obscure bordering on impenetrable. They describe their curriculum and approach in imprecise language and follow a hierarchical structure in which students advance to new levels of study with money and time, but are not told the specifics of what awaits them when they do. That this is similar to another, more celebrity-inflected organization of the same ilk has been pointed out by former members.
On the wet Saturday morning when The Observer visited, the school was undergoing a bizarre spring cleaning. The turn-of-the-century Edwardian mansion, directly across the street from the residence of Mayor Bloomberg, was open to the public for “Welcome Day.” The spaces were dimly lit and the walls covered with photographs of children either meditating or staring directly into the camera, eerily deep in thought. There were about 100 people hard at work inside, all of them longtime “members,” as they call themselves. This was not just a casual sweeping of the floors. Some were on their hands and knees, clutching sponges soaked in soapy water, minutely scrubbing every square inch of the building. Some were dusting intently, while others diligently pushed mops. They all had empty smiles plastered on their faces, eyes fixed on the task at hand and nothing else.
“We do this at the beginning of each semester,” a 10-year member of the school named Frank said. He was regrouting a step on the staircase as he spoke. “We all come in and try to make the place presentable.”
Everywhere we looked, there were people silently laboring over a small area of floor or wall. The air smelled like cleaning fluid, and there were no visitors apparent.
A stout man named Clifford, with long salt-and-pepper hair and a thick beard, seemed to be presiding over the work.
“Can you tell me how long you’ve been in this building?” we asked.
He moved his fingers through the hair on his chin and said, “Oh, since sometime in the 70’s–1978, I think.” Clifford had been a member of the school for 38 years.
“And who runs this place?”
“Well, we’re all over the world, but there’s a head of the New York chapter.”
He wouldn’t say his name.
“What’s he like?”
“Well, personality isn’t important. Ego is a dangerous thing. But he’s very highly evolved.”
“And is he here?”
“He was here,” Clifford said flatly, “but he left.”
A not-for-profit organization chartered by the Regents of the University of the State of New York, the school has been in the city since 1964. According to its informational materials, it “followed the lead of a school started by Leon MacLaren in London in 1937.” That conspicuously unnamed school is the controversial School of Economic Science, or S.E.S., which has long had a reputation in England as a highly secretive cult.
According to a former member who had been involved in the school for several decades, S.E.S. and its branches gain control over students by a slow process of conflating obedience to God with obedience to those who claim to know God–that is, S.E.S. and its “tutors.” One of the methods of doing this is through “service,” which starts by “attending to the working surfaces.” This leads to the practice of “attention,” which translates into spending Saturday mornings cleaning the school building or a weekday evening serving refreshments during breaks in classes. Once students–both children and adults–are conditioned into regular housekeeping duties, they are made to do service more regularly. After a while, according to the source, “there is little time or energy for anything else.”
Founded by middling Labour Party M.P. Andrew MacLaren in England in 1938, S.E.S. (first known as the Henry George School of Economics) was little more than an economics study group. When Leonardo Da Vinci MacLaren, known as Leon, inherited the reins from his father, the group’s stated goal was still “to promote the study of natural laws governing the relations between men in society and all studies related thereto and to promote the study of the laws, customs and practices by which communities are governed, and all studies related thereto.”
The younger MacLaren had a latent interest in philosophical study, but it was not until he saw the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi speak on New Year’s Day 1960 that the school’s central belief system shifted. This detail is not mentioned in any of the school’s materials, of course. MacLaren was so taken with the Maharishi (famous for later having held sway with the Beatles), he helped organize the white-bearded guru’s first so-called “world assembly” at Royal Albert Hall in 1961.
MacLaren traveled with the Maharishi to India after the assembly to study meditation further. In 1965, he had his first meeting with a man who would become a life-long companion, Shri Shantananda Saraswati, the Shankaracharya (spiritual leader) of North India, a teacher of Advaita Vedanta, which preaches the unity of self. With this meeting, the central tenets of S.E.S. were solidified: through meditation, achievement of happiness and higher self-awareness–the school warns against the pollution of a scattered mind and cautions students to rid themselves of “unnecessary thoughts”–and the belief in a universal connectedness that can be tapped into.
MacLaren began preaching the fuzzy concept of “unity in diversity,” which the school defines–with characteristic ambiguity–as “the essential unity underlying the diversity in creation.” S.E.S. has a more or less comprehensive view of philosophy, with a lightly enforced suggested reading list that includes Plato, the Upanishads, the American transcendentalists and the complete works of Shakespeare. In other words, it is spirituality as motivational poster: “this too shall pass,” “the wisdom is within,” etc.
With MacLaren’s lashed-together doctrine of Eastern philosophy and Western wisdom, the organization turned its attention to the young. In the mid-70’s, a number of S.E.S. parents approached MacLaren and asked him to set up full-time schools for their children (there was already a Sunday school in place for children to study S.E.S. philosophy). In January 1975, MacLaren established the St. James Boys’ School and St. James Girls’ School for children aged 5 to 7 and the St. Vedast School for boys ages 10 to 18. The institutions were called “an experiment.”
Between 1975 and 1985, the St. James schools, as they have come to be known, were populated almost entirely by the children of S.E.S. members, the classes taught by MacLaren’s disciples. Word of the highly secretive organization’s infiltration of the English educational system reached two reporters at the London Evening Standard, Peter Hounam and Andrew Hogg, who published a series of damning articles accusing the S.E.S of being a cult and raising concern about the intentions of the schools. The S.E.S., according to their reporting, enforced a severe diet, persecuted women and kept its members closed off from the outside world. The material eventually became the bluntly titled book Secret Cult, which speculated that a great deal of S.E.S. money came from land holdings. For instance, S.E.S. was gifted Necker Island in the Caribbean by a wealthy British member, which they allegedly sold to Sir Richard Branson for £124,214.
The S.E.S. schools were among the last private schools in England to ban caning, maintaining the archaic disciplinary practice until 1996. In 2004, alumni of St. James and St. Vedast began a message board to reflect on their memories there, but the conversations immediately turned dark. Soon, many more alumni came forward with disturbing stories, like those of Matthew, who attended St. James for three years, beginning in 1975, when he was 8 years old.
An investigation of the school conducted by James Townend, a queen’s counsel, revealed, over the course of four months of interviews with former pupils from the time spanning 1975 to 1985, that students “were criminally assaulted by being punched in the face or in the stomach, cuffed violently about the head, had blackboard rubbers thrown at them causing injury in some cases, had cricket balls thrown at them violently when they were not looking at the thrower and were struck with the end of a gym rope. Other students were kicked, struck from behind, slapped about the face, thrown across a classroom.” St. Vedast closed in 1985 and its students were integrated into St. James, which still exists today, though only a fraction of students are children of S.E.S members. In the summer of 2005, the same year as the criminal investigation, they were ranked in the Sunday Times‘s top 500 independent secondary schools.
Today, the School of Practical Philosophy operates its own program for children, a separate not-for-profit, the Philosophy Day School, is also located at 12 East 79th Street. It opened in 1994. The headmaster since 2004 is William Fox, a School of Practical Philosophy member.
Mr. Fox was unavailable for comment, but Dr. Vecchio responded to accusations that S.E.S. and its branches across the world are a cult, and concerns about their educating children.
“I’ve known Mr. MacLaren for many years,” she said, reffering to Leon MacLaren, who died in 1994. “I met him when I was a very young woman in my 20’s. For anybody to call anything Mr. MacLaren started a cult is just ridiculous. I’ve never met a man who was more a man in the greatest sense of the word than Mr. MacLaren was. I remember visibly meeting Mr. MacLaren for the first time and just being blown away by someone who just had the kind of stature as a human being that he had.”
Through the S.E.S. message board, The Observer contacted several former members. One said his mother was told by a tutor to divorce his father because he had decided to leave the school. Another said that sexism and homophobia are “ingrained” in the senior members that run the organization. “S.E.S. is a cult by professional definitions,” he said. “S.E.S./S.O.P.P. misrepresent to a considerable extent that they teach a form of orthodox Hinduism, initially presented as ‘practical philosophy.’ I would summarize my feelings now as many years wasted in the hands of the spiritually incompetent, and I wouldn’t wish the abuse I and my family went through on anyone.”
The Observer obtained, through one of these defected members, a lesson plan of the St. James Schools, which, Dr. Vecchio said, the Philosophy Day School is “very much modeled after.” The document is the first of six volumes and is 60 pages long, illustrating the first year of the curriculum. In 2003, William Fox edited, published and distributed the document to the school leaders. “Everything in this whole great world begins in the Lord, in God, the Creator of All,” the lesson begins. It goes on to compare God to “a magician” and introduces the Sanskrit word for God, which translates into Govinda. After the introduction of this term the text reads, “NOTE: get the children to sound this word by imitation of your pronunciation, getting the sound and measure as beautiful as possible.”
After the child pledges obedience to Govinda, he is taught that the Lord exists in his own self, a part of the soul called Atman. The child is told to be “very still” and to repeat the word “Atman” to himself, a common form of mantra-based meditation. By the seventh session of term one, the child is told that his fingers belong to Govinda. “Could you make that finger? Could you even have thought of that finger? Then why do we call it my finger? It is His finger, isn’t it? Let us remember. It all belongs to Him.” The children are slowly told to obey the will of the Lord in order to become, as the subway poster promises, happy. “If you tell a lie, it makes you miserable. If you tell the truth, it makes you happy. Simple, isn’t it? This is how Govinda’s laws work: if you break them, you become miserable; if you keep them, you become happy. And the happiness spreads to everyone around you. This is why it is so important to obey the Will of the Lord. It makes everybody happy.”
To find out what kind of people respond to the subway ads–for which the school is admittedly paying “beyond what we truthfully can afford”–The Observer signed up for the entry-level 10-week course called Philosophy Works. It promises, in confident-yet-vague language, to answer the pesky questions of existence–Why am I here? and the like. All this, for just two-and-a-half hours a week and $90.
“Did you think philosophy would be such a sell-out?” squawked instructor Mary Bosworth, referring to the robust attendance of the class. “I’ve been studying it for the past 18 years,” Ms. Bosworth said. A middle school history teacher in her 40’s, she wore a wrinkled pink skirt under a wrinkled pink blazer, both of which clung to her body in some places and sagged in others. “You heard of Socrates, the great ancient Greek philosopher?” Ms. Bosworth continued. “He was really big into questions. He said the unexamined life is not worth living. Pretty drastic statement, but when you think about it, that’s true. So, yes, we need to question. Philosophy answers what is the meaning of life.”
The room was a mix of races and fairly evenly split between men and women. Most were in their 40s and dressed in dowdy work clothes. At the center of the room, was a large white sign with a quote from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.” The room had no clock.
Ms. Bosworth looked down at her notes. “Now, my material says, ‘Congratulate people on coming to study the most important subject in the world,'” Ms. Bosworth said. “Congratulations! Congratulations!” There was some scattered clapping. “This really is the most important subject in the world.”
Ms. Bosworth asked the class why they were there.
“For the last 16 years,” one woman offered, “I’ve been focusing on my son. Now he’s getting ready to go to college, and what do I do? As a single parent, you stay in a job to make sure you provide, and you don’t have time for yourself. So, some kind of direction.”
A man with a strong frown and even stronger B.O. said, “Purpose.”
“Purpose in life. A higher level of understanding in my existence.”
“It is interesting,” Ms. Bosworth responded. “Philosophy answers what is my next step and also what is the meaning of life. Why else are you here?”
“To learn how to live again,” another woman said dramatically. “We forget. It’s like when we’re children, it’s like we have to learn all over again how to breathe, how to live. I don’t know how to live.”