Poster Children of New York’s Happiness Academy – The School Of Practical Philosophy

leon maclaren ses 1 Poster Children of New Yorks Happiness Academy   The School Of Practical PhilosophyThe 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.”


  1. Sportygirl says:

    I attended one semester at the School of Practical Philosophy and will concede that I felt there was a confusing mix of philosophy and religion in the course. Having said that, I got a lot more positive out of it than negative. The main point of the first course which the author of this article apparently missed is that the course helps people live in the moment. Stay present, don’t project too much into the future and don’t dwell on the past. Every class began with an exercise to bring you into the here and now. This is something modern society really struggles with. Exhibit A: walk down any sidewalk in NY and you will literally bump into someone texting rather than being present where they are at that moment. 

    The flat hipster perspective presented here seems rooted in a mixture of laziness (I went to one class or maybe just the beginning of one class so I know all about it), unnecessarily snarkiness (what does the teacher’s clothing have to do with the principles of the school?) and ageism (several subtle references to how sad participants were because they were all working people who were middle aged). The whole article is a sad example of the downfall of modern ‘journalism’ where the need for the journalist to insert his or herself into the article trumps the truth of what they are supposedly reporting on.  If the author had actually taken an entire semester he might have had more information on the curriculum and been able to write a more balanced review rather than focusing on showing his new boss how cool and relevant he is. What a pity. And what a shame for our society that the ‘news’ has come to this. 

    1. Notasportygirl says:

      Was this a job you were hoping to get Sportygirl?  I’ve been reading the Observer for a long time and know that Miller is not new to the job.

  2. Observerfan says:

    I found this article informative as I knew absolutely nothing about the School of Practical Philosophy.  I would say from some of the comments below (clearly some of these people have drunk the kool-aid – Mr. Travis!?) that it begs an in-depth, investigative follow-up.  

    1. Lookingbutnotfinding says:

       There’s nothing informative in this article. With so many negative adjectives thrown about there is zero possibility of impartiality. I came here to find out about this organisation but this article is just noise.

  3. Albert Baron Solomon says:

    I think Mr. Miller, rather than being a poor journalist, is just partial to the Materialistic, Deterministic,  Mechanistic viewpoint. 

    On the other hand, all the other comments seem to be from rather fanatical supporters. 

  4. Sean Knephy says:

    I attended the School from 2002 to 2008 and only stopped attending classes because of family and career commitments.
    I highly recommend the School to everybody seeking truth, wisdom, and bliss.

    Sean Kinnevy
    West Creek, New Jersey

  5. Drew says:

    I was brought to this school as a child and I was completely against it.. As any child would be.. However, once I turned 16, my mother and step-father said it was my decision if I want to continue to have these teachings. I choose not to. Now as I am 25 years old, I have realized that in my search for what my true beliefs are, that nothing is more close to pure truth than the teachings of the School of Piratical Philosophy. I have never attended the E.S.E. as this gentile so dismissively put it, I have only attended the school in New York and Toronto.. and to be quite honest, I was and still am not a true fan of most individuals of the school, however, as with many other religions, it is the teachings which are important and which should be studied.
    I have not returned to the school, however, I make consistent attempts to maintain a regular meditation schedule and furthermore, I find my self following the teachings and reading many books that were obtained through the school, including Plato and others.
    In a world with so much evil, it is very easy and useless to focus on the negative aspect of anything. It takes the will of someone who chooses to rise above the pits of darkness and seek truth in all.

  6. Drew says:

    .. and in direct response to Mr. Michael H. Miller’s story. I found it actually very humorous and refreshing to read an article by someone who made one visit to the school during a volunteer cleaning session.  Even with his negative undertones of the school, his accurate quotes of the members, posters and scriptures outshines all. And only reinforces my notion that despite his judgements, truth, knowledge and wisdom will always shine through the fog.

    Great article Mike!