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.”