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

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.


  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!