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.”