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

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?”

“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.”

mmiller@observer.com

 

 

Comments

  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!