Features & Columns

Magic vs. Illusion

For 30 years, a band of down-to-earth hyper-intellectuals in Palo Alto have been fomenting a quiet revolution—and laying the groundwork for a new world
DRILLING DEEP: David Schrom, who co-founded Magic 30 years ago, works in the garden at the group's Palo Alto home.

YALE University student David Schrom sat alone in his room with his 326-page thesis in one hand and a loaded shotgun in the other.

It was 1968, and he was in his senior year. Although he was a gifted student who could have done anything with his life, the future no longer looked so bright. Since starting Yale, he had been questioning everything about his life—his upbringing, his values, his place in the world. The culture of the '60s had had a powerful impact on him, and he had been on a quest to find deeper meaning in his life and what he was supposed to do with it.

"The more I inquired about the underpinnings of my life, I discovered they were made of sand instead of stone," he says.

But he also thought of the gifts and education he had received, and decided not to pull the trigger. Instead, he set out on a path that led him to blast through what he says are the illusions and self-deception that block people from living well and helping others to do the same. It's a journey that led him to Palo Alto, and the founding of a radical intellectually community and a life philosophy that he and others believe could be the salvation of us all.

"Magic," as the community and the nonprofit group that grew out of it are called, claims to be applying the scientific method more fully and more consistently to questions of value. By "value," they refer to what we want and how we get it.

Taken to its logical end, such a practice would necessitate profound changes in the way we live. That's because we would discover that it is in our self-interest to treat each other more kindly, to end suffering where we can and to make all human endeavors subservient to the environment, rather than the other way around.

"We have made our human laws incompatible to natural law," says Schrom. "I think we can be much better than we are."

Part of Magic's mission is to reclaim science from the academy, corporate-backed research labs and the government. Schrom cites the Bush administration's politicization of science to suit its agenda on human evolution and global warming.

"Science has been used as a tool to reinforce authority," he says. "It's a word that has been stolen."

In 1999, Hillary Hug was a student at Stanford taking a class in environmental ethics. As part of her course she helped plant oak trees with Magic, and it planted a seed in her.

"A lot of people want to be good," she says, "but where do you go to do that?"

Many look to religion but that wasn't for her. She was drawn to the Palo Alto group's brand of secular humanism and went on to move into the community. That was 10 years ago and she's been at Magic ever since.

The core members live in three adjacent homes on a suburban street near California Avenue. The leafy avenue is home to Stanford professors and other professionals. The trio of Magic houses are more modest than some, but give no outward sign of the intellectual hothouse within.

Schrom had considered communal living deep in the woods at the end of the road somewhere, and he visited communes just like that. But he found them too isolated, socially and intellectually.

While Schrom came of age in the '60s and once had long hair and the rest of the accoutrements of the counterculture, Magic is no hippie commune. The members describe it as a "residential service learning community." But it's also a living laboratory of provocative ideas put into practice.

Magic has received widespread recognition for its community service and philosophical contributions. These include awards from the International Oaks Society for assessing the ecological impacts of climate change, an award for swim instruction from New Zealand Triathlete, an award for urban forest planning from the Journal of Arboriculture and an award for mediation and community development from the American Society of Landscape Architects. The group also won an award for public service from Stanford University.

The organization depends on income from its various programs—such as maintaining oak trees on the Stanford campus—as well as gifts from supporters. Dinners are taken together in one house. Much of the food is salvaged from local markets. Meals are usually vegetarian unless someone comes across a source for meat that might go to waste.

The house is spartan, spare even. There's nothing on the walls but bookshelves. The dining room holds a few pushed-together tables and mismatched chairs.

The house will probably never make the pages of Sunset magazine, but what the dining room lacks in contemporary furnishings is made up for in conversation. The plain room routinely hosts travelers, visiting intellectuals and seekers from all over the world.

Chris Tyler moved into Magic in 2002 after a friend suggested he check the group out because "they ask good questions." "I came here not knowing what I was looking for, but I found it," he says.

He holds a Ph.D. in math and is pursuing a second doctorate degree in economics while working with Magic.

FOUND SOUL: Chris Tyler, who holds a Ph.D. in math and is pursuing a doctorate in economics, has lived at the Magic community since 2002.

New Scientist

David Schrom's life was supposed to be different. He was supposed to do what was expected of him. Instead he devoted his life to Magic.

Born and raised in York, Pa., the longtime Palo Alto resident was a gifted student. He was president of his high school's debate team. He was a National Merit scholar and a member of the presidential honor society. He even won a good driver award. As a boy he accompanied his father to the factories he owned and got a firsthand education in labor relations, engineering and product development. He was being groomed for a career in engineering or maybe even politics.

He was accepted to Yale University in the fall of 1964. His father, a strict Lutheran with a strong Puritan streak, wanted him to go to school in Pennsylvania like he did and feared Yale would turn his son into a communist or worse. He was right.

At Yale, Schrom, now 63 with mischievous eyes and a bemused smile, was classmates with George W. Bush—who, he recalls, made a point of memorizing everybody's name and face from the school's yearbook. But just as his father feared, so far did he stray that in his sophomore year his father formally disowned him, effectively cutting him out of an inheritance of several million dollars. Schrom in turn became so disillusioned with the world that he contemplated suicide.

Back from the brink, he entered Yale Law School, where he sometimes sat next to Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham. But Schrom didn't spend much time in class. He spent most of his law school years in the library feeding a voracious desire to know about life, about man's impact on the environment, about the limits of growth and about how one might live life differently.

After law school Schrom worked a number of jobs including as an engineer for Honeywell, an architect for a firm that designed the Windows of the World restaurant atop the World Trade Center and a lawyer for a San Francisco corporate law firm. He even did a stint in President Carter's Environmental Protection Agency.

"I tried to find a place but I kept feeling really disgusted," he says, disgusted by the immorality, dishonesty and pointlessness of what he was doing.

Drawn by the social upheaval of the Bay Area, Schrom settled in Palo Alto in 1973. In the early 1970s the human potential movement, the environmental movement and the social justice movement were in full swing and Schrom "pogosticked" from one group to another while dabbling in psychedelics and trying on different alternative communities for size.

In the end, he grew disenchanted with what he saw as the narrowness of each group and unwillingness on their part to make common cause. Rather than go on lamenting the state of affairs, he and a few fellow travelers decided to form their own group. Magic was born in 1979.

Magic is a community of like-minded people as well as a nonprofit group that performs activities like tree planting, conflict mediation, swim lessons, food salvaging, street improvement and teaching classes at Stanford. In one of the group's first acts it succeeded in getting the city of Palo Alto to install traffic barriers on the group's street to create a more pedestrian and bike-friendly neighborhood. Magic's work on neighborhood tree planting prodded the city to update its tree policies.

At the heart of Magic—the community and the nonprofit—is the radical concept called "Valuescience." Put simply, Valuescience seeks to apply the scientific method and rational, skeptical inquiry to questions of values and morality. Pause and consider that. Science applied to morality.

"Goodbye religious authority," says Schrom. "Goodbye political authority. Valuescience is extremely liberating and also extremely destabilizing. It is revolutionary."

As Schrom reasons, ideas about value, or what we want, are based on prediction. We want to have children because we think it will enrich our lives. We want to go to college because we think it will get us a better job. We want a better job because we predict it will make us happier. And so on. Schrom, who first articulated the idea of Valuescience 10 years ago, but says he has been working up to it for more than 40 years, says science is the sole method for making predictions better than simply guessing. And, so the logic goes, science is the best means to more accurately discern and more fully realize what we want and how to get it.

Confusing desires with reality or clinging to dogmatic beliefs keeps us in a state of illusion and suffering, he says.

"We think we're free, but we're not. We are compelled to do others' bidding."

Will Valuescience set us free? Schrom believes so.

OUTSIDE EDUCATION: David Schrom (fifth from left) teaches a class in Stanford University's psychology department, which often meets at Magic compound.

Stanford Imprimatur

The name Magic is something of a lark. Back in 1972 in a time before cell phones or even answering machines, Schrom and his band of longhaired friends wanted a way to keep in touch and decided to rent a post office box. When they trudged over to apply for one, a man working there with multiple American flag tattoos told them friends couldn't share a PO box. What about an organization? Schrom asked. That's OK, the tattooed man said. What's your group called?

"Magic," Schrom said, making up the name on the spot. "And this will be our magic box."

Years later, when Magic incorporated to become a nonprofit organization, the group considered a more formal, serious name. But conforming to social standards of conduct wasn't very appealing and the Magic name stuck.

Schrom and other Magic members teach a class in Valuescience in Stanford's psychology department. Schrom has been teaching versions of the class since 1979. Initially the course was called "Ecology and Economics," but as Schrom's thinking has evolved so has the class.

It still includes readings on the environment and the economy's impact on it, but it has expanded to include material on biology, philosophy, linguistics, psychology and other disciplines to reflect Schrom's conviction that there is a thread of knowledge that connects all fields of scientific inquiry.

The full title of the class is "Valuescience: Shedding Illusion to Live Better." It's a strange class to find at a university. It sounds more like a self-help course, which it is. The course description is a lengthy one:

"Apply scientific methods and principles to better discern and more fully realize value. Read history, philosophy, ecology, economics, sociology, linguistics and psychology pertinent to scientific and cultural revolutions with which people around the world are making Valuescience a foundation for an increasing range of human behavior. Study perceptual, cognitive, and cultural impediments to Valuescience; strategies for overcoming these; personal and social consequences of doing so."

It's indicative of how college education has changed that a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary inquiry into how we might better identify our values so that we may live better lives is seen as outside the scope of a "normal" university course.

Indeed, during the first week of this fall's class students read a provocative essay about the purpose of education by David Orr, an environmental studies professor at Oberlin College.

"The truth is that many things on which your future health and prosperity depend are in dire jeopardy: climate stability, the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and biological diversity," Orr writes: "It is worth noting that this is not the work of ignorant people. It is, rather, largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs, and PhDs."

Later he adds: "The plain fact is that the planet does not need more 'successful' people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every shape and form. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these needs have little to do with success as our culture has defined it."

That's incendiary stuff to set before Stanford students, young men and women who are well on their way to becoming "successful" people in the traditional sense of the term.

Stanford Controversy

Because of its iconoclastic approach and sharp critiques the class has fallen in and out of favor with Stanford's administration several times. It has appeared and reappeared under several different departments. It is offered now in large part because of the support of Dr. Jed Black. Black is a psychiatrist currently on leave from Stanford's medical school where he ran Stanford's Sleep Medicine Clinic for the past 10 years. Black also lives down the street from Magic.

Years ago he helped the group in a tree planting project and got to know Schrom and Magic's community service work. He and his family lived on campus in a cottage near a student dorm for several years where he served as a "residential faculty" to students in the dorm. The post put him in charge of extracurricular academics for the dorm residents, planning things like trips to the symphony, art exhibits and visiting lectures. Black invited Schrom to speak to students and those talks evolved into the Valuescience class now offered to upper-level undergraduate and graduate students.

Since Black is on leave, psychiatry and behavioral science professor William Dement now sponsors the class. At Stanford, professors may sponsor lecturers to teach noncore classes and this encourages a diverse catalog of courses. Black admits that the Valuescience class is "unique." It's also wildly popular, according to student evaluations.

As a bright student, Brian Scoles, 23, was always told he'd go far but he never questioned where that might be. After taking the Valuescience course and spending time at Magic, he found that the idea of a high paying career no longer held such appeal.

"I put assumptions aside I didn't know I had," he said. "Those things just fell away.

He also came to regard the American ideal of independence instilled in him as unhealthy.

"Instead, I seek dependence because I want to belong and feel needed," he said.

He now lives at Magic and helps administer a mentoring program at a K–8 school in East Palo Alto.

Black says he's impressed by Magic's community service ethic and challenge to conventional wisdom.

"I continue to be intrigued by the folks at Magic and their approach to life," he says. "[Valuescience] can lead to a more enriched life. I don't think it will change the world, but it's something for a lot of people that is very meaningful."

As for Schrom, Black wonders where his wellspring of passion comes from.

"I'm fascinated by that. I'm also very appreciative of it."

Grassroots Work

In addition to the people who spend time at Magic or attend Stanford's Valuescience class, one of Magic's lasting legacies will be its tree planting work on the university's hills west of campus. Schrom, who taught himself to be an arborist in his typical autodidactic style, first started "guerrilla planting" 30 years ago as a kind of thank you to the university that had been so generous to him. He spent countless hours in conversation with professors about the subjects that interested him. He remembers the incredulous looks on many of their faces when they learned he wasn't a student, researcher or a journalist, but just someone who wanted to learn from them.

"You mean you just want to know?" they asked, not sure what to make of the inquiring man before them.

In time Stanford got wind of Schrom's clandestine tree work and ultimately hired him and the volunteers he leverages to oversee 1,000 acres of rolling hills. The money helps support Magic's work, reforests what was once cattle-trampled grasslands and perhaps in a small way helps fight against climate change.

But Schrom says the work is more personal than environmental.

"The work we're doing here is more inside people's heads and hearts."

And he's encouraged by what he sees.

"The world is waking up."