A cleverer way to change the world

The trouble with think-tanks is that their ideas are seldom implemented and quickly fade. The new social gurus have found a better way to gain influence - they are founding their own schools
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In the past, if you had a big idea, you wrote an article, maybe even a book. Latterly, you might have started a think-tank. But these days, the smart people, who really want to make a difference, start their own school. The big anti-establishment thinkers are busy creating educational institutes in their own image, where their philosophy and practice is instilled in a clutch of eager students who will go forth and change the world.

So last month Forum for the Future, a scholarship course designed by Jonathon Porritt and Sara Parkin, Britain's best-known Green intellectuals, produced its first graduates, whose mission will be to plant the environmental creed in the most powerful sections of society. The idea is that Greens will no longer simply be marginalised, tunnelling under road workings, protesting in tree houses and producing worthy but unread reports. They will be squatting highly paid, responsible jobs in business and government.

Meanwhile, Lord Young of Dartington has announced the foundation of his School for Social Entrepreneurs. Lord Young, now in his eighties and founder of dozens of organisations including the Consumers' Association and the Open University, is probably Britain's most successful social entrepreneur. He is keen to pass on the tricks of the trade to others who might wish to start up pressure groups, charities and voluntary organisations.

His school is for "the high-minded and hard-headed", who want to demonstrate that doing good requires more than sandals and brown rice. His graduates are intended to be the movers and shakers of the increasingly important voluntary and charitable sector, as efficient and innovative in their fields as the sharp-suits from the London Business School are in theirs.

Anita Roddick is another charismatic figure embracing this Nineties' way of making your mark. She recently started The New Academy of Business, which pursues her mission to incorporate social justice, human rights and spirituality into business practice alongside the more common preoccupations of finance and marketing. Her aim is to find people who will put the best practices into action, because, she says, it is not enough just to change attitudes and increase knowledge.

These schools are the new secular seminaries, where young people can learn both a philosophy and ways of putting it into practice. A seminary means literally a breeding place or nursery and that is what is on offer, a chance to nurture a fresh generation, which will gradually infiltrate society's elites and change them from the inside. They are the do-gooding fifth columnists who will stay in touch, thanks to the Internet and e- mail, after graduation, even as they spill out into organisations all over the world. Each of the schools is already oversubscribed with excellent candidates.

"There is a disillusionment with state action and with fat-cat capitalism" says Lord Young, "People want to do more than just set the world of newspapers alive for a day with an idea. They want to make a go of these ideas."

Each of the new schools is modelled on the practical curriculum offered in business schools. So they focus on placing students for most of the course in major organisations. The recent graduates of the Forum for the Future, for example, worked variously in several government departments, briefing ministers, in the BBC, Tesco's, with the leadership of the political parties, in the City and on newspapers, bringing their environmental expertise in exchange for inside knowledge of powerful institutions.

"With any luck the camaraderie of those who attend our school will survive," says Lord Young. "In fact, we will make it a condition of becoming a Fellow of the School that graduates promise to commit themselves to help the organisation a certain number of days a year."

In many ways, this idea of forming a school is old. Most great religious and philosophical figures, from Confucius to Jesus will be remembered for their innovative thinking. But it is easily forgotten that their lasting impact also reflected their talent as teachers, who created a band of loyal followers. So, back in the fourth century BC, Plato established his Academy, whose intention was to further his ideas. It was not destroyed until 900 years later and the concept was so successful it was revived in 15th century Florence by the Medicis, who sponsored Marsilio Ficino's influential Platonic Academy.

It has also long been common for the mega-rich to fund grand scholarships that reflect the donors' ideals. So the imperial legacy of Cecil Rhodes is given life by the Rhodes Scholarship which brings the elite from the corners of the old empire to study in Oxford. And the Harkness Fellowship sends graduates to the United States to convert them into Atlanticists in the image of Stephen Harkness, an oil millionaire whose legacy was designed to boost the Anglo-American relationship.

More recently, Paul McCartney employed some of his millions in trying to show would-be pop stars how to make it, by providing funding for his "Fame" institute, the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, which is based in his old, but now refurbished school.

Charismatic individuals have also often created enthusiastic followers. Keynes was just one of many successful university academics who have spawned schools of thought in their name. At the turn of the century there was a group known as the Milner Kindergarten, whose members had all been recruited in Oxford after the Boer War by Alfred Milner, British High Commissioner to South Africa. They became some of the great figures of colonial administration. Likewise Lord Rothschild, who started the Centre for Policy Studies, a Downing Street think-tank in 1971, nurtured acolytes such as Sir Robin Butler and William Waldegrave whose influence is only now on the wane.

It is also hardly surprising that figures such as Young, Roddick, Parkin and Porritt - for whom the Sixties were so important and formative - should have fallen on the guru concept. They have all been influenced by the mystics of the East.

But the creation of schools for policy evangelism chiefly reflects modern conditions and a disillusionment with other methods of trying to change society. Think-tanks have been fashionable for 20 years and those on the right enjoyed particular prominence until Demos, a centre-left think tank, stole the limelight in recent years. Yet it is arguable whether any of these organisations have really had much lasting influence. Their capacity to attract media attention can secure publicity for new ideas, but amid the din of new reports, studies and surveys it is hard to get yourself heard. And think-tanks have no clear way of implementing what they propose. Since they are mainly political organisations, they depend on politicians taking up their ideas, an increasing problem in an era when politicians are declining in importance.

The history of think-tanks may well accord greatest success to the right- wing Institute of Economic Affairs, which pursued from the Fifties, with dogged determination, the project of securing free markets and individual liberty from the state. It took 20 years before those ideas were generally accepted. But most other think-tanks have tended to be not much more than the intellectual outriders of the prevailing political shift, be it to Thatcherism or Blairism.

"A major problem is that the debate think-tanks provoke tends to fade away," says Lord Young. "Unless ideas are quite remarkable they are always overtaken by events. There are not many moments like the production of the Beveridge report, when the timing was perfect. So only very remarkable pieces of work, like C P Snow's on the "two cultures", will last. Whereas, if you actually start something which is a vehicle for the idea, then it becomes like a book unfolding. The book is being rewritten every year. At the end of the year, it may look very different from the beginning. But it carries on. That's why organisations that are about action and not just thinking have more of a feel of the future."

Martin Jacques, who helped found Demos in 1993, agrees that the creation of new schools may become more common. "If you want to embed your ideas more deeply in a sector, then influencing a small set of people who will carry the ideas forward can make a big difference. It could be that we are seeing a hybrid growing up which is midway between the old style mass movement and the more flighty promiscuity of think-tanks, organisations where you are producing both new thinking and developing practitioners in the same colleges."

He also sees the new schools as both a challenge to and sign of the inflexibility of universities. "The universities are too cut off from society and not good at creating common borders with society." In contrast, he thinks that the new breed of schools is connecting academic thinking with real life.

The success of such institutions will, however, depend on how much their founders are able to inspire students rather than simply create a fan club. "These people will need to be liberated as autonomous movers and shakers. They will be failures if they are just clones," warns Ted Wragg, Professor of Education at Exeter University. "Fortunately, gurus are not usually worth cloning. And certainly Michael Young, whom I regard as one of the great figures of the century, would be horrified at the idea of anyone being quite like him. The same goes for Anita Roddick."

One of the greatest thinkers, Confucius, understood this danger well, warning, in almost Socratic manner, against indoctrination. "If, out of the four corners of a subject, I have dealt thoroughly with one corner, and the pupils cannot find out the other three for themselves, then I do not explain anymore." The new gurus of the Nineties should take note.