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The First Outline of the Aims of the Oxford Muse 2001

A new kind of institution for the 21st Century

If you have not achieved as much in your life as you feel you ought to have, if you would like your personal relations to be less superficial, if you cannot accept that youthful promise should be so liable to end in mental stagnation, and that so much work should be frustrating, if you wish you had more courage and clearer goals, then the Oxford Muse may be the place for you.

In the 17th century, when the most adventurous thinkers wanted to replace fears of magic and superstition by experimental science, they founded the Royal Society. They did so outside the universities, so that people from every background - and not just professional scholars - could meet to create a new way of looking at the world. In 2001, the Oxford Muse was established to bring together men and women who, in a similar spirit, wish to look at the seemingly intractable disappointments of private and working life from a new viewpoint and develop original methods of confronting them.

In Greek mythology, the Muses gave humans inspiration to think more imaginatively, to cultivate their emotions through practice of all the arts, to understand the past better and to have a clearer vision of the future. They were not teachers or lawmakers but catalysts who brought excitement and a divine spark into humdrum lives, enabling people to see and to say what normally they dared not. They asked not for worship but to be celebrated in festivity, banquets, song and dance.

The Oxford Muse aims to fulfil a comparable function of inspiration rather than instruction. It will not replicate what is already being done by existing institutions or by programmes of self-help. Unlike the educational system, it will not teach individuals to become specialists. Instead, it will give them new kinds of opportunities to discover what else they could achieve by collaboration with people they never imagined they had much in common with.

Making no demands of regular attendance, the Muse is open to individuals residing anywhere in the world. Businesses and organisations competing against one another to attract the best talent, and who wish to rise above that competition, may become affiliates.

1. The portrait gallery

You join the Muse not by examination but by creating, with the help of writers and artists, a self-portrait, in words, film, paint or sculpture. What would you like others to know about you? How many fully understand you, even those close to you? The first goal of the Muse is to enable us to look, as though through a microscope, beyond the stereotypes, at the uniqueness of each individual. How many of the six billion inhabitants of the world do you know?

The Muse will be built around a portrait gallery, housing not dead heroes nor just faces, but expressions of the many sides of the personality and experience of living people, their dreams and unanswered questions. We hope to invent a new kind of multi-media portraiture - which does more than capture likeness or one aspect of character - and a new kind of heraldry, including the objects that matter most to a person, not just property or ancestors. Our written biographies will be in several layers, so that parts may be available only to chosen family or friends. The film will convey different facets of appearance, voice, gesture. The painting or sculpture will create an individual logo. You will have something more interesting than a business card to use as an introduction.

The portraits or 'life pictures' will enable members of the Muse both to take stock of their own lives and to assist them in establishing creative links between themselves and others. Our intention is that these portraits will eventually grow into a universal data base providing a more precise foundation for decisions in business, cultural and personal relationships than exists at present.

2. The human audit

is the second new instrument we are developing. If the portrait enables you to see your past in a new light, you can begin to see your future differently. The Human Audit focuses on your future not in order to predict it, nor to promise you that it will transform you in a day or a week, but to locate directions in which your existing capacities might be expanded.

It does this by giving you three different ways of sampling unexpected options. It reviews how you deploy your compassion, curiosity, friendships, fears, desires, energy and power, not through interrogation but by confronting you with the many ways others have deployed them in the past. Then it brings you into contact with a wide range of people from different occupations and traditions, placing you in novel situations. Finally, it helps you to consider how you could create out of your diverging passions and interests a coherent whole, in which each element enhances another.

You will neither be given exaggerated ideas suggesting that your potential is limitless, nor be categorised as being particularly suited for this or that speciality. Instead you will find allies with whom you could try to move in new directions with mutual aid. You are not treated as a patient or a victim, but helped to exchange your knowledge with others. You acquire courage by giving courage to others.

The practical consequence of the Human Audit, beyond its individual effect, will be to expand the idea of the audit beyond financial accounting, or vocational guidance, beyond the assessment of productivity or of what others think of you, beyond the sort of investigation where you can learn to tell auditors what they want to hear. We are planning applications of it to all age groups - adolescents hesitating about commitment, the middle aged facing disillusionment, divorcees in search of more adventure, honesty or kindness - and to several branches of business, notably retirement plans, human resources management and investment decision-making which can be enhanced by fuller information about individuals. We envisage developing a model for an auditing profession with broader human objectives, unrestricted by conflicts of interest. The Human Audit leads to new forms of alliances, and to the metamorphosis that corporations must undergo to adapt themselves to the aspirations of the coming generation.

3. The mental gymnasium

The young seldom receive optimal mental stimulation to develop their capacities. Adults do not do all they could to diminish the deterioration of the brain with age. We plan to make use of the most recent advances in brain studies, magnetic image technology and cognitive science, which are being used with great effect on damaged brains, for the improvement of healthy brains.

There are enormous obstacles to be overcome. As in all original research, it is impossible to predict which may prove insuperable or what unexpected new avenues may be opened up. The promise of collaboration from scholars with an international reputation encourages us to engage in this exploration, all the more so because our members would not be simply passive beneficiaries of new discoveries but should be able to make some positive contribution to them. Participation in the research (in ways which do not require preliminary scientific qualifications) would be one of the stimulating benefits. Through our biographies and human audits, we would be collecting information which would be invaluable to brain researchers. We wish to go beyond the exercises available from self-help books. We shall take care not to make unrealistic promises.

Our originality will be that we shall focus on the problems that major medical research programmes do not treat as urgent priorities, life threatening or seriously disabling, though, like a pebble in a shoe, they can cause havoc in the lives of outwardly healthy people. We shall investigate the minutiae of perception, in which small defects can cause large misunderstandings, the unused potential of vision, hearing, taste, smell and touch at all ages, the difficulties of focusing attention, the neglected relationship between thinking and dreaming, the cultivation of emotions and language skills. We wish to produce better appreciation of very mild forms of mental malfunction - for example conditions resembling the mildest forms of autism, in which the ability to understand what is going on in another person's head is limited. And since so much suffering is the result of the situation in which people find themselves, rather than of a medical cause, we shall try to advance the art of extracting oneself from situations which breed mental confusion.

Lack of appropriate mental stimulation is one of the major causes of inequality, and the inequality increases with age. We wish to find ways of compensating for losses of agility, whether avoidable or not. Many people in routine professions, and even those who use computers to make calculations, are allowing parts of their brain to decay. Improving mental performance and keeping mentally fit require as much constant application as the training of top athletes and the practice of top musicians.

But mental health also requires more skill at forming relationships than most people possess, so we wish to apply the skills and experience acquired by medical specialities to help improve the competence of the average person. The importance of networks as a source of stimulation has been increasingly recognised over the last fifty years, but they have been regarded as tools for social or commercial advantage, and have not been incorporated into a rethinking of our views of the art of life. They are too often based on the accidents of neighbourhood and occupation, or narrowly subordinated to the struggle for competitive advancement. The poor remain poor partly because they know only poor people.

So the Muse will encourage experiments to create new kinds of networks which bring wider ethical, aesthetic and intellectual benefits, serving the public good as well as enhancing individual lives. It will nourish networks of the imagination - the art of finding links between ideas - and networks of memory - the art of incorporating the memories and experience of other people and other civilisations into one's own. Again, the biographical data-base should make it possible to draw practical benefits from this widening of horizons.

4. The Muse fellowships

The Muse hopes to offer one-year fellowships to pioneer an alternative to the narrow specialisation in which modern education culminates. The big decisions about the direction in which energies should be used need to be made by people who have a global vision, transcending the particular problems of many distinct little worlds, while still being mindful of them. Business schools by definition do not focus on the whole panorama of humanity's dreams and desires. The Muse wishes to do just that.

The fellows will spend a year investigating the widest possible range of occupations - for example, two months in each of the five major areas of human activity - (a) the growing and preparation of food, (b) manufacturing material goods, on a large or a small scale, (c) commerce, in all its forms, (d) health, education and public service, and (e) the creative arts. This year would be an exercise in the expansion of horizons, gaining an introduction to the atmosphere and language of different professional worlds. The fellows would not become experts, but generalists, integrators, catalysts, who are not frightened off by the mysteries of different specialities, and who can at least roughly understand the issues which are preoccupying each discipline.

We shall also have senior (unpaid) fellowships for people who have reached the top of their profession (and those who have recently retired, whose experience is too frequently consigned to the dustbin). They would visit the Muse to pass on their wisdom and to confront it with the ideas of the students. We want not just dialogue between the generations, but for them to collaborate in experiments to make work a positive instrument for improving the moral quality of life and each individual's intellectual and spiritual capacities, and to throw light on the process by which particular forms of work have become disheartening, narrowing or damaging. In this way, we would hope to inaugurate a new era in training and in the reshaping of corporations.

5. The Muse hotel

Since the Muse aims to be essentially a source of inspiration, visited for short stays, it will take shape as a hotel, but a hotel of a new sort. When there are Muse Hotels all over the world, membership of the Muse would give you access to an original kind of tourism.

You will have a part in redesigning the very idea of a hotel, and in creating a model for how any business can rethink from scratch what it is doing. Hotels (like corporations) have not changed their basic goals since the late nineteenth century, when C├ęsar Ritz said that the purpose of his hotel was to "teach you how to live". For him, that meant to be able to enjoy luxury and to live like royalty, with servants ministering to your every whim. But where can they go next, after they have fitted every kind of gold tap, electronic gadget and leisure facility? They could become important cultural institutions, playing a significant part in the dialogue of civilisations, giving tourists a chance to do what conventional ambassadors cannot.

Our research suggests that half of hotels' guests are content with hotels as they are, but half would like them to be less boring. The latter need new kinds of hotels, which allow both guests and staff to do more for each other. In Oxford, for example, the Muse Hotel would not content itself with providing beds in which tourists can recover from the exhaustion of staring silently at the historical monuments. It would give them a more personal experience: they would be able to sample what is most valuable in the University, notably the mind-stretching private tutorial. Each would be treated as a unique guest who has something to offer to someone, and would be invited to contribute their special knowledge or experience to the university or the city.

Most hotels are dependent on low wages, long hours and foreign workers, who usually stay in their jobs for less than a year. Many of these employees want to learn a new language, but no hotel takes this desire seriously enough to organise efficient language teaching for them. That is because they are stuck with an idea of what a hotel should do, instead of thinking what they could do to meet the aspirations of all who pass through them. They could be a school of languages and of much else. They are frequently situated next to educational institutions, but never imagine they could exchange knowledge with them. That is partly because the hotel industry has five times fewer college graduates than the average for industry as a whole, and most of these are graduates in hotel management. There are many highly gifted people working in hotels, but only a fraction of their talents are used.

The Muse Hotels will try to provide many more personal points of entry into foreign civilisations for its guests, enabling them to become a new sort of unofficial ambassador of their country, profession, or particular interest, making small links which, when multiplied, could become significant in the diminution of international incomprehension.

6. Conversation, dining and dancing

Conversation is our next instrument providing the inspiration for achieving ambitions which have hitherto seemed impossible. The most advanced thinking today holds that leadership no longer means dominating others, nor simply establishing consensus between them, but stimulating individual creativity through conversations between different types of people. But traditionally conversation has been either a relaxed pastime, or an argumentative duel. A new kind of conversation could be the means by which any two people could change the world, even if only by a minute amount. Such a change happens when each side listens to the other so sympathetically and carefully that they emerge transformed, imbued with mutual respect for one another, and having established equality between themselves. Equality of respect does more to change mentalities than any law or any redistribution of wealth ever has. Men and women are only just beginning to learn how to talk to one another in a way that satisfies them both.

The ambition of the Oxford Muse is to inspire its members to reinvent the art of conversation to meet the needs of the present, going beyond mere communication and the exchange of information. It is not simply a matter of applying techniques which can be taught in a few lessons to overcome the silences and misunderstandings between the sexes, between colleagues at work, between specialists using different jargons, between different generations in families, and between members of different cultures bound by stereotyped views of each other.

Our experiments suggest that more is needed than just to get people to talk to one another. Each individual has a whole history of influences behind their style of talking, and few are fully conscious of their peculiarities. At the Muse, we shall have catalysts to help create advantage out of divergent attitudes. And it is hoped that dining at the Muse will raise standards in conversation as well as in gastronomy. We shall be using our experience in organising the Oxford Food Symposium (an annual gathering of 200 leading cookery experts from all over the world, who bring samples of their creations as well as new thinking) to ensure that the Muse contributes memorably and practically to the art of eating, which has always played an important part in creating the right atmosphere for the meeting of minds.

There are also other ways of putting people on a footing of equality, as for example when they dance and watch one another dancing. Few realise how important a part dancing has played in the history of freedom, in throwing off old habits throughout the ages, in creating new bonds and in revealing aspects of personality normally concealed by decorum. Martin Luther said: "Dances were conceived so that the young would learn to conduct themselves towards other people." The French Revolution produced not only an explosion of speechmaking and rioting, but also of dancing, and the opening of 700 dance halls, where the waltz became the symbol of popular freedom, against the rigid formal steps of the aristocracy. Ever since, every generation has rebelled against the dancing of its predecessors. The liberals of 1830 introduced the can-can (denounced by the old as 'epileptic'); the socialists popularised the galop, which allowed a change of partners. The polka, imported from Prague, enabled dancers to flirt with Bohemianism. American freedom was brought into Europe in the 1870s with the Boston. The great break between rock and rock and roll coincided with the idealistic protests of the young in 1968, when couples stopped touching each other, when the man no longer took the lead, and when women no longer had to wait for men to ask them to dance. Hip-hop has expressed a new atmosphere in urban life. And so on.

However, each of these dances has created a segregation between generations and temperaments. We want the Muse to be a place where people who do not normally say much to each other can start conversing. So among the amusements of the Muse will be lessons in all the dances that have ever existed, to enable the middle aged to revive their pleasure in the dances of their youth and perhaps to try to learn some of the dances of the young, while the young have a chance to discover something of their heritage. Experiments in the University of Paris have shown that when offered such opportunities, there is an enthusiastic response among many young people, who also recognise that learning unfamiliar forgotten dance steps gives a feeling of achieving something of value. Dancing is like a carnival, freeing you from what you normally are; dancing together creates harmonies between people with different tastes. That is also what conversation seeks.

The Muse places great importance on reviving conversation between the generations. It is not just for those who call themselves adults. On the contrary, it reveals the danger of thinking that one ever is adult, which sadly means fully grown, with no room to grow any more.

7. The Internet Muse

There is a final kind of inspiration that the Muse will offer, for those who want it for specific tasks or problems of their own. The Internet Muse is for people who are stuck with a problem, which their own entourage is unable to help them with, or who are isolated intellectually and need conversation with someone who might jog them out of an impasse. It will not be education on the internet, neither courses nor lectures, of which there is already an abundance, but a private one-to-one exchange, solving what is the great problem for most people, finding the right person who can give them the stimulus to look in a new direction. It will not be a consultancy of experts, giving the expert solution. The aim is to improve the ability to think for oneself, with a little help from others. Its originality is that it allows individuals to plan their own itinerary, without having to worry about passing examinations or being judged in any way.

There may be some eminent and well-known figures who might occasionally agree to talk with an enquirer on a subject which seems unusual or intriguing. It will sometimes happen that a good question will attract their interest. But there are many well-qualified people who are not public figures, who would enjoy and benefit from such encounters. For example, Oxford has just 2000 professors, but 130,000 alumni, many of whom have interesting experience, which is very rarely used in university teaching. We should like to make that mass of experience more widely available, to make it easier to discover who might best answer one's questions. Of course we shall not confine ourselves to Oxford or to graduates. Participants in the Internet Muse undertake no commitments, and are free if they wish to arrange their own fees with those requesting their help; sometimes they might find that what they learn from some questioners is more than a recompense.

Members of the Muse with senior experience of national broadcasting and Olympic webcasting are preparing plans to enable us to place interviews and biographies and the results of our work on the web. As the Oxford Muse discovers an ever-wider range of hidden talents, and as its data-base of people with a complex mix of experience and aspirations grows, we will be in a position to create contacts of a kind that the Internet has not achieved.