The Curse of PPE

There has been quite a lot of debate recently about how the British political class is dominated by Oxbridge.  And I read quite often  – especially on Twitter – comments along the lines of “If Cameron has a first in PPE at Oxford, how come he’s so ignorant about …” or “If Cameron got a First in PPE it doesn’t say much for the Oxbridge system …”

It’s an understandable sentiment.  The Oxford degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics has long been seen as the prime qualification for a career in British party politics.  As it happens, thirty years ago I was reading PPE at Oxford; the more I reflect on the course I pursued the more it seems to be a key part of the British political malaise.

To be fair, a glance at the Oxford University website suggests that the course has broadened a bit since then. However, the course structure I followed is likely to have been what those at the peak of the British political elite will have read, and on reflection what characterises the course from those days is how little you could get away with learning.

In the 1980s the core politics course was all about institutions in Britain, the US and France and British political history; philosophy was about the British empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, Hume) with a cursory nod towards logical positivism, and moral philosophy; economics was a bit of theory and the organisation of the British economy.  If you were doing all three subjects, these subjects accounted for six out of your eight final papers.

The implication was that you could get a First in PPE without reading a word of Marx or Kant or Plato, or studying any politics of developing nations (or the economics of development), or without reading any continental philosophy apart from Descartes, or without doing any political or sociological theory, or studying philosophical method (a series of worries about the basis of economic theory led me to do an optional paper in social scientific theory – I think in my year the number of entrants in this fascinating and fundamental area barely reached double figures).  Of course for those who wanted to do something more rigorous and worthwhile there was a big range of options, but the fact remained that you could get away with doing what with hindsight looks very much like the sort of broad-based and superficial curriculum that resembles one of those general-studies A level courses that Russell Group universities are quick to point out don’t really count. And it’s a consensual and safe curriculum – it’s one that enables the ambitious but intellectually incurious to spend three years without having their assumptions really challenged.

And not just with hindsight – I had a vacation job working alongside a colleague who was studying philosophy at what was then Staffordshire Polytechnic, and it very quickly emerged that she was doing a more rigorous, stimulating and comprehensive course than I was at Oxford. And I recall the raised eyebrows when, having been awarded a College prize in Philosophy in my final year, I chose to spend the book tokens that came with it on, inter alia, a copy of Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies – a key political and philosophical text of the twentieth century, but one that Oxford ignored. My own experience is that such understanding of politics and economics as I possess now derives overwhelmingly from my reading since leaving Oxford, not what I learned there.

In other words, PPE – certainly as it was when the current British political class was studying it – is not remotely a gold standard for intellectual rigour.  Oxbridge is itself a problem – it remains a reminder that the hierarchy of academic achievement in Britain is every bit as much about class and privilege as it is about academic ability, continuing to draw on a minority of the intensively-coached privileged for a proportion of its intake that has remained broadly unchanged in thirty years.  But the idea that PPE gives one the intellectual grounding to deal with the problems facing our society seems to me to be entirely false.

And a society with the depth and nature of the problems that we have cannot afford to indulge in this sort of lazy intellectual idolatry.

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7 thoughts on “The Curse of PPE

  1. When I was studying at Oxford, Greats was considered a more appropriate study course for those wishing to enter politics and that *did* involve reading Plato (in the original Greek, so that it wasn’t distorted by mistranslation). Also we had a fair number of guys who went into politics via joining a trade union as an ordinary member, getting involved in union affairs and entering politics in order to change the world. I didn’t agree with Nye Bevan but we admired him. So my definition of “long” may differ from yours.
    Secondly, I wasn’t intensively coached (unless you regard 1 hour a week of Latin and French for one term as such) and a majority of my Oxford contemporaries came from grammar schools (OK Cambridge was just over 50% public-school but Oxford’s intake was just over 50% grammar and a further 1% comprehensive). The increase in the share of Oxbridge undergraduates coming from independent schools is a result of Labour education policy.
    [to forestall obvious gripes – yes, I did go to public school because I got a scholarship as did the majority of boys from my school who went to Oxford: I cannot think of a single one in my year whose parents actually paid full fees. Going to public school did not necessarily mean that you were rich: it was said and generally believed that the widowed mother of one boy a year older than I paid £4 a year, including full board, on a means-tested basis – he went to Cambridge instead. My wife was grammar-school educated prior to Cambridge]
    Oxford has made massive attempts to counteract the post-Wilson class divide in educational achievement to the extent of setting lower entry levels for pupils from state schools with low performance (e.g. David Miliband, though some think that he got in because his millionaire Marxist father was friends with other left-wing professors).
    I don’t want to sound condescending, but I *never* thought PPE was even a silver or brass standard, so while I quite agree “that we have cannot afford to indulge in this sort of lazy intellectual idolatry” and that “the idea that PPE gives one the intellectual grounding to deal with the problems facing our society seems to me to be entirely false”, I am not prepared to accept any suggestion that I have abdicated my intellectual responsibilities in order to defer to the likes of Cameron, Milibands and Balls, none of whom appear to deserve the deference I owe to certain of my and my wife’s college friends.

  2. OMG – Thank you! This explains so much. I had no idea! I did a PPE type course at UEA (hardly Oxford) and, as you know, could not grasp why Osborne et al seem to know nothing about politics or economics.

    This explains a lot – it appears my (not very good either by the way) course was far more extensive than the old Oxford PPE; however I also did a Master’s degree in political theory at the very highly regarded Government Dept. of Essex Uni and my memory is a little fuzzy so am unsure how much of knowledge came from undergraduate study and how much from Essex. Still, I have been questioning the quality of PPE @ Oxford for sometime – thinking the course could not be especially good judging by the quality of people it produced (yourself a notable exception I would add). You have now solved this mystery for me once and for all – thank you again. MN

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  4. I read for a science degree at Oxford at about the same time as Cameron, Osborne and Johnson were members of the obnoxious Bullingdon Club. PPE was widely regarded as something to keep occupied the dim offspring of potential college benefactors. A friend once asked our tutor what would happen if he failed his first-year exams. “You have to come back and retake in the summer vacation”. “And what if I fail again?” “You can always come back and do PPE”

  5. I did PPE recently. The idea that equivalent courses at other universities are more rigorous or challenging is ridiculous. I know people at good universities who had 2 essays a term to do, rather than the 16+ that you get as an undergraduate at Oxford.

    You don’t go into that much depth if you do all three subjects, that much is true, but then again you are choosing to be general if you do all three subjects. That’s the whole point of doing a more general degree. If you want to specialise, you can do, but if you don’t, you don’t have to. What exactly is the problem with that? And why does that make the course less rigorous? The idea that you ‘have to read x or y’ to have a degree in a particular subject is rather odd anyway: reading Plato or Popper is very interesting, but it’s not a prerequisite to having a good understanding of philosophy.

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