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.