The Poverty of PPE: Editor’s Introduction

“The Oxford School of Politics, Philosophy and Economics is based on two unalterable principles: first, everything written about politics and philosophy by Karl Marx (1818-83) is out of date and dangerously biased, while everything written by John Stuart Mill (1806-73) is modern, vigorous and untainted by bias; secondly, everything written about economics by Karl Marx (1818-83) is out of date and dangerously biased, while everything written by Alfred Marshall (1842-1924) is modern, vigorous and untainted by bias.”

— Paul Foot, The Politics of Harold Wilson (1968), p.32.

Forty years on, we’re going to being hearing a lot this year about nineteen sixty-eight, the year of the Tet Offensive (January), the My Lai massacre (March) the Prague Spring, Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech (April), the évenements in Paris (May), the assassinations of Martin Luther King (April) and Robert F. Kennedy (June), the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (August), and so on; a year of great ferment and mobilisation and optimism on the Left, but also of some of the Right’s greatest electoral triumphs: Richard Nixon elected to the Presidency of the United States in November, and Charles de Gaulle’s landslide in the legislative elections in France in June.

And as one might perhaps expect, 1968 in Oxford had its idiosyncrasies. In part, of course, conflict was heavily localised, as student mobilisations over the 1960s were, often enough, directed against the archaic restrictions that still governed undergraduate life. The prohibitions on students drinking in the city’s pubs had fallen away after the War, in the face of the absurdity of trying to enforce the rule on men who had served for years in the Armed Forces and thereby delayed starting their degree course until their early twenties; but many other restrictions still persisted into the 1960s: evening curfews, pre-censorship of student publications, restrictions on visitors, especially of the opposite sex, and so on. (All the undergraduate colleges were, of course, still either men’s or women’s colleges right through the 1960s.)

Another area of concern and attention was the content of the undergraduate degree courses, often perceived as stuffy, limited, trivial, downright reactionary, inflexible, or any combination of the foregoing. Philosophy, Politics and Economics, in particular, came in for a great deal of criticism. Not only were exciting-sounding subjects like sociology, psychoanalysis or anthropology effectively squeezed out of the PPE curriculum, but the gap between what academic social scientists were saying and what was going on in the wider political world was really quite striking. Confident claims of the “end of ideology” at the turn of the 1960s seemed ludicrous only a few years later; studies of “the affluent worker” had forecast a diminution in levels of class struggle, only for a heated strike to break out in precisely the factory that had been considered as part of the research; the dominant political science of “pluralism”, integration and accommodation seemed implausible, in the face of the riots and fires in American cities; the study of British politics still seemed fixated on general elections, the leadership provided by political elites, and a celebration of the stability of the two-party system — aspects of politics that seemed increasingly irrelevant to radically-minded students in the 1960s; and PPE students were – then as now – often among those who were most engaged in political activities of one kind or another outside of their studies.

“The Poverty of Philosophy, Politics and Economics: a critique of the form and content of the Oxford Honour School of P.P.E.” was written by Trevor Pateman, then a postgraduate student at Nuffield College, in the Autumn of 1968. What is presented here is “Part One” of a collaborative project with John Birtwhistle; the final footnote refers to “a separate esay on the question” of the recently-revised “prelims” course for first-year students, but it is not clear (to me, at least) that any more material from this project was ever published. Pateman has written his own account of the period and of the background to the pamphlet here, in an autobiographical essay from 1971 which should certainly accompany a reading of “The Poverty of PPE”; rather than go over that ground again, I’ll say something instead about the PPE school, which Pateman set out to criticise.

Why does Oxford have a degree course in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at all? If you read the “personal statements” on applicants’ UCAS forms, you’d quickly conclude that these three subjects are deeply inter-related, that you can’t hope for an understanding of one without knowledge of the others, and that having them together in a single course is marvellously felicitous. A look at the historical record, on the other hand, suggests that the origins of PPE lie in the fight in the early years of the twentieth century over whether entrants to the University had to have ancient Greek at a decent standard. With the Greek party increasingly on the back foot, the Philosophers began trying to find a new future for themselves in a University where not quite such a large proportion of the undergraduates were going to be reading Classics, and therefore studying Greek philosophy in the original, and teaming up with the emerging subjects of politics and economics seemed like the most promising way forward. 1920 was the year both when the University agreed that you could in fact come to study in Oxford without Greek, and also the year that PPE made its first appearance — “a soft option for the weaker man”, as it was immediately branded by H. J. Paton, the translator of Kant.

When “The Poverty of PPE” was written, then, the degree had been going for almost fifty years; and one of the striking things about reading Pateman’s pamphlet today is to reflect on how few of the fundamentals have really changed since then. There have been some medium-sized reforms — almost all students study only two of the three subjects after the first year, for example, and one major consequence of this is a great deal more flexibility in the choice of optional subjects. When Pateman sat Finals there were six compulsory papers and two options; it is now possible for two students to sit PPE Finals and not have a single paper in common, if one of them takes Economics and Politics, with an emphasis on the political science papers, and the other takes Philosophy and Politics, with an emphasis on history and theory. And several of the particular criticisms no longer have quite the force they once did: Pateman considers PPE especially defective because of its failure to integrate the study of values adequately into the course; today it is possible for a majority of a student’s Finals paper to be focused on normative concerns, and even to involve the study of the Marxist and existentialist writers that were absent from the curriculum in the 1960s — though whether these subjects are being addressed in anything like the way Pateman then thought necessary is another question altogether. But even though there has been change, and some of it quite significant, this pamphlet is far more than a historical curiosity. PPE still has this tripartite, eight-papers-at-Finals structure; virtually all the papers Pateman considers have their recognisable descendants today — with Comparative Government having evolved out of the old Political Institutions paper, Ethics out of Moral and Political Philosophy, and so on — and much of what he says about the general culture and ethos of PPE still rings true, or true enough, at least.

PPE retains its classic blindspots, of course. PPE students are often almost entirely ignorant of modern history and of the histories of the discipines they are studying. Most students can spend three years in the course in blissful ignorance of the work of major social thinkers like Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas or Pierre Bourdieu. (There’s something I quite like about this, as a tutor — it’s fun to point students towards Foucault as if it’s somehow still contraband or samizdat literature, and it’s not clear that the Harvard Social Studies course, for example, which canonizes thinkers like these is obviously superior in its approach.) And it’s perfectly possible to go through the degree without engaging to any significant extent with feminist criticism of the last forty years or so, let alone with any writing on the politics of race, sexuality or disability. Indeed, for a critique as thorough-going as “The Poverty of PPE”, gender is a distinctive blindspot on Pateman’s radar screen, too, and one symptomatic of so much the British New Left in the period 1956-68 more generally. My own particular bête noire is the way in which so much of the course implicitly assumes that a medium-sized European nation-state is somehow the norm for thinking about politics; the syllabi are strikingly free of significant reference to the politics of imperialism, even in papers like the nineteenth-century social theory paper (which considers, among others, John Stuart Mill, Tocqueville, Marx and Weber, but with barely ever a mention, let alone an examination question, on these writers’ reflections on and, often enough, involvement in the European imperial project); or the twentieth-century British politics paper, which can be studied quite successfully by a student who was not in fact aware that the British ruled India for the first half of the period under consideration. (And, continuing somewhat in this vein, there is, quite remarkably, still no undergraduate paper on the politics and economics of European integration.)

By conventional yardsticks, PPE appears to be thriving. Large number of applications continue to come in to the Colleges from very able and hardworking students, including an increasing number from overseas; the Departments involved in teaching PPE are proud of the PPE “brand”, and – possibly for academic reasons, more likely, I think, because of recent changes in the UCAS regulations – there is a growing number of PPE courses at other British universities. The infiltration of PPE graduates into the upper echelons of British government, furthermore, is almost complete: despite his hostility to Oxford University, as I’ve observed before, about a third of Gordon Brown’s Cabinet consists of graduates from the same course at the same university, which seems to me to be a slightly extraordinary fact. Substantial change in the foreseeable future is unlikely, let alone anything as radical as that demanded by “The Poverty of PPE”. There are tensions inside the course — as Economics becomes an increasingly mathematical subject, for example, it’s not clear that it can be studied to an especially high level inside a multi-disciplinary, more generalist framework — and there are more options for studying the constituent parts of the course in combination with other subjects than there ever used to be (there is finally a History and Politics degree, for instance, as well as Economics and Management, whatever that is, and various joint honours degrees involving Philosophy and this, that and the other). But it seems safe to say that PPE will still be with us in another forty year’s time; that it will continue to be recognisably the same degree that is so splendidly denounced in “The Poverty of PPE”; and that Pateman’s pamphlet will still provide food for thought for both tutors and students, who spend far less time reflecting on why they do what they do than perhaps they ought.

Just a quick note on the structure: “The Poverty of Philosophy, Politics and Economics” is organised as a Preface followed by fifty-eight numbered paragraphs. The first half of the pamphlet — the material that will be posted today and tomorrow — is made up of a long introductory section offering general discussion and criticism of PPE. The second half consists of six shorter sections, each devoted to an examination of each of the six compulsory papers that made up the bulk of PPE in the 1960s, with a short “digression” after the treatment of the General Philosophy paper. The material on the Philosophy papers will appear on Wednesday; Politics on Thursday; and the brief treatment of the Economics papers on Friday, together with the short overall concluding section which brings the pamphlet to a close.

The Preface and the first section of the Introduction will be posted shortly.

2 thoughts on “The Poverty of PPE: Editor’s Introduction”

  1. You state the egregious gaps – the insufferable snobbery towards Continentals, the convenient forgetting of the age of empire and of the many hearts of darknesses which, alas, we never get to study etc. But I don’t quite understand how this gap continues to persist, despite some tutors obviously recognizing that there is a problem. Is this simply a case of institutional inertia, or genuine resistance to change? And what prospects do you reckon exist for a reorganization of the course to properly include – or atleast give people the opportunity to pursue – what is currently amiss ?

  2. But I don’t quite understand how this gap continues to persist…

    There are so many reasons… Or, rather, there are different reasons for different problems.

    In the case of the absence-of-imperialism, I think it’s basically something fairly deeply rooted in the modern British psyche: having revelled in so much Empire for so long, we now pretend to ourselves that it never really existed, or that it never really mattered, or that it doesn’t have much to do with the shaping of British national identity, and that it certainly doesn’t raise problems we ought to continue to think about into the present, and so on.

    In many other cases, as Pateman goes on to suggest, it’s about jobs, and also about the incestuous culture of hiring here. In the United States to a considerable extent there’s a norm that you don’t get a job in the department where you do your PhD; whereas a lot of the time Oxford hires Oxford people and Cambridge hires Cambridge people, and one result of this is that people end up teaching what they know, which is whatever was on the syllabus when they were students. So, yes, courses evolve very slowly indeed, and there’s not much cross-fertilisation from other institutions, and so on. On the other hand, defenders of the system might say that it fosters certain centres of high-quality research: Cambridge in the history of political thought, for example, or Oxford in topics in distributive justice or the philosophy of law.

    More generally, with PPE change happens slowly because of the old turning-a-battleship-around problem: things proceed largely by consensus, that has to be constructed across three different Departments. So, on the whole, if it ain’t (obviously, scandalously) broke, no one’s going to attempt to fix anything, because any remotely radical change will tread on enough toes to provoke a veto of some kind. And, on the whole, most people think it ain’t broke.

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