The Poverty of PPE, Episode One


Even in writing these notes towards a critique of PPE, it is doubtful that I have freed myself entirely from those aspects of PPE of which I am most critical: the subjection of oneself to a particular course for three years has too profound effects on the workings of one’s mind and one’s personality for an escape to be made immediately even from those aspects one consciously repudiates. Thus, most strikingly, in criticising PPE for lacking that sociological approach which alone could hold the course together, I am myself the victim of this deficiency, and my own critique, in so far as I have not yet had the opportunity to correct the felt inadequacies, suffers accordingly. Though PPE students have the opportunity to take two optional papers in sociology, this sociology is treated as something alongside the other two social scientific disciplines and not as a synthetic discipline which offers a framework within which the thought and action of man, the structure and workings of society, can be located. This deficiency is only a reflection of the lack of an indigenous classical sociology in Britain, and the corresponding lack of a national Marxism. [NOTE: See Perry Anderson, “Components of the National CultureNew Left Review 50.]

Apart from lectures and examinations, PPE is studied on a college basis, and consequently permits many idiosyncratic variations in its content. No doubt individual cases can be found which confound some of my listed sins of commission and omission, but I do not think any general points will be invalidated in such a fashion.

In the structure of these notes and even in their prose style, the effects of PPE will no doubt be clear to the observant reader. Not even one’s personality is unaffected by this particular university education: a way of looking at life, even one’s own life, with detachment, with impartiality, is encouraged; ratiocination holds sway where emotion would be more appropriate.

For these and other reasons, this critique should only be regarded as a tentative outline: the “PPE” way of putting this might be to say that it is both tentative and an outline. If it has merit at all, then that is partly attributable to those with whom I have discussed these questions at various times over the last three years: Chris Allen, Roy Bhaskhar, John Birtwhistle, Phillip Hodson, Selwyn Hughes, Ahfar Hussain, John Jervis, Sarah Kay, Jack Lively, Trevor Munroe, and Gareth Stedman-Jones should be especially mentioned, though none of them is responsible for what I have written. I should be more than grateful to receive the opinions of others on the essay published here.


Nuffield College,
October, 1968.

[Continue to Episode Two.]

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