The Poverty of PPE, Episode Two


1. To become a University student is to enter into a set of personal relationships limited in space and time, which are partly dependent on, and partly independent of one’s will. These relations are also social relations, that is, relations conditioned by pre-existing organisational forms. Thus, relationships are not only relationships of person to person, but also relationships of student to student, tutor, dean, master, lecturer, examiner, Proctor, college servant, townsman. To become a University student also entails the alteration of certain pre-existing patterns of relationships, e.g., with parents and friends.

2. Becoming a University student is also in part becoming a student of a particular subject or subjects and studying them in a particular way. That which is studied is defined by the content of books prescribed, lectures and tutorials attended. The way in which it is studied depends partly on the tutorial system, the lecture system, the examination system, etc. [NOTE: On the tutorial system, see Will G. Moore, The Tutorial System and its Future, Pergamon Press, 1968.] The two interact: teaching and examining methods, for example, affect the content of what is studied. That which is examinable becomes that which is worthy of study. One important question to be asked is: What determines what we study and the way we study it? In this connection, I have not had an opportunity to study in detail the origins of PPE and its history since its foundation in the 1920’s. But, clearly, consideration of the origins and history of PPE would be important in determining the answer to the question posed above. This is the opinion of Gareth Stedman-Jones who writes to me: “The more I consider the matter, the more it seems to me that the whole basic composition and methodology of the course was the brainchild of Fabianism, and was an accurate reflection of its mental universe – utilitarianism, marginal economics, a strong division between the practical and the ‘utopian’, reification of political institutions to meet the functional requirements of the civil service and a bureaucratic elite engaged in piecemeal social engineering, the enthronement of common sense, etc. Only in this context, I think, can one begin to understand why such abortions as the moral and political philosophy paper and the theory and working of political institutions paper exist today.”

3. Studying a subject is, again, partly dependent on and partly independent of our wills. Another question we must consider is: How much are our studies dependent on our wills – how much flexibility is there in the system? and how much should there be?

4. Then we must assess the impact of the fact of being a student and the fact of studying a particular subject on the individual. To take the latter problem: to study PPE is to read certain books, write certain notes and essays, take certain examinations and do these things in a particular way – we not only read, write and reflect, but read, write and reflect in a certain way. The impact of this is not only personal but social: we are equipped to do certain things, and not others. We are encouraged to regard ourselves in a certain light and not in another. What we can do and what we do is socially as well as personally important – if Oxford’s PPE course breed pragmatic premiers, then the effects of that are vastly different from a situation in which PPE bred determined socialist revolutionaries.

5. More generally, there is a tension between the traditional critical role of the University in relation to society and the increasingly important technical function the University performs, namely, the supply of high level manpower. In social studies, the contradictory nature of these two roles is especially acute, and is given additional importance by the increasing prevalence of the part-time employment of teachers as advisers to Government and industry. This can easily lead to the subordination of the content not only of the teachers’ research but of the students’ course to the transitory demands of the Department of Economic Affairs or the Federation of British Industries. In America, this subordination – Conor Cruise O’Brien has called it “counter-revolutionary subordination” [NOTE: Conor Cruise O’Brien, “Politics and the Morality of Scholarship”, in The Morality of Scholarship, edited by Max Black (Cornell U. P., 1967).] – is apparent in third world studies. In PPE the steady transformation of the compulsory paper on Economic Organisation into a paper on How can the Government solve British capitalism’s recurring crises? is a similar phenomenon. In this essay, stress is laid on the critical role of the University – though there are definite limits beyond which the University course cannot be transformed without a social transformation. The recognition of the difficulties inherent in attempting, through changes in the form and content of courses, to upgrade the critical function in an anti-critical society will be reflected in some of the tensions which the reader will find in this essay as it develops. The University statutes state that “The subject of the Honour School of Philosophy, Politics and Economics shall be the study of modern philosophy, and of the political and economic principles and structure of modern society”. Were this object to be achieved, the School would be frankly subversive: only by failing to live up to its scholarly ideal does the course manage to fulfil its social functions – the provision of manpower and the purveying of ideology.

6. This leads us into a consideration of the purpose of a University course, both more general and more detailed, and of the extent to which a course lives up to its purpose. In the case of PPE, it is possible to set down a conception of PPE’s purpose, and to adopt it as one from which both a critique of the existing course can be deduced and an alternative proposed.

[Return to Episode One] [Continue to Episode Three]

4 thoughts on “The Poverty of PPE, Episode Two”

  1. Chris, I can see this is going to be terrific reading and relevant well beyond Oxford. Thanks for the editorial efforts, including your introduction — looking forward to subsequent installments.

  2. Hi Chris,

    I agree with Patchen – great job! I wonder what you make of the very different trajectory of the study of politics at Cambridge over the course of the c.20?

  3. “The Poverty of SPS”, Duncan? That’s your job!

    Less flippantly, though, I just don’t know enough about the history of the various disciplines at Cambridge. Key factors include the way in which much political science began under the umbrella of History (hence the Political Science chair today is still in the History faculty), and the development of the Moral Sciences tripos, including some but not all of what we have as PPE; and then the emergence of single-honours courses in Philosophy and Economics, and then the coming together of what’s now SPS. And SPS seems more hospitable to options in social anthropology and social psychology, which must be a function of when that course took determinate shape (just as their absence from the Oxford PPE course has something to do with its origins in the 1920s). But I just don’t know the ins and outs of Cambridge to tell any kind of coherent story. I’d like to know more than I do. But I don’t.

  4. One immediate thought I have on SPS is that although it may well be more open to social anthropology or social psychology etc. than PPE, it has nowhere near as much respect (within or without the University) as Oxford’s PPE course does.

    I’d also echo the positive comments made about this project.

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