The Poverty of PPE, Episode Four

14. Against this we must assert the primary importance of the discussion of values. And, intellectually, we must seek to understand why in recent years there has come about this systematic devaluation of values: how has it come about the ideal has been collapsed into that which is? What are the origins of the consensus – which is not only a party political phenomenon but has its counterpart in political theory, as we shall see later. [NOTE: Para. 38.]

15. Secondly, the need to connect social science and philosophy must be stressed, to the benefit of both disciplines and the student. The present divorce of social science and philosophy reflected in the impoverished state of the philosophy of social science here, has had consequences for philosophy some of which have been remarked upon. For social science there have been disastrous consequences: social scientists have been allowed to get away with the most appalling drivel in their methodological discussion. Lipsey’s introductory chapters in Positive Economics [NOTE: Published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson.] are probably the outstanding example. The crucial errors and simplifications are those which have been made in the concept of objectivity in social science. At least one of the roots of this is the divorce of philosophy and social science. A second, and probably deeper root, is the phenomenon of the academic taboo on any commitment to action, or expression of values, in social scientific writings. This is also accompanied by a complete distortion of the importance rankings of different areas of study: the more politically explosive a question, the less worthy it becomes of scholarly study: [NOTE: Look at Research Supported by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC, 1968).] in Barrington Moore, Jr.’s phrase, there are too many narrow technicians creeping up some ladder of success by keeping their mouths shut on every issue that matters. [NOTE: Barrington Moore, Jr., A Critique of Pure Tolerance (Boston, Beacon Press, 1967).] Marxists are considered unworthy of study not because they are stupid but because they are Marxists. In the same way, existentialists are dismissed as unreadable because unread. [NOTE: See S. F. P. Halliday in Approach Magazine 2, pp.27-8.]

16. Thirdly, if PPE is a course primarily intended to furnish one with the mental equipment necessary for an understanding of contemporary social reality, then the separate disciplines which comprise the course will vary over time, and vary in relative importance, as changes come about in the tools which can most adequately be used in the job of understanding our world. When PPE was set up, politics and economics were probably the most useful disciplines from this point of view to be included in the course. But today it would seem that sociology and anthropology, psychology, fine art, and new disciplines like ethology (the study of animal behaviour in situ) are just as if not more, relevant. There is perhaps some evidence for this contention in the changing nature of works of social criticism: in the twenties they were first and foremost works of economics and politics; since the second world war, sociological and psychological works have become increasingly important. Even if these subjects are not incorporated into the course, there is no justification for proceeding in economics and politics as if Freud had never been shown how little a Benthamite animal man is or in economics as if sociologists had not exploded the myth of the rugged entrepreneur. [NOTE: “As a type the rugged entrepreneur exists largely in the mind of the remoter members of both political parties – and in popular fiction” (J. P. Nettl in Political Studies, 1965-6, p.24). The economists surely deserve honourable mention.]

17. But as a matter of fact there is no logical reason why the above-mentioned disciplines should not be accommodated in the PPE course. And the PPE course at the same time should become more fluid – more adaptable over time and to individual requirements. This could involve basing the course around a number of key problems facing the world today, rather than around the traditionally conceived disciplines. That in turn would imply a breaking down of the rigid examination system, and much greater reliance on course work and long essay / short thesis work in the assessment process. Such a change would be all to the good: the examination system is an unreliable guide within its own terms of reference, a one-dimensional guide: the examination system only measures the ability to write examination questions. [NOTE: See Tom Fawthrop, Education or Examination? (Radical Student Alliance, 1968).] The examination system distorts the content and method of work of PPE students away from that which this essay considers desirable: the system allows the student to go through his three years at Oxford without ever producing a long and carefully researched piece of work. It gives him no training in scholarship, only refining to a high degree of perfection his ability to write short dilettantish essays on the basis of very little knowledge: ideal training for the social engineer. An output of two essays per week is the productivity norm. This is good training for the examination but not for serious study. It penalises the man who is interested in what exactly is going on and favours the man who can at will analyse the language in which the ordinary man (the anti-revolutionary hero of Oxford philosophy) expresses what is going on – perhaps the most unreliable guide there is to what is going on so far as the ordinary man so often only states what he has heard from the mass media. [NOTE: See Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man, and compare with J. L. Austin’s “A Plea for Excuses” (in his Philosophical Papers, O.U.P., 1962).]

18. Yet this criticism, though it has something in common with the kind of criticism advanced by scholarly academics, does not lead to the main conclusion they reach, which is also reached by those who are technocratically minded. That conclusion is the plea for greater specialisation by discipline in PPE. The academics want this in order that the student may be given a more thorough grounding in one subject – true Honours work; the technocrats, especially the economists, want it in order the better to meet the increasingly specialised labour demands of the economy. Now, though there may be a case for more specialised courses alongside PPE, it is not the purpose of this critique to recommend that students of PPE should be allowed to abandon one or two of the three parts of their course. Rather, it foresees a widening in the scope of PPE in line with the conception of the course which this essay sets out. This is not incompatible with more detailed work than is presently done by any PPE student IF the rigidity of the present four-questions-in-each-of-eight-Final-exam-papers system is relaxed. But that, of course, implies a rupture in the relationship of the University of the labour market. The extent to which the University can refuse to pre-sort students ready for final selection by Government and industry is debatable. Clearly, any large inroads into the University’s technocratic orientation can be made only as revolutionary forces gain momentum in society at large. [NOTE: But as the inroads which students can at present force will in turn assist the radicalisation and mobilisation of political opinion outside the University.]

[Return to Episode Three] [Continue to Episode Five]

9 thoughts on “The Poverty of PPE, Episode Four”

  1. Against this, I must assert the vacuity of all high and mighty talk about “values”..this is one of the points where Allan Bloom is right:”values” is a weasel word. Philip Rieff used to respond to students who used the word “values” in seminar by pulling out a dollar bill and saying “this is a value”.
    Back when I was a teaching assistant for Mike Brint at Virginia(as well as, God help me. Dante Germino),I usedto urge my students never, on the pain of death, use the passive, colorless language of “values’. Insttead say..what one cares about, what one would die for.
    End of rant.

  2. Are we talking about the same thing? I take it (though I’m guessing a bit) that people like Bloom wanted to talk about (for example) “virtues”, and were annoyed with students who were uncomfortable with that language, but were happy to talk about “values” instead. (Just as Harvey Mansfield talks about “manliness” whilst everyone else in the humanities talks about “masculinities”.) Whereas outside of a tutorial on Aristotle no-one in Oxford is going to be talking about “virtues” at all. On the other hand, PPE students are confronted by the remnants of the ambition for a value-free social science in their courses (e.g., economics students have the difference between positive and normative economics explained to them early on), and in that context to remind people that social science is never a value-neutral or value-free enterprise, so you might usefully start thinking about what value-commitments are at work, is often a good thing to be doing.

  3. Philip Rieff used to respond to students who used the word “values” in seminar by pulling out a dollar bill and saying “this is a value”.

    What’s his point? Values aren’t just what you get when you trade in your mobile phones, are they? Is he asking people to quantify them? Or is it just the old Socrates routine of asking people to clarify what they mean when they use a word?

  4. What a marvellous retro piece. I did PPE 1978-81 and it was nothing like the course described by Trevor Pateman. In fact, I’d say it was almost as good as it could be as an introduction to the broad sweep of — er — philosophy, politics and economics. I suppose I was lucky: I had Steven Lukes, Frank Parkin, Alan Montefiore, Bill Weinstein and Andrew Graham (among others) as tutors, went to lectures and seminars by Alan Ryan, April Carter, Gerry Cohen, Habermas, Rawls etc etc, and the course gave me access to an intellectual world of which I was barely aware. The first year in PPE back then (logic, utilitarianism, Descartes-Locke-Berkeley-Hume, supply and demand, the IS-LM model, the American and French revolutions and British political institutions) was a bit staid, but it was a good grounding. And after that you could go off pretty much where you wanted. As I and my comrades did…

  5. I would agree with para 17 that a training in short tutorials essays and exams is in a sense one dimensional, which is why the transition to postgraduate thesis was a steep learning curve, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily a bad thing. We don’t necessarily want or need large numbers of PPEists going on to doctorates, and it’s not clear that they need the skills of developing longer academic arguments, as opposed to quickly assimilating and bluffing their way through large amounts of material in many other walks of life.

  6. Ben — We certainly don’t want lots of PPEists going on to doctorates, true enough, but we should think a bit more than we do about whether it’s sensible to have a course in which students only ever have to do two things: 2,000-2,500 word tutorial essays prepared in half a week on the one hand and hour-long essays written in examination conditions on the other. And even the PPEists who *do* want to go on to doctorates often suffer under the current regime, because unless you write an optional thesis, you’re unlikely to have a really good piece of undergraduate writing that can serve as a writing sample for graduate applications.

    Paul — yes, you were lucky!

  7. I do think there’s an interesting question as to whether it would be desirable to make an undergraduate thesis compulsory. Each and every undergraduate thesis I’ve supervised has, in my view, been excellent at least in parts, and has been light years ahead of the average quality of stuff you read when marking Finals. Obviously there are completely different time constraints in play, but the extent to which all my students have developed much, much deeper understanding of political theory as a result of writing theses is very clear to me.

    Of course, a) those who do theses at the moment are a particular self-selecting set and b) I think there would be a big resource issue, since theses have to be supervised on a one-on-one basis, and (for me, anyway) always end up being more time-consuming than standard tutorial teaching.

  8. “The examination system distorts the content and method of work of PPE students away from that which this essay considers desirable: the system allows the student to go through his three years at Oxford without ever producing a long and carefully researched piece of work. It gives him no training in scholarship, only refining to a high degree of perfection his ability to write short dilettantish essays on the basis of very little knowledge: ideal training for the social engineer. An output of two essays per week is the productivity norm. This is good training for the examination but not for serious study. It penalises the man who is interested in what exactly is going on and favours the man who can at will analyse the language in which the ordinary man (the anti-revolutionary hero of Oxford philosophy) expresses what is going on – perhaps the most unreliable guide there is to what is going on so far as the ordinary man so often only states what he has heard from the mass media.”

    Nuff said, at least as far as I am concerned this week.

  9. I think it may also encourage churning-it-out: two essays a week, couple of days’ reading for each, caffeine tablets, read it out to tutor, gone. Suits everybody, really: the not-bothered undergraduate and the tutor who wants to concentrate on the high-flyers. I was the first (“Modern” History, not PPE, as it goes) and most of my tutors were the second, and I wasted my time at Oxford. Maybe a different approach might have been a better one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *