The Poverty of PPE, Episode Ten

BRITISH POLITICAL AND CONSTITUTIONAL HISTORY SINCE 1865

44. The difficult problems raised in the preceding paragraphs do not arise in connection with this paper. There is in fact only one major question: how can this paper most rapidly be consigned to the dustbin of academic history? For it does not illuminate the study of the history of this country, or of its political institutions, or its economic organisation.

45. The major criticism of this paper is that it presupposes the possibility of gaining a social understanding by considering the ‘political’ history of this country in isolation from its social and economic history. The examiners often admit the stupidity of this presupposition by including social-economic (i.e., genuinely political) questions, if in a half-hearted way. The 1968 paper contained one such question out of sixteen: on British agriculture. There were no explicit questions on trade unions, the world wars, the slump, or the welfare state (i.e., there were no questions on many of the most important aspects of British history). The presuppositions, which reflects broader trends in English historical studies, [NOTE: See Gareth Stedman-Jones, “The Pathology of English History“, New Left Review 46; and Professor C. B. MacPherson, “The Historian as Underlabourer”, The Listener, 11-1-1968.] excludes the major questions and includes the minor ones. The examination questions are frequently absurd or dilettantish ad the preparation required to answer them will have assisted the candidate in no way whatsoever in better understanding his society. For example, the 1968 paper which was set by Conservative examiners, had no less than four questions out of thirteen on the careers of individual Conservative politicians (Disraeli, Chamberlain, Balfour, Butler). That there were no questions on individual Labour or Liberal politicians (presumably none has ever attained the stature of a Butler in the examiner’s eyes) is not the cause of a complaint. Rather it is to be questioned what possible value is to be gained from answering the question, “‘Too clever by half’. Is this the clue to Balfour’s weakness as a party leader?” [NOTE: The Sunday Times Colour Magazine will no doubt provide the answer one day.] If the aim is to provide lessons in party management for aspiring Conservative politicians, then that may be achieved, but it is not the proper role of PPE.

46. If a halt can be brought to the subjection of intelligent students to this flaccid course, [NOTE: The paper may become optional in 1969.] what topics are there which deserve study and do not currently get it? Somewhere, students must have the opportunity to study psychology, psycho-analysis, sociology, etc., but if we confine ourselves to the framework of the present course (objectionable as it is) are there any reforms which would at least improve the system? There are a number of arguments in favour of a study of imperialism and revolutionary movements, which at present fall largely outside the scope of PPE. Firstly, since our lives are intimately bound up with what goes on in the developing world, there is a strong case for being less parochial in our concerns. This could be partly achieved by including a modified development economics paper in the compulsory section. On the other hand, since revolutionary movements are one of the main features of the developing world (Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam) and their success of failure has an intimate bearing on economic development possibilities, a specific study of them might illuminate more than an economic development paper taught by academic economists, many of whom have ideological interests in minimising the role of political change in economic development. A study of revolutionary movements would also reinvigorate the discussion of political values and institutions, since the revolutionary movements, apart from Fascism, have posed the major challenge to Western political values in this century.

47. The big danger with such a course is that it would be taught by propagandists. The American Universities have already shown that they are prepared to sacrifice scholarly detachment to political expediency. This could be guarded against, in part, by imposing strict conditions on the employment of persons teaching this paper. Similar problems arise in the case of economics.

[Return to Episode Nine] [Continue to Episode Eleven]

Leave a Reply

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