The Poverty of PPE, Episode Thirteen


54. The same procedure as followed above could be applied to the various optional papers, but I am only qualified to comment on the two that I chose (Logic and Political Theory). The recent additions which have been made to the list of special subjects do not tackle the crucial problems confronting PPE which I have tried to raise in this essay.

55. Neither have I felt able to tackle the question of the preliminary examination which the student takes after his first two terms at Oxford, since this course has just undergone considerable revision. But from past experience, I suspect that it is at the stage of prelims that the student has all the defects of the course I have outlined thrust at him in concentrated form. [NOTE: John Birtwhistle and I are now (October 1968) engaged in writing a separate essay on the question.] It is at this stage that the course generally succeeds or fails to wean the student form his pre-University hopes and prepare him for the thin gruel which is to be his intellectual diet for three years.

56. Most of the proposals made above, even assuming the retention of the framework of the course (which is unacceptable), go beyond anything that could be expected to result from the ditherings of the Faculty Board. Of course, student representation on the faculty board should be demanded. But even some of the slightest changes proposed here, if they were adopted, would demand such sweeping alteration in existing practices as to make their acceptance unlikely. To change the intellectual content of the course would, for example, necessitate the importation of lecturers from outside the University to teach the subjects which no one in Oxford is qualified or fit to teach.

57. Yet few of the suggestions I make are maximal demands, ideal solutions: the posing of a comprehensive alternative course demands the transformation of the society within which this University is located, if it is to have a chance of success. That is not to say we should not endeavour to begin the intellectual elaboration of such an alternative, nor content ourselves with crumbs (or cake) from the faculty board table.

58. To a large extent, we shall have to educate ourselves, in default of provision being made by the official teachers – or misprovision. Self-help is not the least of the means to combat the starving and deformation of intelligence. But this self-help should not take the form of an anti-course which can be ignored or patronised by the University. Rather it should only be part of and a preparation for a positive contestation. We must begin by making ourselves better scholars than our teachers, and the power that gives us will be reinforced by our power as a body of students eager to understand and therefore to change the world.

[Return to Episode Twelve] [Return to the Editor’s Introduction]

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

  1. I was harsh on the author’s use of the weasel language of “values”, but he does make some valuable points. When Lord Lindsay of Birker and his contemporaries designed PPE in the twenties, it was apparently thought that British civil servant class needed something more “up to date” than litterae Humaniores.
    That, ultimately, may be the real problem with PPE,as it is often reproduces the ideology of a particular class, the British civil servant class.

  2. Another long quotation, this one from Alan Ryan, Warden of New College and political theorist. From his reflections on the Oxford tutorial (
    Interesting comments, and with much that is of relevance to this discussion. And wonderful discussion, btw. As a current second year PPEist myself, I’d say this is important stuff. And the quotation follows:

    ‘There were further features of the consensus that with hindsight seem quite odd, but which made life easier for all concerned. One was the belief that all philosophical issues with any staying power could be handled as though they were being looked at for the first time by mid-20th century philosophers in the United Kingdom or on the East Coast of the United States. The assumption was that one could always translate whatever a thinker had said in some far off place, in some non-English language, or in a non-modern terminology, into the terms and concerns of post-1945 anglophone philosophers, thereby retrieving what he had meant. The question of how far one can do that is an interesting and difficult one that leads into philosohical complexities of its own. I think we all knew that at some level, but pretended not to in order to get on with what we really wanted to do.

    Another feature of the consensus was that the range of things worth discussing was well-defined. As critics complained then and since, this shut out a lot of philosophers that other people thought were worth taking seriously. Sartre was acceptable as a novelist, but not in his own terms as a philosopher, so Being and Nothingness was read as an extended sketch of the plot of a series of novels. Heidegger was off the menu for every reason, and Nietzsche was left to poets and playwrights. This made it difficult to read Kant, since it was hard to deny that subsequent German Idealism had taken off from Kant, and hard to deny that Kant had in some fashion taken off from Hume as well as Leibniz. It was agreed that Kant was difficult but inescapable, as was Wittgenstein among the moderns.

    Similarly, moral philosophy suffered from being over-shadowed by the preoccupation with the philosophy of language that dictated what were and what were not the central issues in philosophy. As to what became my own interests, political philosophy was rather less reputable than ethics, and the philosophy of the social sciences was yet to reappear from the grave in which Russell and Moore were generally thought to have buried the wretched John Stuart Mill and all his works. When these subjects did reappear, however, it was not by way of a revolution, but by pressing on the envelope of what had seemed respectable topics. The publication of Brian Barry’s Political Argument of 1965 was a crucial step, although the pre-publication drafts of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, which circulated from the early-1960s, made a lot of difference, too.

    This Garden of Eden with all the blessings and deficiencies of the age of innocence was closed in the 1960s. Its great virtue for a student was that most people read the same things and understood the same arguments, however often they then came to different conclusions. When ‘history’ meant mostly English history from King Alfred to the outbreak of World War I, and ‘politics’ meant a little of the history of political thought and a lot of careful descriptions of the formal institutions of Britain, the United States, some European states and the Soviet Union, students read the same books as each other and their tutors, and tutorials were devoted to speculative interpretations of the common reading. Students got much of their education outside the library, lecture room and tutor’s office; but a common core of reading, and a shared experience in the formal setting made informal mutual instruction easier and more coherent.

    Into this cosy situation erupted – in no particular order – the cultural shake-up of the 1960s that saw rocketting divorce rates, the tripling of participation in higher education, the beginning of the long transition from a higher education population of eighteen year old boys to a population of mature students, part-time students, and a preponderance of women students, the politics of Vietnam and the student revolutions of 1968, the revival of Marxism and the first crumbling of the Soviet bloc, along with suddenly rising inflation, and what looked to many people by the middle of the 1970s like the simultaneous collapse of capitalist economies in the west and state socialism in the rest of the world.

    Nobody knows what caused what; the effect was that many forms of consensus were suddenly challenged. With them went the intellectual authority of the educational institutions of the western world. If half the student body is high on the ecstatic hankerings of Herbert Marcuse, it does no good to announce that they are in the strict sense nonsense; that just disenchants the students with their elders and academic philosophy. If the young decide that Cuba holds the key to the transfiguration of political institutions and political authority, it is no use saying that sugar production dropped like a stone under Castro, and that Cuba was one of the few states to support the Soviet suppression of the Czech attempt to institute socialism with a human face.

    For very large numbers of university teachers, the ten years from about 1964 to 1974 were deeply unsettling. For some, it was a liberation; others thought it was a re-run of the barbarian invasions and the end of civilization as they knew it. Happily, this essay need not take sides on that. All we need to acknowledge is that the content of syllabuses, intellectual authority, and forms of instruction were all thrown into the melting pot, and we can no longer rely on a consensus about what is worth studying and why. As usually happens after a revolution, the new world is a curious mixture of things that are absolutely different from what went before and things that are strikingly similar.’

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