The perverse case, vigorously made

There was a passing line in this Spectator piece, which otherwise says little of Oxford, that caught my eye over the weekend:

On questions of literature, where Raine could claim more authority, we have some expected material. Don Paterson is done over; Raymond Carver is ingeniously declared to be a less brilliant writer than his editor, Gordon Lish; the wonderful Derek Walcott is savaged. These are all quite entertaining essays— though twice as long as they need be — and are fine examples of what Oxford used to specialise in: the perverse case, vigorously made.

That’s my emphasis. I don’t know anything about the Oxford of old and little, to be honest, about the academic life of Oxford today. But I do study PPE, a course allegedly famous for challenging students to think, so…what do I think? Is the PPE course still, to the extent it ever was, embodied by that neat phrase – the perverse case, vigorously made?

There’s a good prima facie case against this slightly vain assertion. PPE-ists, or at least the ones I know, arrive with firm opinions and leave, three years later, with the same opinions.

Don’t get me wrong – we get smarter over our course, to varying degrees. But that manifests in terms of developing stronger arguments for and a more impressive rhetoric behind those same political positions. The opinions don’t change or, at best, as in my case, they become hopelessly blurred, leaving you to wallow in the centre-ground. Put simply I have yet to encounter a PPE-ist, or any Oxford student for that matter, who matriculated as a leftie and graduated as a Tory – or vice versa.

The perverse case, vigorously made. Actually, if I think about it, we often make the case for perverse conclusions. Mountains have rights. Taxation is theft. Markets always clear. But it’s rare that these conclusions really affect us. In order to be credible so many qualifications have to be added so as the render the conclusion somewhat less perverse than the original headline-grabber suggests.

More to the point, what’s specifically Oxford about taking arguments to their logical extremes in order to test them out? That’s just good scholarship.



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