PPE Problems

Nick Cohen is among the dozen or so columnists I never like to miss. He doesn’t sit on the fence and the anger in his writing always bubbles up throughout the prose.

Cohen is right to take aim at PPE – 35 MPs studied the course at Oxford – and he only misses in a couple of places, I think.

He lands on the key point. “Ambitious young men and women now believe they must study politics at Oxford if they want to get on in politics,” he writes. That is worth spelling out.

I would guess that few, if any of our parliamentarian PPE-ists decided any later in life than 17 that they wished to enter the Commons one day. Arguably that amount of precocious ambition does make for bad politicians but, at worst, the course merely nurtures the hubristic sense of destiny PPE undergraduates arrive with.

Both the great merit and tragedy of PPE lies in the self-conscious way it goes for breadth rather than depth. One term I took the ‘Ethics’ paper. Kant in a week; the Aristotelians in two – that sort of thing. I was eventually examined in seven other papers, all of which haughtily breeze through their respective disciplines in terrific haste.

I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It worked for me.

The problem, Cohen (a PPE alumnus) says, is that “banging out ideas with barely a moment’s thought is exactly what PPE students do…[resulting in] world-class bullshitters.”

Fair enough. But frankly my Kantian ruminations would barely have been more informed had we allocated eight weeks to the topic rather than one. I mean it’s Kant for Christ’s sake. Nor am I convinced that my undergraduate English and History colleagues had an intellectual experience any more profound than my own.

It seems to me, quite simply, that “banging out ideas with barely a moment’s thought is exactly what PPE students do.” So for every Cameron, Miliband or Mandelson whose name is spat out as prima facie evidence against PPE, I would return fire with an Osborne (Modern History), May (Geography) or Clegg (Arch&Anth).

“Above all, the flightiness of PPE encourages puppeteer politicians, who stand above their society pulling the strings, rather than men and women who represent solid interests within it.”

Not convinced. If you do believe this critique of our political elite, then an explanation more sophisticated than an elucidation of PPE’s flaws is probably required.

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.