An addition to the Quad since my day
Max Beerbohm, the writer and caricaturist (Merton College, Oxford 1890-93) used to explain himself by saying,
I was a modest, good-natured boy. It is Oxford that has made me insufferable.It was no small claim, considering Beerbohm was mainly known as a wit and a dandy, and left without finishing his course.
Had he only wandered into town a quarter century earlier, he'd have been a perfect PPEist.
Now about to turn 100, the Honours School of Philosophy, Politics & Economics was known, when I went up to Mansfield College in 1978, as "the American degree." Everyone did it. We all planned to come home and do great, good things.
Master of my immediate surroundings, 1979
I shiver imagining a schematic of the way my mind was wired and rewired through three degrees in a nine-year sprint through the anti-establishment commune of St Andrews Presbyterian College (now the grander- and more timid, less-engaged St Andrews University); the uber-establishment halls of Oxford; and, finally, the logic-chopping on steroids that was law school.
And as I drift into my dotage, I draw on all that intellectual horsepower to post 3500-word essays on whatever strikes my fancy in social media to delight or annoy tens of people.
Which brings me to this article in The Guardian (and when's the last time you saw a 5800-word article in an American newspaper?).
It explains how, I, too, became insufferable. Here's some excerpts:
But Oxford PPE is more than a factory for politicians and the people who judge them for a living. It also gives many of these public figures a shared outlook: confident, internationalist, intellectually flexible, and above all sure that small groups of supposedly well-educated, rational people, such as themselves, can and should improve Britain and the wider world. The course has also been taken by many foreign leaders-in-the-making, among them Bill Clinton, Benazir Bhutto, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the Australian prime ministers Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke. An Oxford PPE degree has become a global status symbol of academic achievement and worldly potential.
The Labour peer and thinker Maurice Glasman, who studied modern history at Cambridge, says: “PPE combines the status of an elite university degree – PPE is the ultimate form of being good at school – with the stamp of a vocational course. It is perfect training for cabinet membership, and it gives you a view of life. It is a very profound cultural form.”
...The Labour peer Stewart Wood, a former adviser to Ed Miliband, took the degree in the 1980s, taught politics at Oxford between 1995 and 2010, and still runs occasional seminars there for PPE students. “It does still feel like a course for people who are going to run the Raj in 1936,” he says. “Vast reading every week; writing essays that synthesise and summarise – these are the skills of a civil servant in the late British empire. In the politics part of PPE, you can go three years without discussing a single contemporary public policy issue. There’s too much about the past, about political institutions, and not enough about populism or social movements.”
The very structure of the course, Wood believes, leaves many PPE graduates with “a centrist bias”. “You cover so much material that most students think, mistakenly, that the only way to do it justice is to take a centre position. And they conclude, again mistakenly, that to do well in the exams you have to avoid being an outlier. They think if you know a bit of everything, you’ll never be found out.”
At Oxford, then as now, classics was reverently called “Greats”; so the advocates of what would become PPE first called their concept “Greats without Greek”, then “Modern Greats”. “Almost always in Oxford,” says the economist Andrew Graham, who studied Oxford PPE in the 1960s, was a tutor there until 1997, and remains a prominent advocate for the degree, “the more you can make it look as if what you’re proposing has been implicit in Oxford life all along, the more you can do quite radical things”.
...For all three years of the course, they worked on all three subjects: frantically composing essays to present at multiple weekly tutorials, taking frequent rounds of exams, and attempting to understand topics from “British Constitutional and Political History Since 1760” to the economic thought of Adam Smith and the philosophy of Aristotle. In 1970, the PPE syllabus was finally relaxed a little, allowing students to drop one subject at the end of the first year. Most do, but a high-status minority do not. And for both groups, the diffuse character of the course persists: “When I questioned one of my dons about this,” says Ricken Patel, who studied PPE at Oxford from 1996 to 1999, before co-founding the global online activist network Avaaz, “he said, ‘You are sinking deep boreholes into vast terrain. We teach you how to dig. It’s up to you to connect those boreholes.’”
...During the 1960s, a rebellion began against the degree that is the forgotten – and more thoughtful – precursor to the anti-PPE mood of today. The troublemaking leftwing writer Tariq Ali was part of it. After enduring the course from 1963 to 1966, he bet a friend that he could bring up the Vietnam war in all his final exam papers. “In economics,” Ali remembers, “one of the questions was: ‘Which is the cheapest form of subsidised transport in the world?’ And I put, ‘The American helicopter service from Saigon to the jungle, which is totally free. The only problem is that occasionally it’s a one-way trip!’”
He hoped the examiners would fail him, thus exposing the course’s conservatism. But the dons were too canny, or too liberal. They gave him a Third.
...The most potent product of this ferment, part of a wider questioning of British university degrees, was a long polemic, The Poverty of PPE, published in the great revolutionary year of 1968. The title was a reference to a book by Karl Marx, whom many felt the course covered inadequately, and the final text was written by Trevor Pateman, an astringent leftwinger who had just received an outstanding First. Oxford PPE, he wrote, “gives no training in scholarship, only refining to a high degree of perfection the ability to write short dilettantish essays on the basis of very little knowledge: ideal training for the social engineer”.
...Oxford PPE can be a stubborn, elusive enemy. At the university, it is both everywhere and nowhere. “PPEists are ubiquitous,” says the third-year student. “Nearly every student society will have PPEists on its committee. PPEists are generally quite outgoing, good at talking, good at flitting from one thing to another.” Students of more rigidly-timetabled Oxford degrees, such as the sciences, have traditionally considered PPE a bit lightweight. In a women’s toilet cubicle in one of the university libraries, there used to be graffiti above the toilet roll: “PPE degree. Please take one...”
Let slip the mind's winged messengers...