In The Econocracy, Joe Earle, Cahal Moran and Zach Ward-Perkins accuse economics degrees of imparting into their victims narrow technical skills and rote-learning whilst discouraging critical thinking. One solution to this would be for economics to be part of a multi-disciplinary degree, so that students gain a wider skill set.
And yet the most prominent of these degrees – Oxford’s PPE – is also under attack, as Andy Beckett describes.
There’s nothing new about such attacks: they are as old as the degree itself. But they are, nevertheless, wrong.
For one thing, there’s much to be said for broader degrees. As journalists so often demonstrate, there is a shortage of people who can both write and add up: Oxford’s economics has, for good and ill, become more mathematical since my day.
Of course, breadth comes at the expense of depth – though as The Econocracy reminds us, depth has its drawbacks too. But a first degree should be the start of one’s education, not the end*. I followed my PPE with a masters in economics and then on-the-job training. I learnt the detail of economic statistics in my first job: back in the 80s and 90s there was money to be made from knowing when seasonal adjustments weren’t reliable. Many PPEists take a similar route. PPE, which demands the ability to absorb a lot of ideas very quickly, is good preparation for this later learning.
And I don’t get the allegation that PPE produces a particular mindset. I know I might be guilty of ingroup bias here, but I don’t see that people like Seamus Milne, David Cameron, John Gray, Paul Johnson, Mark Reckless and Tim Harford (to name a few) have much of a common ideology.
Andy Beckett says that PPEists are “confident, internationalist [and] intellectually flexible”. But any decent education should produce such people. It should also produce people who are out-of-touch with bigots, fanatics and philistines. The fact that Farage talks of “PPE bollocks” should be worn as a badge of honour.
Here, though, we must distinguish between what PPE produces and what it reveals. There’s a certain type of person who does PPE: clever, hard-working and ambitious (entry onto the course is very competitive – more so than for, say, geography). And guess what: clever, hard-working and ambitious people who are interested in politics will disproportionately become prominent politicians.
What look like the faults of PPE might therefore instead be the faults of the sort of people who choose to do PPE at Oxford.
In this context, critics of PPE are missing a big thing: class. The vices they rightly identify have less to do with PPE and are more the product of our class system.
It is the case that some PPEists are and have been overconfident about their abilities. But is this really due to PPE? I suspect instead that it’s because many PPEists – though no more than other Oxford students – come from posh backgrounds. And it’s poshness that produces overconfidence. David Cameron and Toby Young are arrogant arseholes, but it probably wasn’t PPE that made them so.
Equally, the claim that the ruling class have lost touch with “ordinary voters” has less to do with PPE and more to do with the fact that that class has been drawn from a narrow social circle. And increasing class divisions - such as the decline of unions and rise of managerialism – have widened the gap between rulers and ruled.
Even more importantly, the backlash against “elites” isn’t motivated by popular discontent with the PPE syllabus. Its rooted in the stagnation of real incomes caused by secular stagnation and the financial crisis.
It is capitalism that has failed, not PPE. In distracting us from this fact, critics of PPE are not just wrong but reactionary.