Reflections on PPE

A recent Guardian long read on the history of PPE—the Philosophy, Politics and Economics degree at Oxford—has made me reflect again on different experiences with the degree. I’ve also read the somewhat unnecessarily detailed “The Poverty of PPE”, written in 1968 by Trevor Pateman. But there are lots of other articles critical of PPE which are useful points of departure.

I have studied Philosophy & Economics as an undergraduate in Germany, at a small, provincial Bavarian university (Bayreuth); and then later I found myself a some-time teacher to Oxford PPE undergraduates. My German course was clearly started as an homage to the enormous success of the Oxford degree, even if curriculum-wise it was far from a copy. (More on that later.) Indeed, PPE is en vogue: it has spawned a variety of copycats across the world, and new programmes continue to crop up. So here are some observations regarding the promise, and shortcomings, of PPE.

PPE In and Outside Oxford

We can start with the course which started it all. Unfortunately, PPE is somewhat of a red herring, as most of the success and criticism of PPE has very little to do with the content of the degree. Instead, 80% of the debate surrounding PPE can be explained through (i) student self-selection, and (ii) the British class system. As such it would be wrong to extrapolate much from PPE at Oxford about the wider merits of the course.

With regard to (i), PPE attracts a certain kind of applicant (cosmopolitan, political, ambitious, accomplished). The characteristics of this group determine, to a large degree, the public image and character of PPE alumni/ae. In comparison, the power of PPE teachers, or the PPE curriculum in general, seem to me limited in “shaping” its students. Even if there is some such shaping, the extremely decentralised nature of teaching and socialising in Oxford means that there really is not the PPE experience, but rather a diversity of such experiences.

With regard to (ii), Oxford (at least on the undergraduate level) plays a part in the larger British class system, in which students from certain schools are pipelined into Oxbridge, and then move on to become part of the political, corporate and finance elite in London. PPE is—justly or unjustly—one of the most prominent of these pipelines. So most criticism of PPE is simply indirect social criticism of this (perceived) pipeline system. In that sense, PPE could as well be art history, or evolutionary biology, or (as it was in the past) Classics: just mentally substitute “the degree wannabe elites study”, and you can understand these criticisms just fine.

There are other aspects of Oxford which make it a special case—the tutorial system, the decentralised organisation of teaching, the unusual examination through finals, the omission of a related Master’s—and these easily obscure what PPE is, or could be, at other universities. In short, paradoxically little can be learned about PPE from the paradigm course that started it.

It’s here that the comparison with Bayreuth comes in usefully. One of the most noteworthy features of the German education system vis-a-vis the British (but also French and American) systems is how little stratified it is. There is simply no university—or set of universities—that uniquely educate the elites.* There is no equivalent of Oxbridge, or the Russell Group, or the Ivy League, or the top Grandes Écoles.

Out of interest, I went through an alphabetical list of Bundestag members. Here are the almae matres of the first twenty university-educated members (highest degrees only):

Hamburg, Göttingen, Augsburg, Berlin (FU), Saarland, Kiel, Freiburg, Washington, Marburg, London, Augsburg, Regensburg, Berlin (FU), Ravensburg, Münster, Mainz, Kiel, München, Tübingen, Hamburg.

Not more of a pattern emerges even on a longer list. That’s not to say that Germany doesn’t have a class system; but at least the system does not express itself as clearly in the education system as it does in other countries. (If you want to nag, you will point out that the relative egalitarianism of German universities comes at the cost of none really shining in international comparison. German universities are often locally world-class in specific fields, but none could hope to compete across the board with the Ivies and Oxbridge.)

So if you study PPE or a PPE-like course in Germany, then much of the sociological context of the Oxford degree is gone. Interestingly, some of the self-selection bias tends to be the same, and here Bayreuth is similar to Oxford: it tends to attract political, ambitious, cosmopolitan, centre-left, (over-)confident extroverts, with a healthy smattering of nerds and non-conformists. Bayreuth students also end up in a similar range of jobs.

Still, you might now think that a kind of fundamental misunderstanding has happened: why copy the elite training programme of some other nation if there is just no sociological context within your own country for the same kind of programme? A small part of the international appeal of PPE-style degrees might indeed rest on trying to bathe in the reputation of its Oxford urtyp, as promising immediate ascendancy to the political elite.

But by and large, the spread of the course can not be explained in this simple way. It is due to the general attraction of the idea behind PPE. The combination of philosophy, politics and economics simply makes sense: they are three fields with natural overlap, yet distinct enough in their methodology to be interesting in combination; they track what many politically and intellectually engaged high school students are curious about; and lastly, they seem like the kind of subjects you would wish your politicians to learn.

* Some universities have adapted the mantle of “elite” for themselves, like the European Business School, but these reflect self-image more than reality. The federal government has also started a funding programme to transform a select number of universities into “Eliteuniversitäten”, so the German university landscape might become more hierarchical over time.

The Promise of PPE

What is the promise of the PPE degree then? At its core, I think, its interdisciplinarity. Here it’s important to point out that almost all of the copycats of the Oxford degree come closer to realising the PPE promise, curriculum-wise, than Oxford itself does. Here a brief excursus into the structure of PPE is necessary. PPE is a three-year subject, divided into a first year of mostly mandatory courses, and a second and third year of a mix of selective and freely chosen courses. Most PPE students, despite the label, do not study all three subjects but drop one after their first year.

The important fact to notice about the organisation of the degree is that the teaching in each of the three fields is offered—with few exceptions—separately by each faculty. So a student in their second year might study, for example, Wittgenstein on the one hand, and “Politics in South Asia” on the other; or they might combine Metaphysics with Econometrics. There are no courses, on the other hand, which aim to integrate these specialist courses.

There are larger institutional reasons for this compartmentalization of teaching. The three parts of the course are organised, largely, by different faculties with little coordination and little to no shared personnel. Reading lists are separate, while exam questions are set by members of each subdiscipline. The reading list and exam questions in ethics and political philosophy—the courses I’m most familiar with teaching—stay quite rigidly within the narrow confines of philosophy.

In short, Oxford PPE provides you with a bunch of unconnected puzzle pieces from different fields (normally two, not three), and it is left to students to try to assemble them into something meaningful. For example, I took several courses which tackled the philosophy of economics at Bayreuth. Philosophy of economics naturally sits at the intersection of the two fields, being general reflection on the methodology, nature and limits of economics. In Oxford, the course does not exist as an independent option; there is a subsection in the optional (and seldomly taken) “Philosophy of Science and Social Science” paper tackling it, but this part of the faculty reading list gives the distinct impression that it has not been updated for a decade. The list of courses offered in philosophy also misses a number of applied options which would naturally complement a PPE course, like business ethics, political ethics, public policy, or applied ethics.

PPE allows for some overlap between philosophy and politics—through “Theory of Politics” (really political philosophy), and some historical options on “Political Thought”. But it is noteworthy that all these are optional, and you can complete a PPE course without ever having seriously thought about the philosophical foundations of politics.

If you look at most other PPE-style courses which have been modelled after the Oxford original, you will find that they are much better integrated, at least in terms of curriculum. My undergraduate, for example, included courses like “Ethical and Economic Aspects of International Development”, “Introduction to Liberalism” (taught by an economist), and “Philosophy and Public Policy”. The theme continues across other universities. PPE third-years at the University of Manchester, for example, are required to take an interdisciplinary course on “Topics in PPE”; the LSE runs a required “PPE Interdisciplinary Research Seminar” for its undergraduates; the University of Warwick has courses on “Principles of Political Economy” which combine two of the three subjects each; UNC offers a combined “Capstone Seminar”; students in the PPE minor at Virginia Tech do a cross-listed “Gateway Course”; and so on. At least on paper, these universities have understood that the promise of PPE lies in integrating its subdisciplines.

It’s hard to judge from afar how much these different models of integration succeed in practice. As far as my Bayreuth undergraduate was concerned, integration was not always fully successful. That, I think, is simply due to the fact that interdisciplinary teaching and curriculum design are hard. You need teachers who feel confident in both; constructing a balanced reading list which allows fruitful overlap without diluting either field takes significant amounts of time; and lastly, you need institutional structures that encourage crossing faculty lines.

Four Criticisms

So PPE, if done right, is more than just munching three different disciplines together. But let’s move back to the bigger question, the promise of combining them. There are some genuine charges one might level against the idea and structure of a PPE-style degree. The most common four I’ve heard are the following,

  1. PPE is an easy, superficial degree that fails to convey meaningful expertise—instead, it “churns out world-class bullshitters”, experts in nothing who paper over their lack of knowledge with confident but empty rhetoric;
  2. PPE is not broad enough, and fails significantly short of the ideal of true humanistic education—it only teaches a narrow range of topics which are unified by a reductive mind-set overly focussed on economic and political factors, while failing to convey a deeper psychological, historical, anthropological, social and cultural understanding of society;
  3. PPE teaches or represents an elitist mind-set which tends towards technocratic, non-democratic political solution—it inclines towards a simplistic view “that governing is managing”, while being blind towards the real political issues like race and class;
  4. PPE is ideologically biased—depending on your view, it either turns people into raving lefties or reactionary neoliberals. (I wish to add lunatic utilitarian to the list.)

That not all these criticism can be true can already be seen by the fact that they are somewhat mutually incompatible. For example, either objection (1) is right, and PPE is too broad and generalist, or objection (2) is right, and it is unduly narrow. It is hard to imagine how both could be right. The same goes for criticisms (3) and (4)—you’ll have to decide at least which of these two you which to level.

Let’s start with criticism (1), then. Again, I think that most of this criticism has to do with the peculiarities of the British class system. It might well be right that many high-profile PPE alumni/ae are “world-class bullshitters”, but this, I believe, has to do with any number of features of the British political system, and very little with PPE as such. (If anything turns Oxford students into superficial braggarts, it’s more likely to be the Oxford Union than anything else.)

Admittedly, I’ve also heard versions of this charge levelled at the German degree, so it’s worth tackling. It is clear that dividing one’s attention across two (or three) subjects will lead to less specialist knowledge than full-time focus on one. This is almost axiomatically true. But here we should simply question the background assumption, namely that highly specialist knowledge presents the gold standard by which we should assess a university education. This background assumption is undeniably true of more vocational degrees—if you had the choice to be operated on by a doctor purely trained in medicine, and a “philosophy and medicine” student, you will normally want the former.

However, you would make a mistake if you transposed that analogy into the political, or economic, or social realm. Sure, there are some societal problems for which we wish to have highly trained specialists (e.g., setting the national interest rate, or mathematical aspects of certain finance problems). But for most social problems, it is not at all clear why someone purely trained as an economist, or purely trained as a philosopher, would enjoy an advantage.

Indeed, there are good reasons from within these disciplines two combine them, and to think that an interdisciplinary approach is superior. I’ll speak to the combination of philosophy and economics which I know best. On the side of philosophy, modern political philosophers have time and time again stressed the need for a “realistic”, “applied” political philosophy, one that transcends abstract principles and takes into account the nature of real-life societies and economies. PPE is not the only degree that prepares you for that kind of work, but it is certainly one. The advantages of combining economics with philosophy are the flipside of these: having a general sense of the limitations of science, and the wider set of moral and political values relevant to decision-making, avoid the shortcomings that mere focus on economic models can bring.

On to the opposite criticism (2), that PPE isn’t broad enough. What might be missing in the degree? A number of programmes—e.g., Richmond, Arizona, Tel Aviv—complement PPE with law, such that it becomes PPEL. Trinity College Dublin instead adds sociology into the mix for PPES. The Frankfurt School of Finance and Management subtracts Politics, and predictably adds Management for MPE, while Carnegie Mellon offers a major in “Ethics, History & Public Policy”.

All of these strike me as plausible combinations, but none of these extensions are such that PPE without it would be intellectually impoverished. (As a matter of fact, I did not think that politics was missing from the P&E I studied.) Adding management, law or finance into PPE turns the course into a slightly more vocational course, but the relevant qualifications can still be obtained through a more specialised Master.

In general, once you start adding some other subject—sociology, history, culture studies—to PPE the case for including any of them strikes me as equally strong. That is, whatever PPE lacks in a grounding in history, it also seems to lack in sociology, and so on. So if we follow this line of argument consistently, we will end up with a letter soup degree—PPESHCLM—which we could just as well call “Humanities” or “Social Science” or some such. Nothing speaks against such degrees—though I am sceptical of degrees trying to teach virtually everything—but it’s simply a different degree which no longer meaningfully resembles PPE.

Onwards to the more ideological critiques (3) and (4). There are admittedly is some ideological impact that we should expect PPE to have. For example, most academic philosophers I know are vegetarians of some form, and most believe that justice transcends borders—i.e., that there are some duties of justice beyond the nation states. In this respect, academic philosophers on statistical average have significantly different opinions to non-philosophers. Similarly, academic economists are much more likely than laymen to believe in the advantages of free markets, especially reducing obstacles to international free trade. (Evidence regarding the economists—non-economists split is assembled in Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter.)

On this basis—even putting self-selection biases aside—it is natural that we find some views to be disproportionately common amongst PPEists. (A recent example is effective altruism, which seems to flourish in PPE environments.) This effect is not that special; in much the same way, studying anthropology, or literature, or evolutionary biology will transform aspects of one’s ideological view. But these effects do not strike me as outsized—they can hardly be described as harmful or extreme, unless you believe that thinking in certain economic or philosophic categories is already mistaken all by itself.

There is something true in the vicinity of the ideological critique, of course. First, scholars in the PPE fields, in both substance and style, nowadays tend to cluster in a relatively narrow range of centre to centre-left views. Academic debate tends to be more technical, issues tend to be focussed in scope and compartmentalize into a series of sub-sub-disciplines, and large ideological battles are generally rare. It’s hard to say why that is—it strikes me that these developments reflect both developments inside and outside academia. At any rate, it does not seem a phenomenon specific to PPE.

Second, I have sometimes heard the criticism that the two major fields behind PE—philosophy and economics—are one-sided in their perspective and methodology, at least as far as teaching is concerned. Analytic philosophy, which normally dominates in PPE programmes, tends to focus on a thin sliver of topics and types of arguments; and economics, so the argument goes, is similarly focussed on a few dominant models and methods, leaving little space for “heterodox” approaches.

These are well-known criticisms that come up from time to time, though I think they tend to significantly underestimate the diversity one can find even within “orthodox” analytic philosophy and “orthodox” micro/macroeconomics. At any rate, we’re here entering into rather deep debates how philosophy and/or economics should be conducted, and what one thinks about the general state of these fields. (For the record, I am optimistic: I think that the orthodoxy is the orthodoxy for justified reasons.)

Many PPE students I know form reading groups on “pluralistic” or “heterodox” economics at some point of their studies, or start roaming the bookshelves for Marxism or German Idealism, or some such—in short, anything which seems to offer reprieve from the perceived shackles of the curriculum. I think this is no accident: exposure to philosophy is precisely what prepares you to ask critical questions about the discipline you learn. So PPE has the internal resources to balance some of the shortcomings of its subdisciplines, resources which a pure economics degree does not. (Again, this does depend on allowing the disciplines to actually mingle.) I have met many economics students who felt a vague feeling of dissatisfaction with their field, without the resources to articulate it clearly.

Lastly, it seems that much of this issue depends on how PPE is actually taught and approached. There are less and more dogmatic ways to teach each of the subdisciplines; the best way to teach them leaves room for (or at least mentions) deviations from the mainstream, and it does not exaggerate the epistemic virtues of orthodoxy.

In short, these criticisms are at best local criticisms of how this or that programme is run; they hardly present a fundamental problem for PPE. We should expect that PPE has some effects on the mind-set of its students—there is an economic, and a philosophical, and a political way to think about problems after all—but these effects are mostly ideologically neutral, and compatible with a wide range of positions on the political spectrum. The rest, I presume, can again be explained sociologically through self-selection effects.

The Future of PPE

I have no big pronouncements to make on the future of PPE. The main point is that much of the promise of PPE depends on its particular implementation—that is, on the particulars of curriculum design, the reading list of particular courses, the willingness and competence of particular teachers to cross faculty lines, etc. These will make all the difference to the degree to which PPE fulfils its promise, or whether it does not.

The other message is that the power of PPE should not be overestimated, as the power of university on its students should not generally be overestimated. The forces moving PPE in Oxford, in particular, have little to do with the contents of the course. In other words, whatever your dissatisfaction with British political elites, PPE is likely to have contributed a small bit at most.

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