I missed this article when it appeared in 2017, but I’ve just caught up with it thanks to the Guardian’s excellent Audio Long Read podcast.
Last year marked the centenary of PPE—not personal protective equipment, but the Oxford undergraduate concentration in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. As the headline of Andy Beckett’s story puts it, this is the “degree that runs Britain,” the university education of the UK’s political establishment.
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.
In Beckett’s telling, PPE’s history embodies the paradox or tragedy of western social democracy since the early twentieth century: What began in egalitarianism and emergency reform, in the wake of World War I and its attendant revolutions, became the province of a complacent rationalist-technocratic elite.
From the start, for some ambitious students, Oxford PPE became a base for political adventures as much as a degree. Hugh Gaitskell arrived at the university in 1924, a public schoolboy with no strong ideological views. There he fell under the spell of GDH Cole, an intense young economics tutor and socialist – the first of many such PPE dons – who was ‘talked about’, Gaitskell wrote excitedly later, ‘as a possible leader of a British revolution’. …
Yet during the postwar years, PPE gradually lost its radicalism. … By the late 1960s, despite the decade’s global explosion of protest politics, PPE was still focused on more conventional, sometimes insular topics. ‘The economics was apolitical,’ [Hilary] Wainwright remembers, ‘questions of inequality were not addressed. In politics, the endless tutorials seemed so unrelated to the crises that were going on. PPE had become a technical course in how to govern.’
Today, of course, PPE is the quintessential training for an elite that many observers consider moribund and insular in an age of global reactionary populism, hyperconcentrated capital, and institutional failure.
It seems to me that Andy Beckett’s essay offers a number of interesting points for American educators today to reflect upon. Many of us pride ourselves on educating “future leaders,” or something similar, and offer an expensive education to a relatively small section of U.S. society while also espousing egalitarian values. The history of PPE suggests what may come of such a paradox, for better or for worse.
The essay is especially interesting when we consider the nature of PPE as a course of undergraduate study:
‘PPE thrives,’ says [David] Willetts, a former education minister who is writing a book about universities, ‘because a problem of English education is too much specialisation too soon, whereas PPE is much closer to the prestigious degrees for generalists available in the United States.’
You can read the full story here, or you can listen to a narrator reading it—along with a new audio introduction by the author, who wryly observes that Oxford’s PPE might be relevant to Britain’s failures with respect to medical PPE during the current pandemic.