A Century of PPE (the Other One)

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.

The Political Consciousness of the Teachers Who Made Black History Month

The creation of Negro History Week did not occur in a vacuum. It reflected a continuum of consciousness among Black educators, channeling an intellectual and political tradition long practiced in the private spaces of their classrooms. This class of teachers placed the needs of their students above protocols imposed by white school leaders. …

[T]hese educators insisted on the importance of providing students with cultural armor to repudiate the racial myths reflected in the nation’s laws, social policies, and American curriculum.

—Jarvis R. Givens, “The Important Political History of Black History Month”

Tell Me About Your History Classes

I would like to hear your thoughts.

In these unsettled times, one of my ongoing long-term activities is a book project related to teaching. If it works out, the book I’m developing may help teachers overcome some of the particular challenges of presenting history in ways that students (in secondary school and college) find engaging and intellectually satisfying. It’s still a bit early to get more specific than that because I would like your help making sure this project is relevant to students.

As part of my early background research, I’m hoping to collect comments from adults who have taken history and social studies classes at some point in their lives. Over the years, I’ve spoken informally with a lot of people who have definite opinions about the history they had in school or college. Now I would like to collect some of those opinions more systematically.

I want to know what your experiences were like, what you think your teachers did well or poorly, and how things could have gone better. Maybe you had great experiences; maybe you had terrible experiences; maybe your experiences were neutral or mixed. I want to hear your thoughts in all of these cases!

If you’d like to help me out, please consider responding to this brief questionnaire. (The link will take you to a Google form.)

Please answer as many or as few of the questions as seem relevant to you. This is an opportunity for you to talk about your experiences, not a scientific survey. Your thoughts can be completely anonymous if you wish, too.

Thank you for your contribution to this project! And please consider circulating the link to the questionnaire among other people you think might enjoy participating.

“Many Students Are Now Taught in School to Hate Their Own Country”

I have been reluctant to comment on the “1776 Report.”

If you aren’t familiar with it, this is a document that Donald Trump’s White House published early this week. Signed by the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission—a panel Trump created to promote “patriotic education,” which was given its name in direct criticism of the New York Times’s “1619 Project”—it drew predictable outrage from academic historians.

I wasn’t sure I had anything useful to add to the conversation about it, especially considering that Joe Biden took office only two days later, rendering the “1776 Report” a dead letter. Biden disbanded the 1776 Commission on Wednesday afternoon with his first executive order. (The “1776 Report” was archived as a matter of routine when the new administration took office. It is available in the National Archives’ copy of the Trump presidential website.)

However, some conservative activists seem to be rallying around the “1776 Report” even now. And historians’ responses to the text are unlikely to persuade most American conservatives that anything is wrong with it. In any case, the controversy isn’t really about United States history as such. (I mean, it is, but that’s not why it matters.)

Fundamentally, the “1776 Report” is about America’s history teachers and how they do their work.

When Donald Trump signed the executive order creating the 1776 Commission, he asserted that “many students are now taught in school to hate their own country.” That incendiary statement is the heart of the controversy over the “1776 Report.”

I do have some things to say about that.

On a reasonably objective reading, there are three fundamental problems with the way the 1776 Commission went about its work, plus a major problem with its claims about what American students learn in school. Let me describe these problems one by one.

Continue reading ““Many Students Are Now Taught in School to Hate Their Own Country””

“There Was a Shining Moment”

A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle [I and others have been waging in America]. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war. …

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, ‘What about Vietnam?’ They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. …

Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’ It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that ‘America will be’ are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land. …

If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

—Martin Luther King Jr., “Beyond Vietnam,” April 4, 1967

For context, see Christina Knight, “Martin Luther King’s Most Controversial Speech.” A recording of the address, which was given at Riverside Church in New York, may be heard here:

Land of Many Voices: Teaching a Truer National Story

Last weekend, in my response to Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, I focused on what I think Wilfred McClay got wrong about teaching U.S. history. I wrote that McClay’s version of an American nation-narrative lacks “a sense of real stakes, of divergent possibilities, of the weight of choices and conflicts in their own moments” because it shies away from conflict.

Land of Hope does not want its major American protagonists to have been disastrously, avoidably, mulishly wrong—they can have been badly mistaken, but they must have meant well. It apparently wants history’s apparent losers to have been inevitable victims, doomed by forces beyond anyone’s control or by paradoxes with no way out, rather than to have been acted upon by other people who made choices that could have been made differently, choices against which the oppressed protested and fought at the time. And it does not want national reform to have come through vicious struggles for power.

That last desire, I think, helps explain Wilfred McClay’s strident criticism of the “1619 Project” in other venues, despite the deeply patriotic and humane spirit it shows. The 1619 Project asserted not that America is irredeemably corrupt, as some of its critics seem to think it did, but that everything good about America has come through struggle—specifically, struggle by people who don’t play a very active role in Land of Hope. “Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans,” Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote, “our democracy today would most likely look very different—it might not be a democracy at all.” That is a contingency Land of Hope cannot seem to face.

The fear of contingency thwarts Land of Hope’s stated purpose of giving students an inspiring and coherent national narrative. Stories without meaningful conflict, without the possibility of different outcomes, are lifeless to everyone except perhaps those who identify most strongly with the actual outcomes. Worse, they are also ahistorical, in the sense that most academically trained historians believe contingency is a core concept of their discipline.

Yet I strongly sympathize with McClay’s goal of producing a student-friendly history of the United States that not only holds together as a story, but also provokes sustained reflection on normative American civic values. I often have been critical of academic training in history that does not teach instructors how to build narratives in the classroom.

I would even say that McClay’s narrative voice is often a voice I recognize in myself. We are both unabashed moralists, at the end of the day, committed to the idea that studying American history can make people better citizens. And frankly, I am quite conservative in temperament; there’s something in the book’s temperature, as it were, that I find comfortable—an inclination to be patient with flawed institutions, perhaps, and a conviction that it is as important to shore up valuable aspects of existing American life as it is to fight for reform.

So what is my alternative to McClay’s approach? How do I think a “great American story” can be told better? How, in fact, do I try to tell such a story in the classroom?

Continue reading “Land of Many Voices: Teaching a Truer National Story”

An America Where Everyone Meant Well

At the U.S. Intellectual History Blog, I have a post today about Wilfred McClay’s 2019 United States history survey textbook Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, along with the teacher’s guide co-written by John McBride. My essay is a companion to a more thorough review by Thomas D. Mackie last week.

We wrote our responses independently, but Mackie and I came to similar conclusions about what the book does right, what’s missing from its picture of U.S. history, and what we find strange about its understanding of the history teacher’s job.

The question my response poses, though not in these words, is this: Why do McClay and some other historians seem to think we are “condescend[ing] toward the past” when we teach history as if people made choices, they could have made different choices, others disagreed with their choices at the time, and their choices mattered?

National Greatness Is a Moving Target

It is this appreciation for change and multiple perspectives that makes the U.S. history classroom a poor place to inculcate or beat back patriotism. ‘How great are we?’ is simply not the question history seeks to answer. ‘How did we get here?’ is closer to the mark.

The point of history is not to list all the good things or bad things that have happened, nor to strike some desired balance between them. It’s to understand origins, persistence and change. We teach it because we hope that knowing how slavery ended or the Second World War began will equip students to think intelligently about the present. History helps them to see why and by whom their world was built. It shows them how visions have had consequences — sometimes far-reaching, sometimes unintended. It gives them the intellectual tools to act on their society: a complex, dynamic place that is theirs to change or conserve.

The aim of history class isn’t to get students to love or loathe their country. It’s to prepare them to live in it.

Daniel Immerwahr, “History Isn’t Just for Patriots,” Washington Post, Dec. 23, 2020

Human Seriousness

Cover of 'Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life,' by Zena Hitz

Free adults who undertake sustained and serious inquiry are not made from scratch—they are cultivated on trust. Education begins from the assumption that students are capable of taking responsibility for their own learning and that they are naturally motivated, even driven from within to pursue fundamental questions. That assumption is based on nothing other than the simple humanity of the student and the student’s free choice to take up an education.

It is a commonplace of the theory of human excellence, going back at least to Aristotle, that virtues are learned by imitation. If we wish to promote the virtue of seriousness in young people, to pass on free inquiry, to lead students into the depths where real insight and understanding take place, we must first cultivate ourselves. We should remind ourselves of the human questions that once gripped us. We should reconsider our work, our choices, the broad scope of our lives in light of those questions. We must form the community of equals that human seriousness makes possible, and invite our students to join us.

—Zena Hitz, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton University Press, 2020), 196-197