I remember very vividly the first time I mentioned that I was applying to study PPE. Beyond the expected refrain of “so you want to become Prime Minister,” I distinctly recall a genuine uneasiness to voice those three letters. An uneasiness to mention the three letters with a stranglehold on public life, with its alumni peppered throughout news studios, boardrooms and, of course, the cabinet. An uneasiness to mention the three letters which constitute Oxford’s most well-known degree, its most often maligned degree. Three letters with a deserved and at times troubling reputation, yet one which to my mind masks a unique history and an immensely rewarding experience to its students.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Philosophy, Politics and Economics, or ‘Modern Greats,’ as it was then known, dates from the 1920s, when it was established as an alternative to ‘Greats,’ which we now know as Classics. True to form, the university designed the degree as a pathway to the civil service, and among its first graduates was Harold Wilson. Through the interdisciplinary study of the elements of modern society, the degree was designed to equip its graduates with the means to shape it.
Whilst PPE has over the years amassed an undoubtedly impressive array of alumni, including numerous politicians, journalists and even an Oscar-winning director, it has of course attracted a distasteful reputation. “Is PPE a passport to power, or the ultimate blagger’s degree?” asked The Guardian in 2013. The Spectator accused it of creating a “robotic governing class”. The message is simple: PPE provides a world-class education in one thing alone – winging it.
Alongside these flippant assertions, which let’s face it, boil down to the playground politics of “my degree’s harder than yours,” come the more substantive criticisms (they come just in time for me to avoid a barrage of indignant comments from my scientist friends). PPE encapsulates the stuffy privilege of the governing elite, it is said. Its students capture the union, the newspapers and student politics as testing grounds for the House of Commons, the BBC and the Square Mile. They represent everything that is wrong with British social mobility, a pipeline from public school to public life.
I do not deny that there is some merit to these critiques. A quick glance at a union debate lineup or at the committees of many Oxford societies confirms the thesis that PPEists are liable to dominate student life. I do not deny that, as a middle-class southerner with a grammar school education, I hardly refute the typical image of an Oxford PPEist. What I do deny, however, is that one can write off an entire degree, and the thousands who have taken it, on the basis of a few prominent figures and a few snappy articles in the London press.
The reality is that for the vast majority of students, reading PPE is an experience little different to reading for any other Oxford degree. It suffers from the same predictable array of concerns: an excessive workload which encourages students to prepare for tutorials rather than to understand the material, discontinuity of teaching between colleges and departments, and reading lists which too often fail to reflect the diversity of those who shape the subject. These criticisms are hardly fresh and unfortunately are likely to be levelled at Oxford degrees of all stripes for the foreseeable future.
But amongst the familiar arsenal of withering criticism there are reasons to be hopeful. Due in large part to its interdisciplinary nature, and perhaps counterintuitively, PPE is a degree of remarkable diversity. For a start, the diversity of content is remarkable. I will almost certainly have peers in my second and third years with whom I have no course in common, such is the freedom of choice PPE grants me. The choice is staggering, with options ranging from the Politics of China to Environmental Economics and the Philosophy of Wittgenstein. No two PPE degrees are the same.
What’s more, no two PPEists are the same. Oxford is of course an international institution, but studying PPE really brings that home, so to speak. Less than half of the PPE cohort at my college lives in the UK, and students and tutors represent not only a wide variety of nationalities but an array of unique perspectives. As a degree with no specific subject requirements, applicants are not disadvantaged for an eclectic academic background, or for having been unable to study Latin, for example. PPE is hardly the preserve of the British public school system.
And finally, no two PPE graduates are the same. Particularly through the Economics and Politics courses, I have already been exposed to quantitative skills of obvious practical use in an enormous field of careers. The recent addition of a Q-Step programme, although stating this might not make me the most popular amongst my fellow PPEists, is clearly of immense practical use to careers not only in political science but in almost any field of academic research. And philosophy is quite fun.
With the benefit of hindsight, that nervousness I once felt when mentioning those three letters appears completely unfounded. Whilst of course the occasional union hack or the odd…revelation about a particular alumnus may remind us of a distasteful side to the course which undoubtedly exists, I am constantly reminded by those around me of just how unrepresentative that image is. I am constantly reminded of the diverse network of students characterized as much by their intriguing perspectives and engagement with their subject as by their occasional forays into union politics.
The truth is that PPE isn’t a blagger’s degree, or a passport to power. It’s just another Oxford degree.