Krishnamurthy ’19: ‘Philosophy, politics and economics’ is overrated

In early May, the student-run Journal of Philosophy, Politics & Economics published its inaugural issue. In their foreword to the first volume, the editorial board enthusiastically endorsed “philosophy, politics and economics” — the famous interdisciplinary degree program first offered at Oxford University in the interwar period — writing, “the interdisciplinary program is, at its core, the single most effective tool to analyze modern circumstance as a social scientist.”

I am glad that students at Brown have been able to establish for themselves a medium to express their collective interest in politics, philosophy and economics. Student-run publications offer a special forum for self-directed and experiential learning, and all students should have the opportunity to get involved with them. And, very impressively, the Journal has published contributions from a diverse group of students and a range of important figures, including Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon and Brookings Institution President General John Allen. 

Still, I cannot help but feel that the Journal’s fawning affirmation of Oxford’s “philosophy, politics and economics” degree is ill-considered, lacking a forthright interrogation of the program’s pedagogical utility or its role in the perpetuation of inequality in the United Kingdom. Despite its origins in the gilded halls of a prestigious institution, the PPE degree is not a convenient solution for all of the problems of our time. In fact, it might be the opposite — a stark manifestation of the intellectual self-absorption and elitism that have contributed, in no small part, to the very “ethical, economic and political challenges” decried by the Journal’s editors.

First, it is far from incontrovertible that the PPE program, the Journal’s inspiration, is so worthy of emulation that it must be transplanted onto campuses that do not already offer the degree or related programming. According to the editorial board’s foreword in the inaugural issue, the Journal was established to encourage “the growth in PPE-related academic work on Brown’s campus and, most importantly, to provide young people with a space to debate and put forth academic arguments.” Presumably the true power of PPE lies in its interdisciplinary essence — that students are encouraged, and expected, to regularly and thoughtfully draw connections between the realms of politics, philosophy and economics.

As a practical matter, the liberty of Brown’s open curriculum already affords the opportunity for students to pursue coursework in all three realms. In theory, one could even triple-concentrate in political science (12 requirements), economics (10 requirements) and philosophy (10 requirements) by taking a normal course load of four classes every semester during their time at Brown. 

Then there is the matter of rigor. The editors, to their credit, do acknowledge that “PPE has been criticized at times as an academic experience that produces broad knowledge as opposed to deep knowledge” — but they do not refute this criticism. The PPE degree, at least as it is administered at Oxford, only mandates coursework in all three areas of study during the first undergraduate year. In years 2 and 3, PPE students can select two of the three subjects for further exploration and drop the remaining one. It is also not clear from Oxford’s PPE website if their curriculum encourages students to investigate how the separate strands of the degree interact with one another, or if the onus is on students to uncover those linkages on their own. This distinction matters: If students must pursue these connections of their own volition, then what special intellectual value does the PPE program offer students, who could otherwise take courses in the three areas of study on their own?

In addition to their unquestioning acceptance of PPE’s educational value, the Journal’s editors fail to make any mention of the degree’s effects on public and political life in its place of origin, the United Kingdom. Oxford’s PPE program has left deep, indelible footprints in virtually every dimension of power in British society. As a scathing profile in the New European reads, “(The PPE degree) has shaped the way (British) elites operate, the very machinery of the state and our beliefs about how intellect, expertise and knowledge intersect.” At one point in 2013, four British cabinet members, three members of the opposition’s shadow cabinet and around 30 ministers had studied PPE at Oxford. So have countless journalists at the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Guardian and other prominent news outlets. Broadly, graduates of Oxford and Cambridge, institutions which educate less than 1 percent of the British population, dominate professional occupations in the United Kingdom, constituting 74 percent of the judiciary and 54 percent of journalists. All in all, more prime ministers have graduated with a PPE degree than have been women.

The PPE’s role in shaping the U.K.’s ruling class ought to feature prominently in any honest accounting of the program’s potential contributions to social good. The steady concentration of power in the hands of elites — who share the same educational pedigrees and worldviews rooted in the same readings and lectures  — does not bode well for the preservation of inclusive, liberal institutions. Given the populist origins of Brexit, it’s worth thinking very carefully about the nexus of education and power in modern societies: about who enjoys a smooth ride to power and who gets left on the sidelines. As such, to argue that the “interdisciplinary (PPE) program is, at its core, the single most effective tool to analyze modern circumstance as a social scientist” is to willfully ignore the PPE degree’s complicated, unromantic relationship with modern circumstance. 

To be clear, I have no intention of discrediting the concept of a combined, interdisciplinary approach to politics, philosophy and economics. Nor do I want to minimize the innumerable achievements of all those who have successfully graduated from Oxford’s PPE program and all the other universities — which include Duke, Penn and Yale — that offer similar degrees. And, I admit, the problem of any single institution or degree program developing a stranglehold on a society’s civic and political life is certainly not particular to Oxford, PPE or the United Kingdom. It can very easily be argued that government and media in the United States are dominated by our own, all-American intellectual elite: graduates of Ivy League and other well-endowed institutions with enormously inflated conceptions of their own destinies. Besides, as an American in 2019, I have no right to judge how other countries handle their business or navigate difficult questions about the distribution of power within society.

As I have attempted to show here, however, the student-driven effort to develop a publication devoted to the thematic union of politics, philosophy and economics is not without its own set of complications, ones that warrant serious introspection on the part of the Journal’s editors, contributors and readers. PPE can’t solve all our problems, and we shouldn’t uncritically accept the notion that a degree program particular to an ancient, austere British university — even if it sounds impressive in conversation or on a resume — can make a positive contribution to American academic life and society. 

Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19 can be reached at anuj_krishnamurthy@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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