Wednesday, 1 September 2010

PPE and the British Political Class

A lovely story over at the BBC today runs to the effect that taking a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford is something of a requirement for political leaders here in the UK. The evidence cited for this claim is that six members of the current cabinet did so as did three of the current candidates for leadership of the Labour Party along with four previous cabinet members not running in the race. A second strand of evidence is to the effect that of the six hundred or so current members of parliament there are 35 who studied the course and that 2 previous Prime Ministers took it.

Initially this evidence looks impressive though what it shows is less than it seems. It is not in itself news that many members of parliament, of all parties, took degrees at Oxford or that the general political class have mainly studied humanities and social science courses rather than the "vocational" ones they tend to recommend for everyone else and which themselves have less economic rationale than they tend to claim. It is also not discussed in the BBC story which options the politicians cited stay with since it is necessary on the course to drop one of the three options at the end of the first year. This would have been interesting to have some sense of. Do they drop economics as seemed to be normal when I taught on this course and could this help to explain a number of poor government decisions? Do they drop philosophy, something which might explain the poor political theories that abound amongst politicians? Or would they even - gasp!- drop politics?

Fun aside, the story has produced some predictable reactions such as bemoaning the lack of science education of our political leaders, something that plays into the narrative these same leaders like to spin. Surely it would be more interesting to ask why it is that these leaders themselves emphasise qualities in their own education that they later downplay in importance for others? Perhaps it could be that the advantages of studying subjects such as philosophy and economics are things they wish to keep for themselves? Or maybe they really were turned off by rather dull Oxford teachers whose grasp of how to turn students towards philosophical problems was less than we might wish?

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