Reading PPE at Oxford

Once I knew I would be going to the University of Oxford in the Fall of 1961, I had to decide what I was going to study. At the time, most American Rhodes Scholars read for a second bachelor’s degree that involved Oxford’s traditional tutorial style of education. (Today, more choose to seek advanced degrees.)

I rejected “reading” Jurisprudence for a B.A. degree because at the time that required translation of Roman law from Latin into English, a skill I did not have and did not think I could acquire “on the side” while doing everything else at Oxford.

Instead, like many American Rhodes Scholars, I chose Philosophy, Politics and Economics or PPE.[1] It was also known as “Modern Greats” to indicate that it was designed in the 1920’s to replicate some of the features of Classics or Greats or Literae Humaniores (Greek and Latin), one of Oxford’s traditional and famous courses of study. PPE, on the other hand, was designed to be a well-balanced course of study of the social problems of the modern world.[2]

PPE was organized in two subjects in each of the three PPE disciplines: General Philosophy (from Descartes to the present); Moral and Political Philosophy; Theory and Working of Political Institutions; British Political and Constitutional History Since 1830; Principles of Economics; and Economic Organization. The student also selected two additional subjects to study; I chose two in economics–Public Finance and Currency and Credit.

During Oxford’s three eight-week terms of the academic year, you had two tutorials a week in these subjects. For the six required subjects there were usually only two students with tutors from your own college. For the optional subjects, you usually were alone in the tutorial and sometimes with a tutor from another Oxford college who specialized in those subjects.

Each week the tutor would set the problem and suggest relevant readings for the next week. The subject would always be put as a question that required you to come to a conclusion and marshal the evidence and arguments for your conclusion. Here are examples of such problems:

  • “The Left was never right.” Discuss this verdict with regard to British foreign policy between the world wars. Was the Right ever wrong?
  • What do we mean by “James who now does this is the same person who did that?” How do we know we are correct?
  • Is the City [London’s financial industry] vital to the U.K.’s role in world trade?
  • Can it ever be justifiably claimed that a tariff is imposed for revenue purposes only?
  • Is infallibility a pre-condition for knowledge? If not, why do we often think it is?

During the following week, if you were doing your work, you would read at least the suggested readings and prepare an essay analyzing the problem. At the following tutorial one of the students (if there were two) would read his essay, and the tutor would comment, ask questions and start discussions about the problem. The tutorials, by the way, were held in the tutor’s rooms in the college, and the students were required to wear their academic gowns. (Although I was a Rhodes Scholar, I was not a scholar of Worcester College and, therefore, was not entitled to wear a scholar’s longer gown. Instead, I wore a skimpy “commoner’s gown.”)

The philosophy tutorials were the most difficult and frustrating for me. Oxford was then in the throes of linguistic analysis with its emphasis on careful examination of the language of philosophical argument.[3] We frequently were assigned very abstruse articles in British philosophical journals —Mind and Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. One of the articles that I recall had a title like “What do we mean when we say this is a Grade A apple?” I kept wondering  why I was spending my time reading these articles. Usually, however, during the tutorial I would say to myself that this was a worthy activity for someone like the tutor who was really good at it. But it was not for me. The tutor probably would say to himself, “Oh, these pragmatic Americans, they don’t get it.”

In addition to preparing for and participating in tutorials, the students could, if they wished, attend university-wide lectures on the PPE subjects (or, if you wished, on any other subjects that interested you.) I attended some and heard some of the famous Oxford dons of the day: J. R. Hicks (economist), Gilbert Ryle (philosopher) and A. J. Ayer (philosopher) are ones that I remember.

Finally during your “vacs” (vacations) and especially the “long vac” (the four-month summer vacation), you were encouraged to study independently. During one vac, for example, I spent several weeks at St. Deiniol’s Library (n/k/a Gladstone’s Library), a residence library near Hawarden, Wales[4] where I had room and board and a quiet library in which to study. (The Library was founded for “Divine Learning” by William Ewart Gladstone, Britain’s 19th century Prime Minister, and is close to Hawarden Castle, which was Gladstone’s estate.)[5]

At the end of each term, as I recall, your tutors gave practice exams, which were evaluated and returned with comments. Also at least once a year one of your tutors would give an “oral report card” on your performance to the head of your college.

The only “real” examinations were those given at the end of your time at Oxford. This memorable experience will be described in a subsequent posting.

As I reflect on this educational experience, I especially value the way that the subjects were presented to the students. You were forced to come to a conclusion and justify that conclusion, rather than saying a lot about a subject and avoiding coming to your own conclusions. You also had great freedom. You could look for, and read, resources beyond those suggested by the tutor. You could attend lectures if you wanted to. Given the one-on-one nature of tutorials, a student could not hide and never say a word.


[1]  Two of the more famous American Rhodes Scholars, Pete Dawkins and Bill Bradley, for example, read PPE. (See Post: Oxford in New York City (May 17, 2011).) Bill Clinton, who was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, 1968-70, started in PPE, but soon abandoned the program because he thought it was too repetitive of his U.S. undergraduate education. Clinton first switched to a graduate degree program (B. Litt. in Politics) that did not involve tutorials, but required a 50,000-word dissertation. His tutor, however, persuaded him that was a mistake and to switch instead to a graduate degree (B. Phil. in Politics), that had tutorials, essays, exams and a shorter thesis. Clinton made the switch, but did not finish this program and did not earn an Oxford degree; his memoir says he chose to go to Yale Law School rather than finishing the Oxford degree. (Bill Clinton, My Life at 141-43, 171 (New York: Knopf  2004); Ralph Evans (editor), Register of Rhodes Scholars 1903-1995 at 306 (Oxford: Rhodes Trust 1996).) In 2003 my wife and I attended a celebration of the centennial of the Rhodes Scholarships at Westminster Hall in London where Clinton was one of the speakers. He said his family was always embarrassed he had never earned an Oxford degree, but that year his daughter Chelsea redeemed the family honor by earning such a degree the prior day. (Bill Clinton, Speech: Rhodes Trust Centenary Celebration, July 2, 2003, http://www.clingtonfoundation.org.) Other American Rhodes Scholar-politicians who read PPE are U.S. Senator Richard Lugar and former Senators David Boren and Paul Sarbanes. (Register of Rhodes Scholars 1903-1995 at 201, 203, 269.) The current British Prime Minister, David Cameron, also read PPE, as did other prominent U.K. politicians (Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Shirley Williams, Edwina Castle). (Wikipedia, David Cameron, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Cameron; BBC News, Why does PPE rule Britain? (Oct. 31, 2010), http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11136511.

[2]  Handbook to the University of Oxford at 147-50, 158-60 (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1960); Wikipedia, Philosophy, Politics and Economics, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy,_Politics_and_Economics.

[3]  Wikipedia, Analytical Philosophy, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Analytic_philosophy.

[4]  Wikipedia, Gladstone’s Library, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gladstone’s_Library.

[5]  Wikipedia, William Ewart Gladstone, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Ewart_Gladstone.

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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