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How a PPE degree became a passport to power

Students queueing for the matriculation ceremony at The Sheldonian which is part of Oxford University. (Photo by: Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images) - Credit: UIG via Getty Images

Bluffocracy chronicles how the country’s establishment has been taken over by chancers. In an exclusive report, authors JAMES BALL and ANDREW GREENWAY profile the much-hyped PPE degree

OXFORD, UNITED KINGDOM – MAY 01: People seen during the May Day celebration on May 01, 2015 in Oxford, England.

Thousands gather to hear Magdalen College School Choir sing madrigals at 6am from the tower of Magdalen College overlooking Magdalen Bridge on the River Cherwell in Oxford. The annual celebration of Beltane on May 1st sees pubs and restaurants open all night, with music and Morris Men performing in the street. May Day Ball-goers mix with locals and students.

PHOTOGRAPH BY Greg Blatchford / Barcroft Media (Photo credit should read Greg Blatchford / Barcroft Media via Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** 02166336 – Credit: Barcroft Media via Getty Images

A few lucky bluffers are born. Most are made.

Philosophy, Politics and Economics – PPE – is the ultimate vocational course for the bluffer in waiting. From its earliest days, PPE has been the golden ticket into Britain’s political, media and institutional elites.

More than that, it has shaped the way those elites operate, the very machinery of the state, and our beliefs about how intellect, expertise and knowledge intersect.

Today, Oxford University is unabashed in its pride for PPE, playing up exactly how important it believes it is. In explaining why someone would choose to take the course, Oxford claims PPE was ‘born of the conviction that study of the great modern works of social, political and philosophical thought could have a transformative effect on students’ intellectual lives, and thereby on society at large’.

They have a right to be pleased, because PPE was ultimately successful in its aim. It shored up Oxford’s role as lead provider of the country’s political elite. A generation on from PPE’s creation, Oxford has dominated 10 Downing Street. Ten post-war prime ministers have an Oxford degree on their CV. Britain has had more PPE prime ministers than female prime ministers. Meanwhile, Classics remained as an option to cater for traditionalists; five post-war cabinet secretaries (heads of the Civil Service) have stuck with the old favourite.

So, if PPE is a course designed to create leaders, what does it actually teach you? As anyone with a chance on getting on the road to blagging would intuit, the first step to understanding that is to find a dangerously abridged account of the main points, then consider yourself ready to pile in. We’re here to help. Forget about getting an MBA in 12 months; here’s how to get PPE in 30 minutes. It may not be exactly what you expect.

For example, as a student of Philosophy, Politics and Economics, you might expect to be spending the next three years of your life on becoming proficient in, well, philosophy, politics and economics. Surprisingly, this is often not the case.

After your first year, which concludes with a few short pass or fail papers in each subject, you can kiss goodbye to one of the disciplines forever. All PPEists leave Oxford with gaping blind spots in understanding. PPE allows people to claim a first-class degree strongly implying a firm command of economics having only had to prove once, two years before graduating, that they can count on their fingers.

Of all the possible university courses to condense into a ridiculously short space of time, PPE seems like one of the least likely to work. There are few other undergraduate options within the British university system that offer up so much choice. There are more than 60 papers to choose from and a syllabus spanning several millennia of deep thinkers. How can you possibly distil all of that into capsule form?

When it comes to getting a PPE degree, the content isn’t really what counts. When you enter the real world, nobody cares what papers you studied as a PPE undergraduate. It’s methods that matter. The conditions in which students go about learning are essentially the same for almost every topic PPE throws at them. Learn how to do it once, and you can make a reasonable go at tackling pretty much any topic.

Tutorials – and depending on subject choice, a small number of seminars – are the only mandatory classes a PPE student will take during their three-year degree. It is a PPE student’s prerogative as to whether they spend well over 95% of their time in Oxford sleeping, getting involved in student societies, pretending that rowing is fun, or simply lying about in a chair eating crisps. PPE didn’t even bother with putting on undergraduate lectures until the 1960s, and attendance at them is still entirely optional. This means that all but 2-3 hours of each week are theoretically left to self-directed study: tutorials are showtime.

Two or three students will go to the study of their tutor (very occasionally a student is tutored one-on-one), having each prepared an essay over the previous week, which will have been issued alongside a recommended reading list.

The mission for the students is then to get through the next 60 minutes without embarrassing yourself – or, if you’re a more diligent than average, trying to demonstrate competence to your tutor. Often the setup is that one student (taking it in turns week-by-week) will be asked to read their essay aloud, and the other student(s) will be asked to critique it, with the tutor jumping in to provoke new questions or challenges.

The format is initially intimidating, but over time usually approaches something close to being enjoyable. Building experience in PPE, like getting better at blagging, is a case of learning to enjoy the game for its own sake, rather than any higher outcome. When it comes to the tutorial game, a student quickly learns that if it isn’t their week to read, the best way to get through is to savage a tutorial partner’s essay. If you can come up with enough niggling counter-arguments to prolong the discussion, your under-baked work might escape anything but the most cursory scrutiny.

On the other hand, if it’s your week to read your essay, you learn to be most provocative on the material you’ve read the most extensively, to try to draw the discussion towards your strongest ground. If you’re feeling especially sneaky, you may even base the lion’s share of your argument on an obscure book that wasn’t on the reading list. There’s no chance your tutorial partner will have read it, and if you’re lucky, it might put the tutor on the back foot as well. This is a risky strategy however, because it relies on a) you having actually understood the obscure book, and b) that book not having been written by a close friend of the tutor, unbeknownst to you.

The snag for many students is that even if you have done extensive reading and prepared a good essay, your tutorial partner’s essay may come from an entirely different direction – they’ve played the old ‘random book’ trick on you, or simply approached the matter from another angle. Even when you’ve done the work, you will have to think very rapidly on your feet to come up with a reasonable response to their essay, and your preparation will be largely irrelevant. In other words, doing the work properly doesn’t necessarily make you more effective in tutorials, if you don’t know the tricks as well. If you just know the tricks, meanwhile, that will often get you most of the way to safety.

The direct effects of this system on encouraging blagging are clear, and their consequences are easy to see in public life: PPE students learn to argue and reason well, based on minimal actual knowledge. Getting through a high-stakes hour twice a week with preparation offering only partial help makes you a good debater, and teaches you how to confidently present an argument with little to no knowledge of the field at hand.

Anyone who’s had a slippery colleague, or watched more than five minutes of parliament, will have encountered the results of that talent. But the secondary effects of the tutorial system have their effects too: when you need only perform for two hours a week, and you’ve spend
the remainder sleeping and eating
crisps, it’s easy to fall behind. This leads
to PPE’s most famous effect: the essay crisis.

David Cameron, the UK’s most recent PPE prime minister, was accused dozens of times, by political rivals, media outlets and academics alike, of running an ‘essay crisis’ government.

An essay crisis is a term heard in every university, but is especially familiar around those studying PPE: it’s that feeling of having an impending deadline, usually early the following morning, and having done absolutely no work towards it. Perversely, it is a badge worn with pride. At the beginning of a classic essay crisis, the PPEist concerned has had absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of the subject on which they must produce a thoughtful 2,000-word essay by the dawn.

It goes a little something like this. The first step if you’re producing an essay on a philosopher or political scientist’s big idea is to not bother reading the original text. This will be long and dense, and you don’t have that kind of time. Besides, far cleverer and better-prepared people than you have already devoted substantial parts of their career to poring over each word. The next step is to find them, looking through the reading list for critiques of the text which have been marked by the tutor as essential or most-useful reading, and skim as many as you can easily get hold of from the college library at midnight.

From two or three of these critiques, the bulk of your essay comes together – you can now piece together a reasonable idea of what the original author was saying (and use the footnoted references to find a good page or two of their book to read, and take a quote or two from). Even better, there are now several different arguments against the original text at your disposal, one of which you should steal and build upon.

With one eye on tomorrow’s tutorial, the final trick is to take the most obscure bit of reading on the list, or even better a paper which isn’t on it, and find some argument or point within that to build into your essay. As well as helping deflect the worst of your tutorial partner’s inquisitions, it suggests you’ve read more widely across the list. With a little bit of padding and good luck, this system delivers a 2,000-word essay which will comfortably see you through an Oxford tutorial in as little as four or five hours.

Therein lies the danger: once you’ve managed to do what is supposed to be careful 20-or-so hours of reading, research and work in less than a quarter of that time, it becomes your standard practice. If your essay crisis tutorial goes no worse than the usual set-piece it feels irrational to revert to a more thoughtful approach. If it goes better than normal – and this often happens – it would surely be mad not to fall back on blagging next time.

Hang on, though. Why should it take so long for essay crisis merchants to get found out? Why isn’t this form of glib knowledge caught out sooner, given the reputation of Oxford’s exams for being rigorous and, notoriously, quite difficult?

Most PPE final exams have a similar look and feel. Candidates, dressed in the mandatory black suit, bow-tie, gown and carnation and worn in the middle of the summer exam season’s hottest weeks, sit down to a very thin exam paper, usually containing somewhere between 10 and 20 different questions. From these, the candidate must choose three to answer in three hours. Economics papers might include more mathematics or graphs, but the challenge is the same.

The first quality that counts in PPE exams, therefore, is speed. Three hours might sound like a long time, but you have three essays to do. Most people write at about 10 – 20 words per minute; that’s about three 1,000-word answers. Physically, that’s pretty demanding. Mentally, even more so. The best way to handle that pressure is to do as much of the thinking in advance as possible, and let the essay crisis muscle memory do the rest.

The second quality therefore, is planning and tactics. Turning over a final exam paper is a bone-chilling moment for students doing any course. Most fear that they will find a set of questions they have no idea how to answer. With PPE, the situation is a little different. Every candidate turning over the paper does so in the expectation they won’t have the faintest idea how to answer at least half the questions. That’s OK – they’ve planned for that. The worry is all down to whether their revision gamble has paid off. They will have spent the last few months trying to remember – or often learning for the first time – material they haven’t seen since the first term of second year.

By Christmas of your third year, the compulsory parts of the PPE course are essentially finished. There are no more tutorials to attend, no more essays to write. It is for you, and you alone, to determine what to get up to in the six months between now and your first exam. As far as the university is concerned, this could be spent further refining your crisp-eating habits. Nobody is checking.

This is where the tactics come in. The real question for a PPE finalist now becomes: how much do I need to know? For a paper where you have to answer three questions, the obvious choice is to pick three topics to cram. Unfortunately, Oxford’s examiners are wise to this, and not above combining two topics into a single question, or omitting some altogether. This points to a strategy of preparing four, five or six topics for each exam, depending on how bold you’re feeling. The moment you turn over the paper is the moment your choices prove right – or disastrously wrong.

And there you have it. You now know everything you need to be a successful PPE student.

PPE is the perfect preparation for bluffers in public life. It is the degree where one is presented as knowing everything, and provides a bluffer with the tools to confidently give that impression. Beneath the surface, it teaches you exactly how to do just enough, in just enough time, to make sure the mask doesn’t slip off.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. There’s a few other qualities that help. PPE is a course laden with bias, conscious and unconscious. If your background is from a western European, liberal democratic tradition, you’ll feel right at home. Other world-views get much less of a look-in. In fairness to the university, there are several options papers that offer mind-broadening insights on different ideologies or political systems. But it’s perfectly possible to sail through the whole course without touching the sides of anything that doesn’t comply to the default setting of a medium-sized European nation-state. Many do.

So provided you’re a highly confident, westernised, cheerfully argumentative and usually male student who has read our guide, PPE should be no problem for you.

Just imagine a country run by people like that.

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