Some Troubling and Enduring Thoughts of a Balliol ‘Old Boy’ on the Focus, Direction and Value of PPE at Oxford

The Oxford University degree program in Philosophy, Politics & Economics (PPE) is now 100 years old.  Having been generated and supported largely by economists from Balliol College, Oxford,  the degree has gained prominence over the century of its existence, and it is widely acknowledged today to be one Oxford’s most influential degree programs.  This is part of the problem we now face collectively as a human community.

The reason for this is that one troubling aspect of the PPE program over the years was that it generally failed to prepare its students to consider human economics as a subset of a functioning ecosystem.  For this reason it did not enable them to foresee such urgent, pervasive and devastating problems of contemporary importance like climate change or global pandemics.   The anthropocentric nature of the PPE focus necessarily constrained its understanding of the world in which we actually live.  Students learned about human philosophy, human politics, and human economics — largely ignoring that as a species we are only one participant species in a complex and rapidly evolving ecosystem.   This structural myopia has led us to where we are today. 

How did we get here?  We have arrived at our current circumstance because the premise of PPE was too narrowly conceived to begin with.  It should not have been Philosophy, Politics & Economics (the 100-yr old PPE), but rather Physics, Philosophy and Ecosystem-Science (a much needed new orientation of PPE).  If we had conceived the premise of our studies as if we lived in an ecosystem, we would not have arrived at our current circumstance with such helpless bewilderment.  Indeed, we may have been able to foresee and prevent some of its current worst manifestations.

Balliol scholars, current students and veterans of the PPE program have undertaken to review its past and the prospects for its future direction in a series of online discussions:

Their intention is to conclude their online sessions by addressing the question: “How do we build back better?” Given the wide-spread failure of governments to address such massive collective economic and political problems like climate change and the current global pandemic, the answers that those who formulate the strategies for PPE to “build back better” could have implications for those all over the world.

To begin, then, the question of “How do we build back better?” would seem, at the very least, to require a broader framework, starting, perhaps with economic history itself.  Sadly — as in many universities around the world – in Oxford degrees for the study of economics and politics have been largely segregated from those degrees focused on the study of history. Isolated silos of expertise rarely talk to one another. This is a mistake which could be addressed in trying to “build back better.” 

Fortunately, those re-thinking the next steps for the PPE degree have before them a marvelous example of how this could begin.  The National Trust – which is well known to the Master and Fellows of Balliol – has undertaken a courageous and exemplary re-examination of some of its most esteemed properties with a keen eye to their embedded character in the economic history of Britain.  In the process they have revealed some very interesting historical threads which might be useful for the architects of the “new” PPE degree to consider touching upon in their quest “to build back better.” 

For decades students reading for the Oxford Degree in “British Empire and Commonwealth History” were largely divorced from those reading PPE.  This always mystified those of us who wanted to study the way in which European empires – the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, etc. – had evolved to shape the modern world economy.  This was especially troubling in Balliol where both Jack Gallagher and then Ronald Robinson were College Fellows successively and the then reigning Professors of colonial history.  Those of us who worked with both of them some fifty years ago were saddened to see that there was not much interchange between them and those studying PPE at the time.

Since then, of course, the History Department has significantly reorganized its offerings, and central to their new curriculum is a focus upon “Empire History at Oxford” where both Balliol Fellows – Gallagher and Robinson – are recognized for their foundational insights in the study of European empires.  Further, the Oxford Department of Continuing Education now offers online courses to the world in this important historical field.  It would seem that the effort to “build back better” on the part of PPE might well draw upon both the examples of The National Trust and their previous distinguished historians to incorporate new perspectives on the origins and  cumulative impact of colonialism upon the generation of the economy of our contemporary world.

Beyond the inclusion of slavery and its aftermath in the forthcoming curriculum of a potentially “built back better” PPE degree, it would also seem appropriate to consider a basic paradigm shift required now across the world to learn how modern economies are fully embedded in the constraints of a functioning ecosystem.  If the patterns of global climate change and the current wave of pandemic infection indicate anything, it is that humankind needs to preconceive its collective role in the cycles of exchange and system-wide “health” of Earth’s ecosystem. 

As zoologists and ecologists have long observed, as a species humans are a late-arriving, bipedal, mammalian omnivore with a tragically exaggerated sense of self-importance in an ever-evolving and self-regulating ecosystem.  If we want our civilizations and economies to flourish, we had better learn the “house rules” of the global ecosystem and start to behave accordingly.  The paradigm shift in public consciousness that this will require could well become a key component of how PPE could “build back better.”  We need collectively — as a species — to change the context of what we learn and what we teach.  A fundamentally refocused initiative for PPE could provide a strong and vital example of a newly conceived education that the world now so desperately needs.

Given the current global ecological and economic crises, it is important to absorb and reflect at length upon some of the recent insights and public statements by one of Balliol’s most energetic and accomplished economics graduates, Kate Raworth

On Tuesday 29 September, Raworth and her economics associates launched the “Doughnut Economics Action Lab.”   Through this lab and the internet links it provides it will be possible for all students around Oxford — and, in fact, across the world — to participate in an ongoing discussion of a new kind of ecologically-informed economics, building upon Raworth’s recent publication of Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist.   This field has developed rapidly, and as it turns out Raworth’s  Doughnut Economics is now officially in the textbook of Oxford’s Economics International Baccalaureate.  Almost single-handedly, Kate Raworth and her network of young associates have upended, outflanked and upstaged the 100-year-old PPE degree tradition, providing Oxford’s programs like the Economics International Baccalaureate with fresh new curriculum.  

In effect, because of what has proved to be PPE’s historically dated and structurally myopic perspective on today’s most compelling global problems including climate change and the pervasive pandemic, perhaps it is time at this 100-year anniversary point for the current architects of the PPE degree to rethink the focus, direction and value of the program. They need not abandon its august traditions, but they would do well to embrace as well the perspective and analytical framework of Kate Raworth and the new DEAL if the guardians of the PPE tradition wish to be seen as being serious about wanting to “build back better.”  It would be ironic indeed if the Rawworth analysis were to be integrated into the textbook of Oxford’s Economics International Baccalaureate, but remain outside the curriculum of Oxford’s PPE degree program.

For a further elaboration of this Balliol graduate’s important and impressive initiative see:

Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL)
Makespace Oxford
1a Aristotle Lane
Oxford
OX2 6TP

http://www.kateraworth.com
Twitter: @kateraworth

[Follow further links to selected recent contributions by Kate Raworth]

For the  historical context of this new form of post-growth economics see related discussions at:

* * * *

T.C. Weiskel   
(Balliol, 1969)
Transition Studies
Fellow, Royal Geographic Society
Research Director, African Historical Graphics Archive   
Coordinator, The Africa Map Circle

 

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