We have recently had a bit of a storm in a thimble about the subject of university degrees and how this apparently fuels the “Enemy Class/hegemony/Nanny State-which-must-be-smashed-by-something” sort of issue. The original subject was nannying government threats about issues concerning diet. Suddenly the issue came up of the sort of folk pushing for this: David Cameron with his Oxford University PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics). Regular commenter IanB then constructed what I regard as an unwarranted and extraordinarily broad-brush thesis. He caused so much offence to our editor, Perry de Havilland, that, entirely within Perry’s rights as owner of this turf, IanB’s subsequent remarks were deleted. Now he has responded, over at the Counting Cats blog. He’s clearly upset, or at least, does not, in my view, fully grasp the reasons for the annoyance his remark caused.
This is my take on the matter. There is certainly a “bubble”, or malinvestment issue, in higher education in much of the West. I also think that the school leaving age should be reduced. Heck, I also have argued that labour market rules should be eased to make it easier for firms to take on apprentices so that young people can do something productive and lucrative. A lot of graduates are likely to come out of universities feeling bitter and betrayed at having degrees that are of limited market use and yet are saddled with heavy debts. The whole model needs to be rethought, and radically. I have said so in the past and intend to repeat this point from time to time.
But to target liberal arts degrees such as the polymath forms of PPE, Greats, History, in the particular way that IanB does is truly mad.
Consider this paragraph from this comment thread: (February 20, 2011 05:35 PM)
“The PPE degree is entirely sinister. The university system, and the education system beneath it are primarily sinister. We live in a sinister political and social structure, designed by sinister people, for sinister ends. There is no shame in hating that which is evil. That some proportion of PPE graduates do not go on to participate directly in the evil of the State no more disproves the general observation than finding a few good eggs in your local Communist party would exhonerate Communism.”
Now that’s madness on a motorcycle. “Entirely sinister”. “Evil”. No ifs, buts, or maybes. No, if a 20-year-old goes to college to study bits of economics, philosophy, politics and maybe history, there is no redemption for them. While Mr “B” might concede that quite a few libertarians/classical liberals have done such degrees – I know around 10 who have – in general, it is “entirely sinister” and should, presumably, be suppressed. Yet I know of people who did this degree, or others like it (I read history), with no end-goal of working in government, or of propping up some “establishment”; in fact many seem to have worked in business or done things very different. The degree may have started out as an entrance exam for government, but that is by no means its only, or even dominant, use these days.
In any event, if we are worried about Big Government, nanny statism and the whole prevailing Precautionary Principle mindset – and we are – then it seems a bit arse-about-face to focus on the subjects that future politicians/civil servants choose to study, since how can we predict that learning a course A rather than B is going to turn out a certain mindset we approve or disapprove of? Sounds a bit like hubris to me. (Hubris, of course, is a word that comes from those poncey Greeks).
Rather, would it not make rather more sense to cut governments down to size and worry about what the Davids, Johns or Nigels will study later on, if at all? Who is to say that in a private education world, or homeschooling one, that there will not be quite a lot of demand for polymath arts-type exams, as well as others? Let a thousand flowers bloom how they may, I say.
A historical point: In the early 19th Century, many of the leading political figures of the day – Robert Peel (double-first at Oxford), W E Gladstone, etc, were classical liberals in their broad philosophy of government, and a grounding in the Classics, and understanding of the lessons of Ancient Rome and Greece, proved useful. Ditto the US Founding Fathers. They all did those dead languages about times long ago, no doubt to the bemusement of some. The writings and speeches of Cato and Cicero, or Seneca and Tacitus, were part of their mental DNA. Of course, some of this could have been self-taught, but without those fusty old universities, might not have been made nearly so widespread.
Anyway, I see that IanB has no desire to return to these comment threads, which is a pity, since he is more or less one of the good guys with whom I agree more often than not, especially on things such as the nanny state. But I feel that I need to state these points for the record lest he gets it into his head that he is some sort of wronged party here. Anyway, if he wants to chat to me about this over a beer or three, he’s got my email address.
Update: IanB has complained of my quoting him out of context, such as the paragraph containing all that use of the word “sinister”. Well, it was certainly eye-catching, and I was not going to reprint the whole thread.. I copied and pasted it because, as I replied to him in a private email, that was a paragraph that clearly summed up how he felt about these things. He’s a first-class writer; if you use words like “sinister”, or “evil”, to describe a fucking exam, then naturally, some folk are going to pick on it. We can do all we can with nuance and emphasis, but that paragraph was pretty plain in its meaning. Of course, we all write or say things we meant had come out a bit differently. I certainly have.
Another update: BTW, I have re-calculated in my head the number of people whom I would call classical liberals/non-idiotarian Tories/even a few more sensible lefties, who have done liberal arts degrees at the more swanky universities in the UK (I have not included all the various folk in the US, as this would be a very big number). I come up with about 100 people. (The figure includes recently graduated students, as well as one or two people who are sadly no longer with us, or getting on a bit, and who played big roles in the libertarian movement, such as Chris Tame, or in the more conventional conservative/liberal side further back, such as Anthony Flew, Roger Scruton, Michael Oakeshott, Isiah Berlin, Kenneth Minogue, Shirley Robin Letwin, etc).
Now, IanB might still claim that this is a tiny percentage, no significance, as is his wont. Then again, I would argue that this shows that the so-called “Enemy Class” is being quite effectively infiltrated by a fairly determined, if relatively small, number of folk on “our side”. I mean, take the think tanks: Adam Smith Institute, Institute of Economic Affairs, Taxpayers Alliance, Policy Exchange, Cobden Centre, Centre for Policy Studies…..Hardly a tiny, insignificant part of UK political/economic intellectual life. Many of them were founded, staffed and backed by people who did the sort of degrees that IanB largely writes off as “gatekeeper” exams. If they are “gatekeeper” exams, then it would appear that they are not quite performing as intended. In fact, the gate has a bloody great hole in it.