In his recent attack on Oxford University’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) degree, Nick Cohen essentially makes two claims*:
I) Today’s British politicians are so bad and so reviled because of their lack of depth, their tendency to bullshit and over-simplify across many areas, rather than delve into the details of specific issues
II) This superficiality is often the result of their undergraduate education, since so many politicians studied PPE, and these traits are encouraged by the requirements of that course
Here I want to focus on the second claim, about how politicians’ generalism comes about, rather than the question of whether it is good or bad. Cohen argues that it is fostered by the PPE course, which encourages “banging out ideas with barely a moment’s thought”, because of the sheer breadth of the course, and the onerous workload. His remedy is to require all PPE students to undertake a compulsory thesis, and so “force students to concentrate on one hard topic, if only for a few months”. In this way, Cohen reckons, politicians will develop the good habits necessary to engage with issues in depth.
The first problem with Cohen’s argument is that just writing a thesis doesn’t have the magical property that Cohen anticipates. This is clear from the fact that over half the people on Cohen’s list of archetypical superficial PPEists – William Hague (although just an MBA), Ed Davey, Matthew Hancock, Ed Miliband, David Miliband, Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, Rachel Reeves and Stewart Wood, went on to postgraduate study, and so will have certainly studied a scholarly subject in depth, and most likely written a thesis of at least 10,000 words.
However, the bigger issue is that Cohen neglects the structural forces which drive people towards generalism. For a start, there is the convention in British politics of shunting government ministers between portfolios. If you are an aspiring politician, the strong possibility that you will spend a few months working on Transport, before moving to Culture, and then on to Health, provides a strong incentive to develop generic, transferrable skills, rather than being drawn too far into the detail of any of those areas. Indeed, the requirement to get quickly up to speed on a completely new brief calls on exactly those bullshitting skills Cohen maligns.
Moreover, this dilettantism is representative of a trend in the economy as a whole. In the past 20 or 30 years, increasing influence and prestige has accrued to bankers and consultants who tend to have limited specialism within an industry or subject area, and whose working model involves short, shallow projects, where the focus is on quick answers: again, there is a heavy premium on what Cohen would call bullshit.
One explanation for this trend lies in Hall and Soskice’s ‘varieties of capitalism’ theory (incidentally developed by ex-PPEist Stewart Wood). Hall and Soskice contend that different capitalist economies have developed different arrangements and institutions across a number of spheres in order to complement each other. Thus, for example, Germany’s tradition of cross-shareholding and ‘patient’ capital allows firms to invest in workers for the long term, encouraging the development of apprenticeships and vocational training. However, this requires workers to commit themselves to certain industries, and as a result employment is longer-term and more secure to compensate for the risk of firm or industrial decline.
Germany, on the Varieties of Capitalism framework, represents a ‘Co-ordinated Market economy’. Britain, on the other hand, is at the opposite pole, as a ‘Liberal Market Economy’ (LME). Integral to this liberal model is flexibility and fluidity, both of capital and labour, to move between industries. Consequently, education in an LME needs to make it easy to move between firms and industries. In other words, LMEs value bullshit.
Thus when Nick Cohen rails against the generalism of British politicians, he is attacking the fundamental principles that lie beneath the British economic model.
* Full disclosure: I am an Oxford PPE graduate, and did opt to write the optional thesis