PPE, the combined undergraduate course of philosophy, politics and economics became popular in Oxford in the early part of the twentieth century. It acquired the name “Modern Greats” by analogy with “Greats” or classics which was ancient history, philosophy and languages which had previously been a prerequisite of admission into professions such as the civil service. Wikipedia reports that “It was . . . the first opportunity for students to study philosophy at Oxford without having to learn Ancient Greek or Latin and hence sparked a huge growth in the number of students studying philosophy at Oxford” and says that it’s reappeared as a popular approach in some American universities today.
On a recent visit to Asia, looking around at the incredible teeming surge of humanity all around, I rang home and said to my kids that they’d have a more exciting life if they learned Mandarin. Our new PM’s facility in Mandarin has only increased my excitement on the subject (I can’t speak a word of Mandarin however!).
In any event, it got me wondering what skills I would include as basic tertiary education these days.
I haven’t tried to be too systematic here, but there are a bunch of disciplines which in my experience one can introduce people to relatively quickly, which offer powerful systems of thought and which people feel intimidated by – and unnecessarily so – if they’ve not had proper exposure.
For instance when I did the only subject in law I really liked, the introductory course then called Legal Method at ANU, I found it a revelation and immediately thought that the one semester intro would be highly worthwhile for pretty much everyone to learn. In it I learned the basic techniques and outlook of common law and statutory interpretation. The rest of the law course was incredibly repetitious – taking the principles learned in in the initial course to one interminable subject after another. Contracts, Torts, Admin, Trusts, Property, Succession, Family and on it went.
Anyway what other subjects might be regarded as essential to a modern education? I think a similar introductory course on the principles of economics would be equally beneficial. It could be taught quite quickly and provides access to a very powerful style of thought. One wouldn’t worry too much about the maths except for those who wanted to go on with it. But it would not be like high school economics which is a low grade intro to economic phenomena and ‘the economy’.
It would be an introduction to the way in which the discipline of economics is built as a system of thinking – perhaps some basic Smith on how the invisible hand works, the dilemmas of central planning, Ricardo’s extension of that into marginalism, the idea of equilibrium as a central concept for thinking systematically about counterbalancing forces, the way in which consumer theory is built up, ideas like positive and negative feedback (with demand and supply in competitive industries as examples of the former and supply and demand with increasing returns and some basic Keynesian ideas on macro-economics figuring as positive feedback). One might add some basic ideas of mechanism design and strategy with simple introductions to things like the prisoner’s dilemma.
I’d like to see some exposure to broader ‘methodological’ questions. I’m not sure it could be handled as an intro ‘philosophy’ subject. Philosophy is very intriguing for undergrads, but I reckon they’re not ready for the full on thing (I suspect most of us, including me, are never ready for it). I think a more compelling introduction to ‘philosophical’ ideas is provided by a methodologically sceptical and aware teaching of other subjects. In theory this could be economics or law, but my own experience is that the theoretical aspects of these subjects are not very well handled – being parcelled off into low status ‘Philosophy of Law’ and ‘Philosophy of Economics’ courses. The only thing I’d call real education I ever got at uni was doing an honours major in history. By the time I did history it was at a very interesting stage where most good history was at the same time highly methodologically aware – a kind of reflection on its subject matter and itself, without having yet disappeared into the self conscious contortions that became ‘cultural studies’ a few years later. It was a great experience.
After that I’m back in territory – like Mandarin – where I wish I had more knowledge and training than I do. Six months of accounting would have been better than the zero months I spent.
I’d like to have had a year or so getting really involved in computer coding – coding is clearly a powerful metaphor for thinking about many things today – like the generation and dissemination of meaning. And given that the coming century very likely be the century of genetic engineering. Of course coding and genetics are converging to some extent – unified by the idea of digital reproduction.
Well, like I said, this list is not too systematic or well thought out. Perhaps some will take it as simple dilettantism, but at least in the areas I know something about it isn’t dilettantish to have some background in law, so one can appreciate legal arguments, or economics for the same reason. I can speak with more authority there where I have some experience than I can where I don’t. Would it be worth having a working introductory knowledge to coding and genetics. I can’t be sure, but I think perhaps the answer is ‘yes’.