Post Modern Greats

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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’.

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Don Arthur
Don Arthur
13 years ago

Philosophy is very intriguing for undergrads, but I reckon theyre not ready for the full on thing

As an undergrad I was so intrigued by philosophy that I stuck with it all the way to honours.

So I’m curious. What do you think the full on thing is?

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
13 years ago

Jacques Chester

Fuck the Latin!! Dopey derivative wogs that the Romans were! Ancient Greek is the window to western civilisation, dude. ;)

http://larvatusprodeo.net/2008/01/04/cultural-elites-dont-exist-study-finds/#comment-424782

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
13 years ago

Jacques

Mate, I went to the westiest worst comprehensive state school going, BUT – like you – I was good at, and LOVED, Maths: YOU (like me) already know the entire Greek alphabet and the sounds that go with each letter. I have been teaching myself Ancient Greek on the back of only my Maths education and uni History courses.

You would have NO trouble.

Ancient Greek is just so exciting, because it (and NOT Latin) is the source of all our western words and concepts about science, philosophy, ethics, philosophy, emotion, blah, blah, blah.

If you live in Sydney, perhaps we could start a redaing group! :)

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
13 years ago

I expect a fair bit of your philosophy studies would have been political philosophy.

No, that came later.

Epistemology and philosophy of mind were where I focused. I also did a major in psychology.

I also did some a fair bit of philosophy of science, some philosophy of language and a bit of ethics. Ethics was the most difficult — at the time I wasn’t sure it was possible to say anything sensible. As for normative political philosophy I thought it was built entirely on naive assumptions and prejudice — a complete waste of time. I think I may have decided that it was all about power.

But graduating didn’t prevent me from reading and thinking. And eventually I did develop an interest in political theory.

James Farrell
James Farrell
13 years ago

Nicholas, it’s not clear from this post whether you have doubts about the standard economic principles course that most universities offer. I seem to remember some criticisms in a previous post, but I couldn’t swear to it. Is there something fundamental you think we’re doing wrong?

Also, did you mean literally that students should read Smith and Ricardo in a principles course? I’m all for including a history of economics subject in a degree program (indeed I have a vested interest in it), or including Smith and Ricardo in a subject on the history of modern liberal thought, which might be part your broader ‘Modern Greats’ program. But I don’t want to have students reading Smith and trying to get a systematic grasp on the theory of markets simultaneously.

Laura
13 years ago

OK, I’ll bite (but first, must observe that Charles Ryder’s cousin Jasper pompously warned him that the very worst school at Oxford was Modern Greats.)

I think, really, that what students learn at university is not ultimately terribly important as long as they learn whatever it is well, and the whole experience doesn’t destroy their natural curiosity and interest in the world, or leave them sure that they’ve learned all there is to know.

‘Systems of thought’ vs. ‘a bunch of interesting topics’ – the former is obviously (or, obviously from the point of view of older people who have learned about and regret the frightening gaps in their own education) more valuable to have a grasp of and seems like a far better use of the limited time students are up at the university. But to be honest the majority of students commencing their university careers find abstract topics boring or baffling and do much better accumulating a good range of interesting niche knowledge and skills first, and joining them together as a system later on and independently.

All that said I think it would be both useful and interesting for most people to learn something about the Enlightenment and about Romanticism.

Patrick
Patrick
13 years ago

I agree on the importance of explicitly teaching students how to think, or about different and very useful frameworks about seeing the world, but I think the substance matters too.

I think everybody should learn history, as much of it as they can bear, and a language (Mandarin would be great, and might well be my next language, but any will do). Then, I agree with learning some base in economic frameworks as you suggest. I think the parts you suggest should be spread out with history and language being for the length of the entire course.

derrida derider
derrida derider
13 years ago

For a bright kid I don’t think it matters too much what subjects they study, as long as they study a fairly wide range of unrelated subjects and, above all, are taught it well. In this case, by “teaching it well” I mean that the joy of the subject is not killed and intellectual curiosity is preserved. The best gift you can pass on to a child is a love of reading.

Given that, and the great breadth rather than great depth of learning the wide range of subjects implies, it’s the exact opposite of what all those Gradgrindian businessman want – rote-learning of specific skills and enforcement of work discipline. These last are certainly important to earning a good living and so have to be taught sometime and somewhere, but man does not live by bread alone.

Patrick
Patrick
13 years ago

its the exact opposite of what all those Gradgrindian businessman[sic] want – rote-learning of specific skills and enforcement of work discipline.

What businessmen exactly? This doesn’t correlate with my experiences at all – imhe critical thinking and ability to learn are the priorities for businessmen.

observa
observa
13 years ago

How to change tap washers and spindle O rings, fix a leaking cistern and basic car service might be a bloody good place to start.

Kevin Rennie
13 years ago

I would include a course in logic. Used to be a key part of any philosophy course. A dip into the enlightenment wouldn’t hurt either.
For users of the English language, its history is a very useful passtime.

Rex
Rex
13 years ago

I think Introduction to Rocket Science would be a useful subject since that’s the common yardstick by which the complexity of absolutely everything else is judged.