PPE for the people

What do political elites like Prime Minister David Cameron, opposition leader Ed Miliband and 40 other UK members of parliament have in common? They all studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at Oxford University. 

Part of Oxford University's Bodeleian library. Credit: Shutterstock. All rights reserved. 

What do UK Prime Minister David Cameron and opposition leader Ed Miliband have in common? Very little, some would say. According to many others, far too much. One thing they do share is their education. Both studied PPE (philosophy, politics and economics), the flagship course at Oxford University. They are not alone. According to Wikipedia, around forty current UK Members of Parliament 'read' PPE at Oxford. PPE alumni also occupy many other powerful political positions.

The PPE network extends way beyond Westminster, through the countries of the former British Empire and elsewhere. PPE graduates have served as premiers of Australia, Sri Lanka, Ghana, and Pakistan. Bill Clinton studied PPE as a Rhodes Scholar, and so did Rupert Murdoch. There is good reason to see PPE as a gateway to power, despite some butterflies of a more radical hue having emerged from the same chrysalis: Tariq Ali and Alex Callinicos are prime examples. Yet such radicals are few in comparison to the PPE alumni who populate the upper echelons of political, economic, financial, and cultural life around the world. 'PPE' serves as shorthand for elitism in our education systems and in our societies.

After eight years of living, studying, and teaching in Oxford, we can attest to the validity of this perspective. Beyond the manicured lawns and high tables, however, we also know another Oxford - one of poverty, inequality, deprivation, homelessness and hunger. Since the economic crisis began in 2007, two foodbanks have been established in Oxford: the Community Emergency Foodbank and the Oxford Food Bank.

Conservative peer and former investment banker Lord Freud recently claimed that the growth of foodbanks is merely a supply-led phenomenon, reflecting nothing more than rational consumers taking advantage of free food. In reality, this disturbing phenomenon reflects the increasingly desperate situation of growing numbers of families who are reeling from the effects of welfare cuts and the largest five-year fall in real wages since 1921-26. The UK is now one of, if not the, most indebted nation on earth in terms of private debt.

In many ways, Oxford is a microcosmic Britain: a small elite sits atop the great mass of society, enjoying its privileges, protected and divorced from the vast majority of people whose lives are getting harder under the neoliberal politics of late modernity. The similarities don't stop there. Just as people across Britain are organizing to overcome the injustices of the cuts, government-backed financial usury, and corporate tax evasion, so too people in Oxford are coming together to challenge and build alternatives.

Our alternative is called – wait for it – PPE, or “People’s Political Economy.”

In the summer of 2012 we and two other Oxford-based academics/activists came together to set up their own response to this situation. We agreed to establish a political economy education project to enable Oxford communities to learn about and respond to the crisis. At its heart, our PPE is based on a simple but powerful democratic premise: that all people have the right and the ability to understand the world for themselves, individually and collectively. Everyone can develop an understanding of the political economy of their lives, or what C Wright Mills called their ‘sociological imagination’.

Of course, this philosophy is not new. Like many others around the world, we have been inspired by the work of Paolo Freire. Nor is the attempt to launch a radical education project new to Oxford itself. Over one hundred years ago, a group of disgruntled students at Ruskin College established the ‘Plebs’ League’, which spawned a national movement of independent working-class learning.

So what does our PPE do? It brings together academics, students and citizens in Oxford to set up joint learning groups across the city. These groups are situated in community organisations at the front lines of austerity. In the pilot project we carried out last autumn, groups were run at a secondary school, a City Council-funded youth group, a homeless charity, and a mental health centre. We also recruited a dozen group facilitators from the graduate student community we knew well and gave them some basic training in Freireian techniques.

Our objective was to ensure that all the facilitators understood that their job was not to tell people what to think. Instead, PPE facilitators have three tasks: to give participants the information they require, help them develop the skills they need to analyse and evaluate that information, and work with the group to pursue any action they deem appropriate in response to what they learn.

How did the pilot phase fare? Like any pilot it was a trial and error affair, but overall we were delighted. Getting four groups established, recruiting and training the facilitators and engaging over thirty participants, many of whom were extremely cynical about politics and economics, gave us a sense of confidence for the future. The most successful group was the youth group, predominantly made up of early-school-leavers and first- or second-generation immigrants. It was supposed to run weekly for two months from November to Christmas 2012. In fact the group has met every Sunday for nine months.

In a recent debate on education policy between the groups' members and Oxford city councillors, it was the councillors who found themselves hard pressed to respond to the group’s rigorous critique and analysis. By creating a space in which those who are normally excluded from discussions of political economy can air their views, PPE is giving people the confidence to raise their voices. For example, one participant wrote articles on political economy for his homeless centre’s newsletter, while another felt confident enough to debate finance with his banker brother for the first time.

Such breakthroughs are significant. As Augusto Boal reminds us: “To speak is to take power.”

Oxford students whose experience of deprivation has been limited and who have been taught to believe that action should be left to the ‘experts' have reported similar experiences of empowerment. The PPE project challenges their former attitudes, and takes them beyond their university comfort zone, helping them to uncover the social dispossession it obscures. As one facilitator said, “I'd always wanted to be involved in something like this, but I didn’t know where to start, and I didn’t believe I would have what it takes. Now I know that I do.”

The pilot has allowed us to build the foundations for an exciting future. Thirty new facilitators are being recruited ahead of a larger re-launch in October 2013, and we are now linked into the Oxford Hub, the independent hub for student-run community projects in the city. Using their connections, we plan to run learning groups in eight secondary schools this coming autumn, as well as working with new groups in the organisations already part of the project.

We have plans to build a PPE community to bring facilitators and participants closer together through dialogue and debate, including the launch of an ‘Alternative Oxford Union’ early in the new academic year. Ultimately, we hope to involve the participants themselves in organising PPE and shaping its future. And we want to build networks of support and knowledge exchange with others who are engaged in similar initiatives. In 2011 Joel Lazarus started the ‘Free University Network’ to express these wider ambitions.

All areas of life are crucibles of social control, struggle and potential transformation. Education is one of the most important of these crucibles. The power to shape what people learn and what and how they think is the foundation of political power.

As Pierre Bourdieu has shown, the current education system, particularly the university, performs the additional function of conferring cultural capital on those who have the means to learn the language and behaviour of society’s dominant groups. In the UK and around large swathes of the world today, a PPE degree from Oxford confers perhaps the ultimate cultural capital on its alumni.

We are unapologetic about the overt political symbolism of setting up an alternative PPE in the heart of Oxford. Through People’s Political Economy, we want to use the best of Oxford’s pedagogy, combine it with a more thoroughly critical approach, and take it out beyond the walls of Oxford’s colleges to the people of the city, thereby reversing and democratising the process of cultural capital accumulation.

Instead of using the verbose and complicated language of politics and economics to obscure, confuse, and ultimately disempower people, we want to help participants to understand and own the language of the social sciences. It is through this process that the seeds of individual and collective transformation can be planted.

Like so many others, we are impatient for social change. Yet we also know that it takes time to build strong and sustainable organisations capable of bringing about the kind of changes we want to see in politics, the economy, and society.

There are no shortcuts to real democracy, for in many ways democracy is the process itself: the ends are the means. Democratic education is therefore central to any project of authentic social transformation.

About the authors

Neil Howard is a Marie Curie Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. While studying for his doctorate at Oxford University, he founded the People's Political Economy project with a number of other like-minded education activists.

After completing his PhD at Oxford University two years ago, Joel Lazarus has
been teaching at various UK universities and working on developing PPE and
links between other UK-based alternative education initiatives.

Read more about their project; contact them; visit the website; and “like” them on Facebook.