Since at least the Enlightenment, Western civilization has improved the world in ways that previous generations could not even have dreamed. Advances in both the natural and social sciences have led to unimaginable material and intellectual progress for humankind that have crescendoed right up to the present time. Based on a better understanding of the natural world, of society, and of human psychology, improved technology, economic activity, and governance have allowed for individuals to flourish as never before in history.
This body of knowledge has been so successful that it has made claims to universality. Undoubtedly, the technological advances initially developed in Western societies are now applied everywhere, and many non-Western societies are now advanced technological centers, making new advances of their own.
The values and other cultural aspects of the West are also claimed to be universal by many. On that question, progress has been much slower. The rejection of Western culture and values inside Western societies themselves is a major source of concern to everyone who sees in them the best foundation for individual human flourishing.
In any event, this intellectual progress has been the result of the accumulated knowledge transmitted from generation to generation through the educational apparatus of the different societies. This has always been the case: If we go back in time, say, to England in the eighteenth century, we would find ethical values transmitted mainly by religion and technological and other practical knowledge transmitted by trade and technical schools lato sensu, such as schools of medicine, law, or engineering. Natural and social sciences would be transmitted along with the perennial philosophy and the other liberal arts by colleges and universities, depending on how broad the scope of their teachings was.
How should we go about transmitting the accumulated wisdom that we have inherited? A liberal education has long been considered a way to gain general knowledge about how society works and about how to live a proper life, with the understanding that the student will eventually join a trade or a profession and understand how that activity would fit in society. However, it is reasonable to question whether the education of the businessperson or of the statesman should be the same as that of the priest or educator, whatever commonalities they may have. It would take a lifetime for someone to educate himself in all the great books of the Western canon, to say nothing of acquiring knowledge about other civilizations. That may be a lifetime goal worth pursuing incidentally, but it is unrealistic to expect all well-rounded persons to do that. Even less realistic is to assume that a four-year BA in liberal arts would provide such an education.
From that realization has come the demand for a liberal arts program not intended for people aiming for purely speculative pursuits, but for people interested in becoming thoughtful men of action. In order to attend that demand, programs of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE for short) were created.
The PPE undergraduate program offered by Oxford University opened in 1921, and to this day it is a selective program with distinguished alumni. The number of British political and business leaders who have attended that program is impressive. A few prestigious American Universities offer similar programs with similarly impressive results.
As important as classes in English literature or art history can be to the education of a future lawyer, businessperson, or political leader, classes on the moral foundations of law, the theory of the state, or economic theory would represent a part of the Western tradition closer to the interests of those individuals if they want to succeed in their fields, and that is what a PPE program may provide.
In this sense, a PPE program is not a new school or a new discipline, but a concentration of studies as part of a liberal education. The programs offer a general education more attuned to the needs of people who will operate in the private sector (both for-profit and non-profit), in government, or in the legal profession.
Take economics as an example. A PPE program would be a way for a college to attract students interested in getting a broader education than mere training in neoclassical economics, as important as that may be. Most economic education, to this day, takes the institutional setting as given. Thinking about the economics of institutional change simply is not present. But in a world where digital technologies are changing monetary instruments, the study of monetary theory may benefit from some discussions about the nature of money. Knowledge about the many different functions of money for society and how to rank them in importance is crucial to better assess new forms of monetary instruments, either from an economic or legal perspective, for instance.
State theory is another example, one that shows how economic reasoning may be enhanced by teachings from outside of economics, especially something that would be covered in a PPE program. Economists in general do not think much about monetary prerogatives and the justifications for the state monopoly of money production currently exercised by virtually all modern states. These are not arcane or antiquarian considerations as everyone engaged in discussions about the regulation of digital currencies has already perceived. A final example, this time from inside economics itself. Adding Austrian economics would broaden the scope of a regular program in economics as it is taught today in most colleges and universities. That is why Austrian Economics should be an integral part of any PPE program.
I would argue that such a concentration of studies could be useful even at the graduate level. Take for instance the Adam Smith Fellowship program offered by the Mercatus Center of George Mason University in partnership with Liberty Fund. They bring together a selected group of graduate students from different universities for a year-long program in which the teachings of Austrian Economics, the Virginia school of Economics, and the Bloomington school are combined. Think about that as a conversation between Frederick Hayek, James Buchanan, and Elinor Ostrom, along with their respective colleagues.
The integration of concepts about the nature of the market process (as Austrian Economics can provide), with concepts about the logic of collective action (as Public Choice theory can provide), and the insights about poly-centric orders (as the Bloomington school can) certainly will help students understand and apply the economic way of thinking in ways that narrow neoclassical theory would never do alone. Neoclassical economics is a much poorer guide to understanding social reality than the one you can gain with a grasp of the political theory behind Public Choice, or of the relations between the different institutional settings and the psychology explaining the behavior of the economic agents under those different set of rules.
Paraphrasing Hayek: “an economist that is only an economist is not only a nuisance, he may become dangerous.”
For a student pursuing an advanced degree in economics, political science, philosophy, or law, with the ambition to become a man of action, the insights offered by a program similar to this one could be invaluable. Likewise for scholars whose fields of study cover the same practical matters necessary for the success of the man of action.
Merely offering a PPE program, of course, does not guarantee pedagogical success. And PPE programs may be vulnerable to the same forces that have undermined liberal arts institutions. At Oxford, for instance, they suggest students prepare for their program by reading Paul Krugman’s books. Before becoming a public intellectual, that author was an important economist, a Nobel laureate to boot. Still, if the purpose of enrolling in a PPE program is to get a broad liberal education with an emphasis on practical matters, that seems an odd choice of preparatory readings.
That leads us to a final realization. Many of the problems with a liberal education nowadays are not caused by the vastness of the liberal arts and the time limitations of the students, as important as these factors are. Many of those problems are due to ideological choices made by faculties and administrators—choices that narrow the liberal education experience to the point of making it worthless or even counterproductive.
Nowadays in many institutions of higher education in the United States, it is possible to get a liberal arts degree taking courses such as Feminist critical theory, History of black music in the 1920s, studies on gender identity, and none on Shakespeare, Aristotle, or the Reformation.
Given what has just been argued, a real liberal education must require core disciplines. In particular, a PPE program must focus on those fields that will provide the analytical and applied skills its students will need to become an entrepreneur in the private and public sectors. To be successful in worldly matters the students enrolled in an ideal PPE program need to be exposed to disciplines that could instill in them a sense of realism. That means learning to see politics without romance, and learning to avoid the fatal arrogance common to the elitists that do not see the limitations of their own knowledge. It means learning that social institutions are not a given, for good or evil. They are what they are for a reason, and it is in the power of our intellect to understand those reasons, even if we cannot yet fully understand how the institutions operate on our behavior. Obviously, these studies cannot be replaced by a cafeteria-style “gen-ed” curriculum or by ideologically motivated courses of study.
The decline of support for classical liberal ideas in Western societies may be partially traced to the decline of liberal education. Part of the reason for that is obviously to be found in the anti-Western bias of a significant portion of higher education institutions nowadays, which are drifting away from reason, truth, beauty, and virtue. Another significant part of the problem is the object of this essay: the need to select the disciplines best suited to the goals of individual students from that vast body of knowledge.
An education fitting to thinkers and doers in the 21st century should be one that gives the young persons a general knowledge broad enough to help them to integrate the specific field of their future studies with the rest of the accumulated knowledge of our society. But it also must develop a Weltanschauung that may help them to integrate effectively their future endeavors in this world as it is, and not an imagined world of unrealistic models or ideological dogmas.