Op-eds, Opinions

Jacobs ‘19: Philosophy, Politics and Economics is not overrated

By
Op-Ed Contributor
Thursday, February 14, 2019

Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19 is wrong about philosophy, politics and economics.

On Tuesday, he wrote a column in The Herald that took aim at the Brown University Journal of Philosophy, Politics and Economics and, specifically, at the Journal’s perceived “fawning affirmation” of Oxford University’s academic program of the same name.

I am a co-founder and former Editor-In-Chief of that Journal as well a PPE concentrator. And Krishnamurthy’s arguments, though I’m sure well intentioned, are wrong.

There are two major points in Krishnamurthy’s piece. The first involves the educational value of PPE and the perceived redundancy of the program, given the fact that Brown already has an open curriculum. And the second deals with Oxford and its specific PPE program; he argues that PPE is “a stark manifestation of … intellectual self-absorption and elitism.” These comments lead him to conclude that the founding of JPPE might have been “ill considered.”

I co-founded JPPE because I believe in the effectiveness of a PPE degree as an interdisciplinary approach to academics and analyzing contemporary circumstance. Krishnamurthy is right that part of the value of PPE stems from its ability to implore us to “thoughtfully draw connections between the realms of politics, philosophy and economics.”

Krishnamurthy fails to recognize the value of a single, interdisciplinary concentration, which allows for a more complete learning experience. My advocacy of PPE began because I believed it could be a useful remedy to the real challenges posed by the partitioning of the three disciplines it contains. And this was an argument I made as a columnist for The Herald before I helped launch JPPE.

For example, in economics, the models of growth, rates of return and wages students study are powerful tools; yet, without consideration of moral, social and political circumstances, it can be easy to obscure the deep normative assumptions embedded within those calculations. The reasoning behind a minimum wage increase, for example, might have far more to do with political or ethical calculations than pure economics. Philosophical and policy questions similarly benefit from the added perspective of new lenses. This is why the Journal’s mission centers around a nucleus of free discussion and challenges to existing norms.

And by applying three distinct lenses to contemporary circumstance, the interdisciplinary approach provides a well rounded educational experience, more attuned to a diversity of perspectives. Though this objective can be achieved without a PPE program, it takes academic structure, and PPE is one particularly powerful method of providing that structure.

Despite his skepticism, Krishnamurthy does qualify his academic criticisms of PPE. As a result, it seems his only real argument stems from his belief that the elitism of Oxford’s PPE program is one intrinsic to PPE and, moreover, that this elitism might spread through the careless fawning of an on-campus Journal.

He is right on one point. The notion that Oxford has a distinct elitist, exclusive streak is incontrovertible. A recent report found that one out of four Oxford colleges failed to admit a single black British student each year between 2015 and 2017. And the school continues to accept a disproportionate number of students from private schools.

Of course, as Krishnamurthy notes, these aren’t issues that are unique to Oxford — about 20 percent of Brown students come from the top one percent. Those same forces that allow Oxford to solidify inequalities are operating here at Brown through, for example, our career pipelines into banking and consulting.

There is also no question that Oxford’s PPE program is famous and widely regarded in Britain — many notable journalists and members of Parliament have graduated with the degree. And yet, Oxford’s PPE program does not reinforce inequalities because it is a degree in “philosophy, politics and economics.” It does so only because it is a degree at Oxford in the social sciences — about a quarter of all British MP’s went to Oxford or Cambridge University, and PPE isn’t even offered at the latter.

Apart from one quote, Krishnamurthy doesn’t provide any evidence that PPE is itself contributing to the reinforcement of a socio-economic class structure as opposed to, say, centuries of historical circumstances molding a distinct notion of class, globalization, rising returns to capital or networks among the privileged.

This is not to absolve PPE of its history at Oxford, which is certainly one associated with immense privilege and, by extension, inequality. That is a history students of PPE should recognize, for the same reasons political scientists, psychologists and neuroscientists should understand the injustices, inequities and barriers to entry that often marked their professions throughout history.

JPPE’s focus on PPE stems, not from admiration of Oxford, but instead from a genuine belief in the ideals of the interdisciplinary approach. The Journal has taken rigorous steps to separate itself from PPE’s history at Oxford and promote inclusion both on campus and off.

This is why JPPE dedicated its first issue specifically toward the challenge of inclusive economic growth and its second issue to the question of managing inequality caused by technological disruption.

Crucially, JPPE is unique because it takes submissions from everyone. So long as the essay is well researched, well argued and original, the Journal will consider it regardless of who it comes from. The publication has received pieces from people without college degrees, members of the US military and students from universities and colleges around the world.

By taking this approach, the Journal is not only bringing more people to the table; it is also providing richer content. For example, in the inaugural issue, a student at the University of Washington provided original economic data on the disproportionate effects of marijuana criminalization on black people in Washington State. And another recent essay by a student at the University of Cape Town focuses on the legacy of South African apartheid in the context of the country’s economic history.

In reality, JPPE does more to promote inclusion of new voices than most on-campus publications. The Journal’s robust outreach team has dedicated countless hours to forming relationships with communities outside of Brown. So when Krishnamurthy speaks about the Journal’s editors unknowingly abetting “the steady concentration of power in the hands of elites,” he demonstrates a lack of understanding about what JPPE is and what it actually does.

I’m glad to have this opportunity to contribute an op-ed that highlights JPPE’s commitment to inclusion. It is ultimately up to the Brown community to decide if the Journal is fulfilling its responsibilities toward that end, and that is an important conversation worth continuing.

Krishnamurthy’s particular criticisms, however, are largely unfounded. Instead of actionable suggestions, Krishnamurthy offers the vaguest possible exhortations — JPPE is rife with “complications,” and the Journal should engage in “serious introspection.”

If the point of Krishnamurthy’s article was to open discourse on how to make PPE more inclusive, then I would welcome him to sit in on the next JPPE Editorial Board meeting.  The question of inclusivity is one the staff has been wrestling with for over a year and a half. And though the Journal has more work to do, it has made considerable progress in this regard. The accusation that the publication’s team of around 50 students is at all ignorant of PPE’s history or unmotivated by its responsibility of inclusion is wrong.

So no. Philosophy, politics and economics is not overrated.

Julian Jacobs ‘19 is the co-founder and former editor-in-chief of JPPE. He can be reached at julian_jacobs@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.