Nearly 100 years ago Oxford University began a degree program that combined the study of philosophy, political science, and economics—PPE for short. The idea was to create a course of study that included elements of traditional classical education with subjects that would be immediately applicable to the contemporary world.
Since then, Oxford’s PPE program boasts countless graduates that pervade Britain’s highest levels of government, broadcasting, corporate leadership, intelligence, marketing, law, and other important offices. It’s not unusual for competing candidates in any given election to share a PPE degree, and to be covered in the national press by PPE graduates.
Today, there are about 50 universities in the U.S. that boast some form of the PPE ideal, including George Mason University, with the first cohort of undergraduate students graduating in 2017. The PPE concentration, which draws from the resources of the Schar School of Policy and Government and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, is the only PPE program in the Washington, D.C., region.
“PPE bridges practical, career-applicable skills with high-end intellectual endeavor,” said Matthew Scherer, the associate professor at the Schar School who directs the program. “It’s a traditional, rigorous-yet-innovative course of study that translates to a non-academic working world. I think for the students, that’s the appeal of the program.
“You learn a ton, and the things you learn can translate to any number of careers.”
The Mason program draws faculty from the staffs of the philosophy and economics departments as well as the Schar School, including Pulitzer Prize-winner Robinson Professor of Public Affairs Steven Pearlstein, who helped launch the program. About 10 professors form the core—both in classrooms and online—and are supplemented by another 20 to 30 professors from a variety of disciplines.
Scherer has been director of the PPE program for five years. “My background is in political theory,” he said, “and we political theorists tend to be curious people who are generalists—we like big problems. For me, my interest is grounded in intellectual questions with the fundamental point being: How could you possibly be an economist and be ignorant of political process? How can you study politics and not understand the economy? And wouldn’t you be better at doing both of those things if you had a reasonable grounding and facility with philosophical analysis?”
While PPE may strike a hardcore economics, political science, or philosophy major as diffused, Scherer points out that “it’s relatively recent that we split PPE into separate departments. If you take Adam Smith as an example, it’s clear that 200 years ago one would have studied these things together. It just makes intellectual sense to do philosophy, economics, and politics together.”
PPE is like a self-contained honors program, Scherer said, with a calendar of specialized events, activities, and a faculty-student lunch group, the Southside Group. Last year, 2018, saw the debut of the Roger Wilkins Lecture, a high-profile, campus-wide event that drew an audience of 250 to hear Pulitzer-Prize winning author James Foreman, Jr. The lecture is named for the eminent late Mason professor and civil rights activist who was the first black U.S. assistant attorney general.
While some PPE undergraduate students declare the concentration as a junior or senior, Scherer pointed out that “the sooner they start doing the coursework, the better off they will be. You can start anytime.”
Interested in joining the PPE program? Find information here and the application at this site.