The study of politics, economics, law and social philosophy were interconnected prior to the latter part of the 19th century. Since then, the disciplines became disjointed, largely because of shifts in the way research was conducted.
The University of Arizona's Philosophy, Politics, Economics and Law, or PPEL, program seeks to bring the areas of study back together to provide students – primarily undergraduates – a contemporary liberal arts education.
"To understand the economic system and political issues, we have to understand issues of equity, fairness and social welfare," said Jerry Gaus, the James E. Rogers Professor of Philosophy who directs the program. "These things are part of a common fabric."
In a 2011 column, Jim Leach, the National Endowment for the Humanities chairman, defended the importance of a liberal arts education for the benefit of, among other things, preserving and perpetuating democratic ideals.
"With each passing year, jobs evolve, become more sophisticated. Training for one skill set may be of little assistance for another," Leach noted in his article.
"On the other hand, studies that stimulate the imagination and nourish capacities to analyze and think outside the box suit well the challenges of change. They make coping with the unprecedented a manageable endeavor," Leach said, emphasizing the need for expertise in basic education.
"What are also needed are the studies that provide perspective on our times and allow citizens to understand their own communities, other cultures and the creative process," he said.
At the UA, the highly competitive PPEL program – which is taught only by senior faculty and has a minimum grade-point average of 3.25 in the core courses – connects the four main disciplines.
Also, students must apply for advanced standing in order to continue in the program, with only 30 students selected each year.
"We wanted to devise a major where really good research faculty would be intensely involved with the undergraduates; where students get intensive interaction with faculty," Gaus said.
Students have the option of five study tracks: pre-law, international and global perspectives, policy studies, environmental issues and moral, economic and political values – though students also can design a study track.
"It was the draw of interdisciplinary studies that led me to the program, and the program gave me a good background in thinking critically," said Brenna Keene, a UA Honors College student in the program.
Keene, who will graduate in May and is in the midst of graduate school applications, has a strong interest in serving as a research or consulting around public policy work. She believes she is especially prepared for graduate studies because PPEL has provided her with extensive practice developing her critical thinking capacity.
In their coursework, students study contemporary social and political issues, such as the right to marry, debates around welfare economics and how morality is contextualized and defined. Students also analyze issues around social welfare and investigate the Constitution. Likewise, they must construct arguments and engage in persuasive writing.
"A lot of times you can sit in class, absorb the material and not process it, but PPEL makes you do that," Keene said. "It is rare that you sit in class and not say anything about the material. The program has connected for us the ability to think, and that is an important skill."
Lisette Cole took an interest in the PPEL program after taking PHIL 205, "the Ethics and Economics of Wealth Creation," and taking a strong interest in the subject of philosophy.
"I fell in love with philosophy. As I took more and more philosophy classes, I noticed a sincere lack of understanding toward economics and politics, as philosophers tend to focus on the theoretical and ideal world," Cole said.
Like Keene, Cole said she was attracted to the multi-discipline design of the program.