Jesse Norman applies 20th-century philosopher Michael Oakeshott's ideas about culture, learning and experience to explore contemporary attacks on the political ranks of 'college-educated' PPE-ites.

At the time of the Clacton by-election, Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, referred dismissively to his party's political opponents as 'college educated'. It has become a kind of mantra for him, a standard term of abuse. More broadly, he denounced members of parliament in leadership positions across the political spectrum as 'college kids who know little of the real world'.

At around the same time, the commentator Nick Cohen, himself an Oxford graduate in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE), wrote in the Spectator magazine that Oxford PPE degrees have created a 'robotic governing class'. He pointed out that there are now 35 PPE graduates in the House of Commons, including six members of the cabinet and four in the shadow cabinet.

This is not a new phenomenon. There was a moment in the 1970s when both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition, Ted Heath and Harold Wilson, were Oxford PPE graduates. Further afield, Tony Abbot, the prime minister of Australia, is a PPE graduate, and it's been remarked that, at one point in the last decade, 5 per cent of the world's foreign ministers had been educated at St Antony's College, Oxford. Nor is the media immune from this particular condition: Nick Robinson, Evan Davis, David Dimbleby and Robert Peston are all 'PPE-ites'.

How did having a university education come to be a slur when it is regarded as something to aspire to in almost every other part of the world and in many parts of this country? Is this just political knockabout or is there something deeper going on?

In one sense, the target is a very odd one. PPE was designed at Oxford University as a sort of 'modern Greats'. It was designed to ape the classics degree in a modern context. It is the very model of a flexible interdisciplinary liberal arts degree, and it has been very widely adopted around the world.

These reflections are not intended to open up a political argument, but to provide a starting point for an exploration of the nature of university, of liberal arts and of political education. Let's kick off with a work that will be familiar to many: Cardinal Newman's book, The Idea of a University, published in 1852 (University of Notre Dame Press, 1982).

In 1852 you had to be an ordained member of the Church of England in order to teach at a university. But for Newman, the primary focus of university was not moral or religious. His argument was that the university's primary goal should be an intellectual one. Its job was to encourage and expand the scope of the human intellect. Newman said:

'The view taken of a university [in this book] is the following: that it is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is, on the one hand, intellectual not moral; and, on the other, that it is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement of knowledge.'

That is interesting because it rather contrasts with the later development of the research university – first in Germany and then at places like John Hopkins University in the United States. But Newman was very clear that the purpose of a university was teaching, not research. Teaching for him is universal. It embraces all branches of human knowledge. It is unrestricted. It is not subject to external authority, and particularly not to religious authority. It has a goal and that goal is to prepare students for the world.

Newman offers this argument in the context of a highly religiously oriented society, but his view is not a religious one. It is in a sense a liberal view, as he is unconstrained by religion. It is not doctrinally inspired, but it is one which exists – and self-consciously so – within the context of wide religious observance.

Let us go on 17 years, to another great text of the high Victorian period, Matthew Arnold's book Culture and Anarchy, published in 1869 (Oxford University Press, 2006). Arnold thinks first of culture, and defines culture as the best that has been thought and said in the world. In effect he says 'go through the scope of human history, find out the best things that have been thought and said, and that's culture'.

Arnold also argues that: 'Culture is properly described not as having its origin in curiosity but as having its origin in the love of perfection. It is a study of perfection.' As such, it fills a gap left by religious dogma – a gap as a kind of solution, one solution to man's search for perfection.

Arnold published what has become a very famous poem a couple of years earlier, 'Dover Beach', in which he wrote:

'The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.'

So faith is receding, and the question is what is going to succeed faith? What is going to fill that gap, that gap in people's minds, this gap of moral enlightenment, of meaning?

For Arnold, the answer was culture. For him, culture has a function. Its function lies in drawing the human race 'onwards to a more complete perfection'. He argues that culture leads us 'to conceive of true human perfection as a harmonious perfection, developing all sides of our humanity; and as a general perfection, developing all parts of our society.'

It is therefore not merely individual, as in individual perfection or individual advancement. It is a matter of our collective advancement as a society, and that idea in turn has proved to be hugely influential. In the US, Arnold's essay has long been an inspiration of the so-called 'great books' tradition, very prominently associated with Columbia University, but now taught in well over 100 colleges across the country.

This, broadly, is the context in which I want to locate this essay: these reflections on the university and culture from the Victorian era.

We can now turn to Michael Oakeshott. He was arguably the greatest political philosopher in the English-speaking world since Edmund Burke. A man of enormous personal charm, he had a somewhat rackety personal life; but he is indisputably a great philosopher.

In 1933, Oakeshott published Experience and its Modes (Cambridge University Press, 1978). The book was not a bestseller – it took 50 years for its first print run of 1,000 copies to sell out.

In it, Oakeshott argues that all of human experience is conditioned by certain ways of seeing, or what he calls modes. These are different frameworks through which the scientist, the historian, and the practitioner or the artist, interrogate the world. Let us imagine they are presented with a piece of music. A scientist might see it quantitatively as a set of sounds or wavelengths with a distinct pattern or order. The historian will see the piece of music as a contingent cultural artefact created in or through a specific set of circumstances. The practitioner might see it as offering an occasion for performance.

Modes in this sense – modes of experience – are in Oakeshott's terms 'languages', not 'literatures'. That is to say, they are ways of questioning and explaining the world, but they are not bodies of thought as such. So by this account science, for example, is seen as a way of interrogating the world, but not a body of thought as such.

The function of philosophy, then, is to identify and describe these modes. For each mode, the philosopher elucidates its leading concepts, its presuppositions and so on, to make clear its intellectual boundaries and governing framework. What makes these modes into modes for Oakeshott is that they have achieved a high level of internal consistency, backed up by fertile conceptual armoury. But more than this, they develop institutional bases within society. We have scientists and historians, and departments of science and history in what have become universities.

Indeed, over time, Oakeshott came to see these modes as distinct voices, and the interplay between these voices – the voices of science, arts, practice, history – as constitutive of culture and civilisation. (He might have accepted the claims of other disciplines to modality – possibly, in the end, even economics. Ultimately this is a contingent matter, which is potentially a weakness in his thought: it suggests that the test of modality is dependent on how a given framework has in fact evolved and settled, rather than on some philosophical or logical criterion.)

So for Oakeshott a liberal education is not a technocratic process for creating future workers. It is not even a simple transfer of knowledge from one person to another. It is really a kind of adventure, a kind of initiation into what he calls 'the conversation of mankind'. It's a way in which we learn to be human: by participating in that conversation which makes up our culture. In his words: 'The pursuit of learning is not a race in which the competitors jockey for the best place. It is not even an argument or a symposium. It is a conversation.' For Oakeshott, the university is par excellence the place where these voices gather, intermingle and engage with each other.

This metaphor of conversation may seem rather loose, but it is surprisingly demanding. Think of what a conversation actually is. It is not a monologue: it is directed towards other people. To enter a conversation you must first have a voice, so there is a degree of attention to be given to one's own self and one's own voice. You must treat others with respect – you must treat others as your presumptive equals, and listen to them. The tone may be playful – it may be amused, despairing, interrogatory – but it cannot be hectoring. It cannot be doctrinaire. It can be argumentative, but it cannot be disputatious.

Every conversation requires its participants to understand the context within which it occurs. It draws attention to the specific circumstances in which it takes place. It demands an art of recognition. It's a kind of spontaneous improvised dance. You can always tell when someone is a good conversationalist because they enter at the right moment, they make a contribution and they step out. As with a dance, conversation demands recognition, imagination, spontaneity, engagement and anticipation. It has no governing purpose or goal to be discharged. It is what Oakeshott calls an unrehearsed intellectual adventure.

How does this idea, this very interesting set of ideas, fit into the wider liberal tradition that I've identified, reflecting on the nature of culture and the university? It's not hard to see a broad sympathy with Newman in particular, whose ideas in many ways Oakeshott elaborates and extends.

For Oakeshott, any utilitarian notion of a university as a preparation for the world, producing workers, focussing on the transfer of specific skills, is beside the point. His world is one of experience and possibility, not of objects and actuality. His view of education has a vastly greater philosophical precision and nuance than Newman's. But he rejects virtually every aspect of Matthew Arnold's view of culture. This is because he sees culture not as a thing, but as a happening. It is not a noun but a verb; not an event but a dynamic – or more strictly speaking, energetic – unfolding. It is open-ended and oriented towards the future. For Oakeshott, unlike Arnold, it has no further purpose or governing objective. It springs from curiosity and delight, not from any notion of love and perfection which is unattainable and which, in any case, could never be satisfied.

What does all this say about PPE and present-day attacks on 'college education'?

Oakeshott's critique of the teaching of politics is a simple one. In his view, politics is not a mode of experience. So the language of politics is not, at root, genuinely a language of explanation. Instead, explanations are offered and drawn into political teaching from other modes, notably science, history and law.

From this perspective, then, politics is not a real subject, at least as it is currently taught. To use Oakeshott's vernacular, politics is a literature. It is a location of thought, but it does not itself offer a genuine way of thinking. There is a strong contrast here with a different way of teaching politics, that is, politics as a vocational training. The Greeks would call it a techne: a craft full of tacit, inarticulable knowledge that can only be gained by experience, not from university tuition or book learning.

Why does this matter? The concern is that thinking of politics and the subject in its own right in the way that we do today, in subjects such as PPE, carries with it, Oakeshott might say, a kind of pathology. It threatens to push students away from understanding the modes of history and science and law, from really engaging with what is explanatorily fundamental in political reflection. In particular, this might be its effect if it were to encourage students to seek political explanations within economics and to see politics itself as economics in disguise – and economics in turn as a technocratic matter of control.

It might be seen as a pathology if it encouraged people to regard book learning mistakenly as a way to acquire the craft of politics, or to undervalue the art and importance of conversation as a means of engaging the electorate. These are the kinds of pathologies that lurk beneath some aspects of our contemporary public discourse. By contrast, politics as conversation is a corrective to the intrinsically patronising rhetoric of spin doctors and political managers.

Let me leave you with one final thought, from Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times. His piece, written in 2010 about the economic crisis that had recently engulfed western capitalist economies, was called, 'Sweep economists off their throne'. It was a great cry for history, contextual understanding, and a degree of modesty in approaching the past.

'The financial economic crash may have dented the confidence of some economists in particular tenets of their discipline, but the great recession seems unlikely to dissuade many economists from the more fundamental belief that there are indeed 'predictive laws' out there just waiting to be discovered. Rather than seeking to ape physicists, however, perhaps it is time for economists to learn a few lessons from history, or more precisely from historians.'

This way of looking at the world is less obviously useful to practical men seeking to make decisions. But perhaps it is wiser. Perhaps the time has come for a new political economy, as an alternative to the brash certainties pedalled by those pseudo-scientists known as economists. Michael Oakeshott would, I think, have approved.

Jesse Norman is Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, and author of Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Poet (William Collins, 2013). He also edited The Achievement of Michael Oakeshott (Duckworth & Co, 1993).

This essay is an edited and abridged version of a talk given at the Future of Liberal Arts conference, King's College, London, 14 October 2014. It appears in edition 21.3 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas, published by Wiley.