Hicks was born in 1904 in Warwick, England, and was the son of Dorothy Catherine (Stephens) and Edward Hicks, a journalist at a local newspaper.
He was educated at Clifton College (1917–1922) and at Balliol College, Oxford (1922–1926), and was financed by mathematical scholarships. During his school days and in his first year at Oxford, he specialised in mathematics but also had interests in literature and history. In 1923, he moved to Philosophy, Politics and Economics, the "new school" that was just being started at Oxford. He graduated with second-class honors and, as he stated, "no adequate qualification in any of the subjects" that he had studied.