2 May, 2011Issue 16.1HistoryInterviews

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An Interview with Niall Ferguson

William Kolkey and Alexander Barker

Niall Ferguson

Harvard historian Niall Ferguson detects a rot in the instruction of history. Sixty years ago, courses in Western civilisation offered sweeping narratives that required students to engage with classical texts and study the reasons for Western ascendancy. Today, Ferguson bemoans, students “have been encouraged to feel empathy with imagined Roman centurions and Holocaust victims, not to write essays about why and how their predicaments arose.” Ferguson’s recently released Civilization: The West and Rest (reviewed by Oliver Cussen in issue 15.6) seeks to return a focus to grand historical narrative, answering what Ferguson considers to be the most interesting question of Western historiography: how 11 empires came to control 58% of the world’s land surface and 79% of economic output. Ferguson enumerates six advantages—or “killer apps”—of the West: competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumerism, and work ethic. Together, they allowed the West to pull ahead of the “Rest”; however, Ferguson warns, these advantages are no longer the West’s preserve. Just as Westerners are beginning to lose faith in their cultural institutions, Easterners are “downloading” the apps that once created the conditions for Western supremacy. The 21st century, Ferguson concludes, may be defined by the precipitous decline of the West and the ascendancy of the East.

On Saturday, 9 April, Ferguson spoke to the Oxonian Review about Eastern ascendancy, the relationship between Western cultural institutions, and how to improve the instruction of history.

If the West is a set of cultural institutions and practices, why would the downloading of Western apps by the East not constitute an expansion of the West, rather than its decline?

That is an issue I address in the conclusion of the book by asking—particularly with reference to chapter 5—how far the consumer society represents a Westernisation of every society that it touches. At one level, we can celebrate the success of China and India emerging from poverty by using our killer applications. It’s just that the most successful of these consumer societies—China—has not downloaded all six. In particular, it isn’t interested—at least it doesn’t appear to be interested right now—in the idea of the rule of law, private property rights, and representative government: the John Locke app. So if China is going to become the largest economy in the world in the next ten years and increasingly a competitor for strategic dominance with the United States, I don’t think we can call this a triumph of Westernisation. This is a country that is still a one-party state and where, for example, an artist like Ai Weiwei can be simply arrested at Beijing airport after expressing criticism of the regime. I think there is some Westernisation going on in China—that is obvious in the way people dress—but to call this a complete triumph of Western civilisation is highly na√Øve.

What do you think the consequences are for Eastern ascendancy that all the Western apps haven’t been downloaded, particularly representative government?

The good news is that India has all these institutions. It’s just that they work rather slowly. One way of thinking of it is that India has the software but there are some bugs in the machinery that make it run super slowly. I’m an optimist about India, because I think those problems can be fixed and are being fixed. India is a free society in which you can criticise politicians for being corrupt, and we’ve just seen an enormous surge of public opinion in India about corruption, which is going to have a very [sizable] effect on Indian political life. It’s much harder for the Chinese to cope with the aspirations of their middle class…[because] there is no political channel to express dissent. If you look ahead to the 21st century in which there is an equal in economic terms to the United States and European Union in the form of China, but that this China is very emphatically not a free society, the potential for conflict is very obvious. And we already see it in a whole range of economic areas, and we are seeing it beginning in the scramble for commodities, which is rampant in Africa and South America—not to mention Australia—right now. And ultimately there is more reason to expect a breakdown in relations between the West and China than to expect them to carry on harmoniously.

Do you think there is any link between the apps insofar as having five apps would begin you on the path to acquiring the sixth?

They are presented in the book in a chronological sequence, and I’m implying that there is a causal relationship. The transition to representative institutions and the rule of law was a very important precursor of the successful industrialization of the English-speaking world. The fact that China has gotten as far as becoming an industrial superpower without the creation of free institutions is a cause for concern. It is a likely source of instability. I draw a parallel with Wilhelmine Germany in late 19th and early 20th centuries—a very dynamic economy but with a fundamentally deformed political system, which ultimately resorted to aggressive foreign policy rather than make meaningful concessions to the left. There is an interesting parallel to be drawn there, but one wouldn’t want to take it too far. The big unknown is the timing and nature of institutional change that will come to China. No one denies that some kind of change will come, but the timing of it is very hard to gauge. And my fear is that a regime like the Chinese regime, faced with economic and social challenges, will be quite tempted to resort to nationalism to legitimise itself. We’ve already seen that happen in some degree.

Is it the case that in the West we’ve lost faith in our apps?

I think to some extent we have, although it’s very hard to generalise now because there are so many very profound differences between—say—the United States and Europe. What I see is a mindset in which the last 500 years is primarily understood through the prism of imperialism and the crimes of the West against the Rest. By emphasising empire in the narrative of modern history, we make a major mistake, because the least interesting thing about Western civilisation is that it engaged in imperialism. Everybody did that. All civilisations of any real note have engaged in some kind of imperialist expansion. The original, interesting things about the West are not slavery and not conquest. The interesting things are the innovations in the realm of science or political institutions or economic life. Those are the novel things. My sense is that the way we think about our past now, the way that we teach kids in school, underplays the importance of—to take one other example—the work ethic. So I do think we are in danger of undervaluing our own civilisation and doing the thing that’s fatal: we are failing to transmit its values to the next generation.

You’ve written that this transformation in the instruction of history is rooted in the 1960s. Is there a reason for the de-emphasis of Western values?

I think there is a close link between the political left and a shift in the way in which the content and the form of teaching were conceived. The New History, insofar as it was a movement in this country, was partly a design to transform historical methods and to move away from the idea that history is “one fucking thing after another”—in the famous Allen Bennett phrase. There was a political angle to that because it was supposed to be displacing Our Island Story—a caricatured version of British history that sprung from Macaulay and turned into an early 20th-century textbook. I’m not arguing for going back to Our Island Story. But I think it would help to have some kind of story beyond the wickedness of empire in the way we understand the period from 1500 to the relatively recent past.

I don’t want to make this too simplistic. A lot of what has happened in history education has been the law of unintended consequences. I certainly don’t think Kenneth Baker, when he was education secretary, had any clue what the national curriculum would mutate into after it was created. But I think there’s a problem, and I think the problem is there in a generation that is leaving school with a very, very jumbled and fragmentary knowledge of the past. Very few people would dissent from that despite the attempts of school inspectors like Ofsted to claim that everything is fine.

How do you reconcile reorienting the curriculum to teach an overarching narrative with educating students to examine primary sources?

There is a need for realism about how much in the way of historical methodology you can teach a 12-year-old kid, and I think there is a somewhat disingenuous belief that you can teach the methods of professional historians to preteens who don’t even know whether the Enlightenment came before or after the Renaissance. I think you’ve got to walk and then run. And teaching sources and methods first—in my experience talking to kids—is not a particularly effective way in engaging them. Indeed, if you talk to both teachers and school children doing Key Stage 3 and GCSE, they mostly ridicule the source analysis. And I don’t blame them. If you look at what they are asked to analyse, it is usually one paragraph. It is a parody; a sort of caricature of what we do. And that’s really why, in some way, I am in revolt against that approach. I don’t think they’re in fact really learning historical methods; I think it’s a charade. And it would be far better [teaching] some historical knowledge, facts, and then worrying about the methodology when they’re a little bit older. It’s all about getting people to study history in the long term. Right now you can stop at 13, which is crazy.

How would you change the way history is taught at the university level?

In one fundamental way. In my experience, both at Oxford and at Harvard, far too little of the philosophy of history is taught. And faint runs through historiography are no substitute for a proper grounding in philosophy as a subject. You probably haven’t been asked to read RG Collingwood or Michael Oakeshott or Benedetto Croce or any of the philosophers who grasped and grappled with the issues of historical thought…The thing I would change if I had some control over our graduate programme at Harvard [is to] make every single PhD student do a foundational course in historical philosophy in year one.

William Kolkey is reading for a DPhil in History at Magdalen College, Oxford. He is the executive editor of the Oxonian Review. Alexander Barker is reading for a DPhil in Political Theory at Lincoln College, Oxford. He is the editor-in-chief of the Oxonian Review.