Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson
Civilization: The West and the Rest is the latest book of Niall Ferguson. “The book is partly designed so a 17-year-old boy or girl will get a lot of history in a very digestible way, and be able to relate to it,” he told the Observer recently. Some of them appear at the beginning of the Channel 4 series accompanying the book. That will account for his use here of terms such as “killer apps”. In the film the youngsters clearly understood this. (They smiled weakly.) I still don’t (the “killer” part, that is).
In Civilization: The West and the Rest, acclaimed historian Niall Ferguson argues that, beginning in the fifteenth century, the West developed six powerful new concepts that the Rest lacked: competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic. These were the ‘killer applications’ that allowed the West to leap ahead of the Rest; opening global trade routes, exploiting new scientific knowledge, evolving representative government, more than doubling life expectancy, unleashing the industrial revolution, and hugely increasing human productivity. Civilization shows exactly how a dozen Western empires came to control three-fifths of mankind and four-fifths of the world economy.
Ferguson also has two other agendas. One is to put over his view of world history, which he sees as having been dominated by “western” civilization (here generally just called “civilization”) for 500 years. It’s important for our sense of cultural identity, he believes, and consequently our ability to defend that identity against external threats, not to lose sight of this. Otherwise “civilization” could very quickly collapse. Now there’s a challenge! The second is to correct deficiencies in the way he claims that history is currently taught in British schools. The two are connected. How can this identity-preserving knowledge – the “big story” – be inculcated in the young, “given our educational theorists’ aversion to formal knowledge and rote-learning”, their preference for “everyone’s history but our own”, usually in “chunks”, and their obsession with study skills and textual analysis?
He has said this sort of thing before, in support of his new friend Michael Gove’s reforming ambitions for the school history syllabus. The implication is that this book, or something like it, could serve as a textbook for any new Goveian syllabus. But in fact it furnishes an almost perfect illustration of why children need to be taught analytical skills, more than “big stories” or facts.
There are anyway problems with using history to teach “identity”. The demand usually comes from politicians; but surely this is their job, which they could do much better – by preserving the institutions the British are most proud of, for example (the BBC and the NHS come to mind), or by making the country something we can be (even) prouder of in the future. History is too important and valuable in other ways – helping us to understand “other histories than our own”, for one – to be prostituted to this end.
And then there’s the vexed question of which “identity” should be taught. The favoured one is usually British, in order to inculcate “Britishness” – “Our island story”, as Gove likes to put it. But which island story? Kings, queens and battles? The old Whig one – how Britain has got freer and better over time? A radical one – from the peasants’ revolt to today’s TUC march for the alternative? An island story that includes the backgrounds of all our immigrants over the centuries? A Daily Telegraph readers’ one, perhaps: how Britain has gone to the dogs? How about one that gives as much attention to women as to men? Well, I’m sure one could strike some kind of balance among all these; but it would be bound to confuse students (rightly), which is why they would still need analytical skills to sort out the strands.
And “British” isn’t the only “identity” in the running. Europeanists will prefer a wider focus. And now we have Ferguson’s plea for history education that takes in the whole of “civilization” as he conceives it. Which will Gove choose? (Of course, if he makes enough time for history in the school syllabus, he can choose more than one.)
If world history comes into it, Ferguson’s new book shows how difficult it will be to teach it as “formal knowledge”, rote-learned. In many ways it’s an engaging book: uneven, yes, and ill-ordered, probably as a result of its derivation from the TV series, and of the ideological framework – the “six apps” – that Ferguson feels he needs to force his “facts” into. There are huge holes in the argument – selective evidence, non-sequiturs, and so on – that alone would make it a very poor model of true historical method for any schoolboy or girl. One assumes they would see through the more obvious sillinesses – such as the statement that the “true aim” of the student revolutions of 1968 was “male access to the female dorms”. (Ferguson should watch out that he doesn’t turn into history’s Jeremy Clarkson.) But it’s well written, with something quotable on nearly every page, and some terrific ideas.
It reads very assuredly on high finance – Ferguson’s true field. (He came into imperial history accidentally – invited, again, by TV.) For anyone expecting an imperialist rant – Ferguson has a certain reputation along these lines – the chapter that covers colonial Africa will come as a surprise. Africa “brought out the destructive worst in Europeans . . . The rapid dissolution of the European empires in the postwar years appeared to be a just enough sentence”. He seems to have learned something, then – perhaps developed some empathy – since the publication of his rather more celebratory Empire in 2003.
But he must know that his is only one way of looking at modern world history, idiosyncratic in many ways, far to the right – or one of the rights – of the political spectrum, and consequently highly unsuited to be taught to children as their only “big story”, for “identity” purposes. It reads like propaganda. The book’s subtitle is highly problematical (just as Empire’s was: “How Britain Made the Modern World”, for goodness sake). “The West and the Rest” sets up a dichotomy that is profoundly false in many ways, and of course patronising to the people he lumps together as (his word) “resterners”. That’s quite apart from his appropriation – in his main title – of the word “civilization” to cover only the (mainly) capitalist world and the materialist values associated with it. And – lastly, so far as these big issues are concerned – there’s his claim, repeated throughout the book, that “western” predominance in the world has lasted 500 years, no less. Readers, and viewers of the TV series, must be warned that this is emphatically not what most imperial historians believe. A mere 150-200 years is their usual estimate. (See, for example, John Darwin’s excellent After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405.) But even if they’re all wrong, this at least shows that there can be no agreement about the “facts” of even the grandest narrative. That’s why schoolchildren need to be taught to be critical, before anything else.
In many ways Ferguson is a creature of his time, and of the place he has chosen (for now) to live. The time, of course, is represented by his pretty extreme neo-liberalism, though that is becoming less fashionable now than it was. He chose to live in America, he states in his preface, because he was interested in money and power, and that was where “the money and power actually were”. It’s also where most of the “big history” comes from, in the sense of simple, over-arching themes that are supposed to explain everything, usually with big titles: The Clash of Civilisations, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, The End of History, Empire, Colossus (the last two both Ferguson’s).
It probably has something to do with America’s status as the dominant power in the world. Big countries; big histories. Britain produced similar over-arching theories when she was dominant. Indeed, I was reminded of Sir John Seeley’s famous The Expansion of England (1883) when I read Ferguson’s book. Nowadays we littler Britons come up with this sort of thing less often. Most of us realise that the more you stretch a theory, the more holes tend to appear in it. Civilization, with its “six killer apps”, is the latest in that older, grander, holey-er tradition. It may also be the last, if Ferguson’s warnings about the sudden end of western domination come true. (The schools, of course, will be to blame.) Then the next Seeley, or Ferguson, may be Chinese.
Subscribe Our Feed to receive an ebook everyday!
How to download eBooks: Click Download, wait 5 seconds and Click Skip This Ad to download ebook