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Is the prolific writer and broadcaster Niall Ferguson a 'proper' historian? The Scot tells Matthew Reisz that reaching a mass audience is a serious business - but not as serious as the decline in educational standards that is undermining Western hegemony

March 24, 2011

Anyone seeking an academic with "impact" should look no further than Niall Ferguson. His books and television series about the British Empire, its American successor and the bloody 20th century have been hugely popular. Whether they irritate, inform or entertain, they have certainly got people talking about big historical questions - and their relevance to today's challenges.

Yet they have also led to a good deal of criticism from other scholars, on the grounds that Ferguson sacrifices depth to breadth and no longer quite counts as a "proper" historian. Much of this no doubt can be attributed to envy, snobbery or lack of sympathy for Ferguson's robustly expressed political views. But perhaps it also reflects a sense that impact is all very well and good, provided it's the right sort of impact.

But if his peers' reaction to his work concerns Ferguson, he shows little sign of it, and he is cautiously sympathetic to current models for funding research.

"Some academic disciplines such as the sciences and economics already measure impact pretty rigorously with reference to article citations in peer-reviewed scholarly works," he argues. "A certain rigidity can afflict such quantitative systems, admittedly.

"For example, I learned recently that US economists are assessed solely on the basis of their articles, not books, so John Maynard Keynes' General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money today would be considered to have no academic impact, which is absurd. But I think this kind of approach is generally preferable to entrusting too much power to panels of 'wise men'."

However, it strikes him as "wrong-headed" that the Higher Education Funding Council for England's funding allocation plans "also appear to involve measuring commercial impact - spin-off companies and so forth...Commercial spin-offs are already being funded by the market. The point of grant-awarding bodies is that they are supposed to channel public funds precisely to research that does not have an immediately realisable commercial application."

Although he has also produced more scholarly tomes based on primary sources, Ferguson notes that his "big" books and TV series are "obviously intended as works of synthesis" - and he pours scorn on the minute criticisms of "pedants in oak-panelled studies who are looking to find fault, but have probably published only a couple of articles in The English Historical Review in their entire career".

Ferguson's popular works "have an impact because they reach millions of people".

"Does that mean I have ceased to be a 'proper' historian? Only if you consider it improper to try to explain history to a mass audience. I have no time for people who think that academics should confine themselves to addressing their colleagues and students at elite universities. For the record, I have done and continue to do my share of academic work, publishing on average one article a year in a peer-reviewed journal. It's possible to address - and have an impact on - both the scholarly community and the wider public."

Such striking self-confidence is well on display in Ferguson's new six-part TV series. This is boldly titled Civilization: Is the West History? and consciously goes head to head with Kenneth Clark's celebrated 1969 series Civilisation: A Personal View - which, he says, "defined how my parents' generation thought about the West and its relation to the rest of the world".

"Clark's art historian's view of what civilisation really is won't do for me," Ferguson notes. "I love the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but it's not the reason the West dominated the rest, because Suleiman the Magnificent had some great ceilings, too."

This issue is at the heart of both the programmes and the accompanying book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, which is offered as "a history of the world (since about 1400), in which Western dominance is the phenomenon to be explained". They are structured around what Ferguson calls six "killer apps" - the factors that allowed the West to succeed.

It was precisely the competition between "the impoverished, strife-torn petty states of Western Europe" that enabled them to outstrip 14th-century China's hidebound Ming dynasty and "embark on half a millennium of almost unstoppable expansion". The "wholly Eurocentric" scientific revolution led to "the long Ottoman retreat after 1683". (There was apparently only a single Western book, on syphilis, translated into a Middle Eastern language before the late 18th century.)

It was attitudes to property rights and representative government that largely explain the very different fates of British and Iberian America, Ferguson contends, with the territory south of the Rio Grande consigned to "two centuries of division, instability and underdevelopment". And it was primarily the success of the consumer society that eventually put paid to the Soviet Union and its satellites, he notes.

None of this was inevitable: indeed, much of it would have seemed implausible in advance. Yet, together with medicine and what Ferguson calls "the Protestant word ethic" - the promotion of literacy and printing - these are the key factors behind "the grand narrative of Western ascent...the pre-eminent historical phenomenon of the second half of the second millennium after Christ".

Today, however, Ferguson fears that we are witnessing "the end of 500 years of Western predominance", as there is "very little doubt that China's economy will overtake that of the US in the next 10 years" - with India perhaps to follow around the middle of the century.

As one of the inventors of the term "Chimerica", Ferguson used to believe that China's vast holdings of US sovereign debt locked the two countries in an embrace neither could escape. However, since the global financial crisis, he now believes that "Chimerica has all the symptoms of a marriage on the rocks, including some much more ugly exchanges about 'currency manipulation'?".

Ferguson says: "I think that China, unlike America, has a Plan B: to grow the Chinese consumer, reduce reliance on exports, diversify out of dollars and into commodities, make acquisitions right around the globe and innovate in ways that mean it is no longer just a workshop for other people's ideas. It is not as reliant on the US as it was even 10 years ago, and the more that it can diversify out of Chimerica, and out of US treasuries in particular, the more leverage it has."

Almost more than these scenarios, Ferguson worries about "the loss of self-belief and self-confidence that characterises the West. We don't seem to have faith in our brand of civilisation anything like the faith that devout Muslims have in theirs."

Ferguson clearly believes that the West should fight back, not least through education. Although employed as Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard University, he is spending the current academic year at the London School of Economics, where, he says, "I am enjoying teaching very much. The student body is, like Harvard's, very international. The discussions in class are lively.

"My sole regret is that I can't teach a course for credit here (for bureaucratic reasons), because students get more out of lectures when they're under pressure to do the reading and produce some written work."

Yet, personal experience aside, Ferguson believes "we are doing a stunningly bad job of educating the next generation. The most important thing in economic history is technological change, which enhances productivity. That is pretty closely correlated with the quality of human capital, which depends on education. We are in trouble if we have a workforce that is less and less well-educated. Living standards in the West are going down for the unskilled and it's hard to see any way of stopping that.

"In science and medicine, we can maintain our lead or give it up. It's a simple choice. Investment in pure research and development, incentivising clever people to go off and do PhDs, really makes a difference."

Although by no means uncritical of US higher education, Ferguson worries far more about developments in the UK, where he finds the level of contact hours in many institutions "shocking". He will be "frankly encouraging my children to go to the US, because you get a better level of undergraduate education there...The government cannot be blamed for a crisis that has deep roots in the way British universities are funded. Without adequate endowments and without adequate fees, UK universities have been reduced to abasing themselves before centralised funding bodies and overcharging non-European Union students."

In setting out his "killer apps", Ferguson hopes that his readers and viewers will "understand the things that made the West so dominant" and realise "what we really need to preserve, the things that really count". Compared with such grand ambitions, sorting out British higher education should be pretty small beer.

Ferguson's credo is firmly based on the American model: "I believe in incentivising alumni donations via the tax system; charging fees similar to competitor institutions in the US; eliminating the EU/non-EU fee differential; and creating a new system of scholarships and bursaries for able UK students from families with below-median household incomes."

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