Friday, April 23, 2010

Wills, Brooks & Ferguson Quick Takes

Garry Wills is interviewed about his background (he started with William Buckley & National Review), his thoughts on Obama (too much placation), and his new book Bomb Power (the undermining of Constitutional restraints on government because of prerogatives claimed by the National Security State). Great listening (no reason to watch, little to see).

Dave Brooks culls social science again for insights, this time challenging some earlier work by Obama friend, appointee, and potential SCOTUS nominee, Cass Sunstein. Brooks suggests that the internet isn't as polarizing as Sunstein originally feared. Sunstein has written some very interesting things about group polarization.

Niall Ferguson writing for the Financial Times "Too much Hitler and the Henrys'" argues that teaching history in the UK needs the same type of attention that Jamie Oliver brought to school lunches (Jamie did it first in the UK, and has since taken in West Virginia). Ferguson finds the curriculum disjunct, with no over-arching narrative to bring cohesion to the curriculum. Let me include a few quotes from his article:

    Why is this downgrading of history a bad thing? Well, for one thing, the current world population makes up only about 7 per cent of all the human beings who have ever lived. The dead outnumber the living, and we ignore the accumulated experience of such a huge majority of mankind at our peril. Second, the Past is our only reliable guide to the Present and to the multiple futures that lie before us, only one of which will actually happen.

Ferguson, however, realizes that history has a bad rap as a school subject:

    Now, nobody wants a return to the kind of mind-numbing history that used to be taught a generation ago – those strings of facts and dates, one damned thing after another, half-memorised by comatose pupils and famously lampooned in WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman's 1930 classic, 1066 and All That.

It's no coincidence that the most boring teacher at Hogwarts in JKRowling's Harry Potter books is the history teacher, Mr Binns, whose lessons about the goblin wars are so tedious that he himself has died of boredom without noticing.

Ferguson goes on to comment on the smorgasbord courses in lower grades that are supposed to constitute the history curriculum:

    The excessive concentration of sixth-formers on learning about either Hitler or the Henrys – the Third Reich or the Tudors – was already a cause of concern when I was a college fellow and tutor in history at Oxford University in the 1990s. I shudder to think what it must be like to conduct Oxbridge admissions now.

What we urgently need in this country is a campaign for real history in schools, to match Jamie Oliver's campaign for healthy school dinners. Like junk food, junk history is bad for kids. It encourages snacking and the mental equivalent of obesity – a chronic lack of mental shape. So here's what I would propose to vary the historical diet in English education.

Here's the point where Ferguson may generate some controversy, but this should generate some thought. The remainder of his article follows below:

    I also believe there should be a compulsory chronological framework over the entire period from entering secondary school right through to sixth form. All students at GCSE and A-level should cover at least one medieval, one early modern and one modern paper. The crucial thing is to have an over-arching story – a meta-narrative, as academics pretentiously call it. The one I propose for my new-look history course is called "western ascendancy".

Why do I use the word "western"? Aside from cowboy films, is it not completely passé? And why have I used the word "ascendancy", implying as it does some politically incorrect superiority?

The answer is simple. Western predominance was a historical reality after around 1500, and certainly after 1800. In that year, Europe and its New World offshoots accounted for 12 per cent of the world's population and (already) around 27 per cent of its total income. By 1913, however, it was 20 per cent of the world's population and more than half – 51 per cent – of the income. Today the west's share is back down to 12 per cent of the population, but still around 45 per cent of the income. Like it or not, the fact is that after 1500 the world became more Eurocentric. And understanding why that happened is the modern historian's biggest challenge.

It was a surprising turn of events. Had you made a tour of the world in the early 1600s, you would have hesitated before betting a significant sum that western Europe would inherit the earth.

The Oriental challengers for world power were outwardly a great deal more impressive. Ottoman Turkey under Mehmed IV (1648-87) was able to send an army under Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa to besiege – and very nearly conquer – Vienna in 1683. Mughal India in the reign of Shah Jahan 1627-58) was able to conquer the Deccan and to build the Taj Mahal and the Diwan-i-Am in Delhi. Qing China saw its golden age under the Kangxi Emperor (1662-1722). China had already invented the magnetic compass, paper, gunpowder, the spinning wheel, and the clock. The Muslim world had for many centuries led the west in the crucial field of mathematics. Indian astronomers had been far ahead of their medieval European counterparts.

So why did the states of western Europe – Portugal, Spain, France, the Netherlands and Britain – end up trouncing these eastern competitors, not only economically but also militarily and in some respects also culturally, so that by 1900 the world was dominated by western empires?

Anthropologist Jared Diamond's answer is essentially: geography, which determined two very different political orders. In the great plains of eastern Eurasia, monolithic Oriental empires evolved that had the fatal ability to stifle innovation. In mountainous, river-divided western Eurasia, by contrast, multiple monarchies and city-states engaged in competition and communication, and it was these processes that accelerated innovation sufficiently for an industrial revolution to take place.

His argument is almost irresistibly attractive, but for one difficulty. From the vantage point of the 1630s and 1640s, political fragmentation in Europe meant civil war and chaos.

Other hypotheses exist. One is that it was the acquisition of colonial "ghost acres" and the fortunate location of European coal deposits that gave the west the edge over the east. Or it may have been the cultural legacies of the Reformation.

If I were permitted to hazard some hypotheses they would go as follows. There were, in essence, six "killer applications" that allowed the west to establish dominance over the east: market capitalism, scientific method, representative government, modern medicine, the consumer society, and the Protestant work ethic.

The value of this approach to history at secondary level is threefold. First, it provides a narrative for around 500 years of world history. Second, it makes a comparative approach to history unavoidable, for clearly an interpretation of western success requires some complementary explanation of eastern stagnation. And, third, understanding western ascendancy encourages students to re-examine the present and the future, asking: are we approaching the end of western ascendancy? After all, most of these six elements have been more or less successfully replicated in some major non-western societies.

Let me not be misinterpreted. The point of studying western ascendancy is not to slip covert imperialist apologia into the curriculum. On the contrary, the great strength of this framework is that it allows students to study world history without falling into the trap of relativism, i.e. arguing as if the Ashanti Empire were in some way the equal of the British Empire.

Western ascendancy was not all good, any more than it was all bad. It was simply what happened and, of all the things that happened over the past five centuries, it was the thing that changed the world the most. That so few British schoolchildren are even aware of this is deplorable. Knowing the names of Henry VIII's six wives or the date of the Reichstag fire is no substitute for having a real historical education.

We have recently witnessed a successful campaign to improve the quality of lunches served in British schools. It is time for an equivalent campaign against junk history.

My comment: I think that Ferguson makes a strong argument here. He's talking "big history", which gives context to things like the Reichstag fire and other discrete events. To grasp history, the change wrought by time, one must have some sense of time and continuity, of change with some trajectory, even if caused for random, unanticipated events. For reasons I cannot explain, from a very early age I wanted to understand the sequence of events. I wanted to know who came first, Hitler or the Kaiser? (I kid you not about this, I remember puzzling over this at our house on Pioneer Avenue, and we had moved away from there before the beginning of the third grade.)

As to the importance of history, Ferguson makes a quick argument, but John Lukacs provides an event better and deeper appreciation of the importance of history. Put simply, everything is history. People, institutions, nature (think evolution as the keystone to modern biology), thinking itself, is always history (we can only think and imagine based on what we've experienced in the past). The late Neil Postman, NYU professor of "media ecology", argued that almost all subjects should be taught through their history. If you think about it, a lot of social science is history frozen in time to allow for more careful examination, much as a biologist takes a living organism out of history by killing and then dissecting it. Ferguson's argument should receive serious consideration both in the UK and in the US, the subject matter is too important to ignore.


one hungry panda said...

I can only partially agree with Ferguson. He needs to think carefully about whether he is encouraging students to impose meta-narratives where they don't exist. The fine-grained, detailed project of history should, in my opinion, be to identify the specific causal mechanisms that move history forward and explain society (see Paul Pierson for an excellent theoretical argument on this point). Also, I cannot agree with Ferguson shoddy discussion of the ascendancy of the West. Please see Kenneth Pomeranz (economic historian, UC Irvine)'s book "The Great Divergence" to understand why China (the most natural candidate to rise other than the West, parts of India, and perhaps Japan) didn't achieve modernity before the West. Pomeranz suggests that geography, natural resources, and exploitative colonialism are the real reasons the West "won out" not the story we LIKE to tell ourselves about our superior culture and institutions.

Stephen N. Greenleaf, Esq. said...

1HP: I'm not at all sure that NF would disagree with what you're saying. Any narrative is "just a story", and the question should always concern what better (truer) story might exist as an alternative. Indeed, the story is really a hypothesis, and should invite critical inquiry. Note that NF edited and wrote an extended essay on "virtual history" and counter-factuals, the "what if's" of history, that emphasize the contingent.

As to China, I thought NF might be alluding to Pomeranz's thesis when he wrote about "the fortunate location of European coal deposits that gave the west the edge over the east." NF directly addresses the potential for self-flattery in his essay as well, and I beleive that noting the possibility of its existence should serve to inoculate us against it. Finally, remember that NF's most recent book, "The War of the World" carries the sub-title, "20th Century Conflict and the Descent of the West". I don't think that he's ignorant of the changing tides of historical power.

Thanks for your comments, and hope your having a great time.