9 Apr 2010 ... There is too much focus on the Third Reich and the Tudors, says Niall Ferguson.
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.
The first step is to make studying history to GCSE level compulsory. It cannot be wise for British schoolchildren to opt out of historical knowledge and understanding when their European contemporaries are still studying the subject.
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 –
in 1683. Mughal Vienna in the reign of Shah Jahan 1627-58) was able to conquer the India Deccan and to build the Taj Mahal and the Diwan-i-Am in . Qing Delhi 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. China
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?
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
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. This is an edited extract from ‘Liberating Learning: Widening Participation’, edited by Patrick Derham and Michael Worton, published by the University of Buckingham Press on April 21, £10 ‘High Financier’, Niall Ferguson’s biography of banker Siegmund Warburg, will be published at the end of June Niall Ferguson is Lawrence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard university and a contributing editor of the FT
the last ninja
11 Mar 2007