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The decline and fall of history

Niall Ferguson accepted the 2016 Philip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC.

h/t Slartibartfarst

20 comments to The decline and fall of history

  • Keith Bird

    Clear and penetrating description of the current state of History courses now being offered at top Universities. Pity it will be seen by so few.

  • Paul Marks

    I agree with Professor Ferguson that the universities are a total mess, they are utterly awful – and all taxpayer subsidy of these places that are no longer centres of learning in history (on the humanities in general) should be ended at once – including (indeed especially) government backed “student loans”.

    However, one should be a little wary of Professor Ferguson himself…………

    I have been wary of him since I watched a television show of his where he went overboard in his praise of Frederick the Great – describing the Prussian ruler as some sort of great liberal. Well if Frederick the Great was a great liberal then being a great liberal means being a Hillary Clinton style statist (indeed that comparison is, if anything, a bit unfair to Hillary Clinton).

    The “religious tolerance” of Frederick was based on religious indifference (it is easy to be tolerant about things one does not care about – far harder to be tolerant about things one does care about). His taxation was crushing, his wars UNJUST (and that does matter Professor Ferguson), he regarded his men as expendable (which is why “so few cripples were seen on the streets of Berlin” – not because the Prussian medical services were so good, but because men judged to be useless for future service were essentially left to die), his legal code was about as “liberal” as the Emperor Diocletian in its efforts to control Civil Society, his country serf ridden, and his most important “reform” was setting up the first really large scale top-down controlled system of state schools for the population.

    Turning to Alexander Hamilton……

    The United States of America had a chance to break with the over mighty Executive of the United Kingdom (the concentration of power in the hands of the Prime Minister and Cabinet) and the economic corruption of the system of the Bank of England and the National Debt – plus taxes on imports to both service (never pay off) the National Debt and to “Protect” politically connected industries.

    Rather than break with all this corruption Alexander Hamilton tried to COPY it in America. He supported a strong and centralised Executive – even the invasion of Western Pennsylvania in 17794. People had objected to paying excise taxes on the whiskey they produced in their home stills – unsurprisingly as these “Rednecks” had just fought a war against Britain to end such taxes (indeed they had come to America in the first place to avoid such taxes and regulations – that were imposed in Scotland and Ireland). There had indeed been violence and this should be CONDEMNED (and there should be no pretence that all the people involved in the trouble were noble – some most certainly were NOT), but the Governor of Pennsylvania had made no request for Federal aid in dealing with the trouble. Yet President Washington (at the urging of Hamilton) used the “Whiskey Rebellion” as an excuse to march a full scale army into Western Pennsylvania as a way of showing Federal power. The de facto message being “you thought you fought for freedom – well we have news for you, what you actually fought for was a new master” – perhaps that is overstating the matter, but not totally so.

    Thomas Jefferson got rid of these Hamilton internal taxes after he became President in 1801. But in the modern world they have come back (and with terrible force – Federal taxes are now crushing, George III and Lord North would never have supported anything like this), and now there is the Federal regulation of almost every aspect of economic life. Making the War of 1776 seem indeed not a war for freedom, but a war for a new master. I do not believe that even Alexander Hamilton would support the utterly vile modern Federal Government which for so many decades has grown out of control, crushing Civil Society with its taxes and regulations. But he did open the door to such a possibility.

    Also Hamilton supported the political corruption of taxes on imports in order to fund (never pay off) a National Debt. This was not really done in support of any economic theory (“infant industry” or whatever stuff he came out with in his “Report On Manufacturers”). Alexander Hamilton’s real aim was to tie men of property to the new government – to make it in the interests of many rich people to support the new government. Partly because it would “protect” them from overseas competition, and partly because it would give them money (at the expense of the public), via the National Debt. Mr Hamilton even supported an American version of the Bank of England. Indeed the fight against the First and the Second “National Banks” and now against the government backed “Federal Reserve” is the fight to keep some meaning to the war of 1776 – for it to be about freedom, not just a “change of masters” with a corrupt group in London, being replaced by a corrupt group in New York City and Washington D.C.

    Far from rejecting the corruption of the Old World, Mr Alexander Hamilton tried to copy it in the New World. This is the result of rejecting “theory” and following “history”. I am reminded of the dispute between Carl Menger of what came to be known as the Austrian School and the German “Historical School” (the Historcists) with the latter denying the very existence of universal laws of economics (and indeed universal laws of moral conduct).

    It is quite true that Alexander Hamilton would be horrified by how far things have gone – but he who opens the Gates of Hell should not expect just a few Devils to get out, and he should not expect to be able to just “use” the Devils for his own noble purposes (to “hold the country together” or whatever). A “little” corruption tends to become a lot of corruption – as Devils end up controlling those who think they can control them. And as for following “history not theory” – surely the point of history is avoid past mistakes, not to repeat them in a different geographical area.

  • Patrick Crozier

    Apparently Hamilton tried to fix the duel between himself and Aaron Burr. But it didn’t work and he ended up dead. And Burr was the better man anyway. Haha.

  • Paul Marks

    Still Professor Fergerson raises an important question.

    Which would I rather have – history taught by people with whom I do not agree, or no real history teaching at all? The “Critical Studies” or “Cultural Studies” of Frankfurt School Marxism – with its endless “racism”, “sexism”, “homophobia”, and so on?

    Obviously the former – better people taught stuff I do not agree with about Frederick “the Great”, or Alexander Hamilton, or…… than for people to just think they are “dead white males” who are not important.

    The teaching of the First World War offers a good example.

    “In my day” (I am older than sin – and twice as ugly) the main Haig defender was a man called John Terraine (I remember being sickened by his works when I read them back in the 1980s). These days it is a man by the name of Gary Sheffield who acts as main Haig defender – and gets Professorships on the basis of this stuff, just as John Terraine used to sell books because he was prepared to argue that black is white, water is dry.

    What would I prefer – people to know nothing about the First World War at all (just Frankfurt School of Marxism mush about “cultural studies” into “racism”, “sexism” and other such stuff), or for them to get their knowledge of the First World War from Gary Sheffield? For people to people to be taught drivel such as that Haig had the major role in the relative success of the Allies in the late 1918?

    I would prefer the latter – better an negative than a smudge.

    At least John Terraine and Gary Sheffield (and Professor Ferguson also) are dealing with actual HISTORY. What individuals did and why they did it.

    They ask the right questions – even if they give the wrong answers.

    The modern liberal arts universities (as Professor Ferguson correctly points out) teach mush – Frankfurt School mush. They do not just mislead the minds of their students – they destroy their minds (or try to), destroy the capacity for any clear thinking at all (the ability to even ask the right questions). Leaving their students a total mess. And that is the conscious and deliberate intention of the Progressive education system.

  • Paul Marks

    I lost a comment – connection went down, try again.

    Patrick raises an interesting example – one may agree or disagree with the article in the Washington Post (by the academic), but at least it making historical points and is using normal language.

    Of course Mr Hamilton (not just Mr Burr) was in favour of “internal improvements” (as an excuse to increase the debt – and those bind the people who are owned the money to the government). Although not as much as Henry Clay was later – Mr Clay took the economic positions of Mr Hamilton to their “logical” conclusions.

    Also Mr Hamilton was an immigrant himself (and a member of an Anti Slavery Society) so perhaps he was not really fanatical enemy of “newcommers”.

    However, the article by the academic is making an historical argument and it is making it in rational language. The Frankfurt School stuff normally pushed by the universities uses a fog of words designed to clog up the mind.

  • Patrick Crozier

    Paul Marks: “These days it is a man by the name of Gary Sheffield who acts as main Haig defender – and gets Professorships on the basis of this stuff…”

    Meanwhile Gerard de Groot (no Haig fan) also has a Professorship. How can that be?

  • KipEsquire

    History is just one damn thing after another…

    As for AH himself, I go no further than Eugen Weber did when comparing him to Thomas Jefferson: “One feared tyranny, the other feared the mob.” That makes them both libertarian heroes in my book.

  • James Hargrave

    I was astounded by one of the recent rankings of university history departments. It gave one in the Antipodes with which I have had a casual association in the recent past an unbelievably high rating. More than a decade ago it was all icing and very little cake; since then the icing has crumbled. It believes that the problem causing its static recruitment of students from is that it offers too many courses. No, too few with any meat that anybody wants to take! One course (compulsory, I believe) is theory and method – every theory and every method, no doubt, except the main one in the English-speaking world: empiricism. You can imagine the progressivist goo that oozes out to poison young minds. I’m sure that Australian readers will recognise it.

  • Sean MacCartan

    Bravo for giving Terraine a boot , Paul Marks. Kick him again for me. And feel free to jump on either of the Snows from a great height.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker!) Gray

    Instead of blaming individuals, can anyone point out, or create, a society which has no centralising elements? The Swiss Confederation seems to be the closest approximation, with dispersed power, and it lacks a strong central government. Are there any other good (ie, decentralised) role models for us to emulate?

  • Paul Marks

    Good point Patrick. Clearly not all the academics are awful – just most of them.

    As for Haig defending – of course it can be done, but it takes a certain mindset.

    Let us say I was given the task of defending Louis XIV (the “Sun King”) as religiously tolerant and an economic success. If I got myself into a certain frame of mind (what in the law is called a “shyster” frame of mind – “I will defend this person – even if they are really guilty”) I could present such a case.

    I would point out that Louis was always personally polite to people of other religions when he met them. And how he expressed shock whenever the idea that persecution (for example abuse by his Dragoons) might be going on, was suggested to him. And I would point at the sincere cultural interests of Louis – how could such a civilised and educated man be anything other than tolerant? Look at the music, the painting, the dance, the architecture……… clearly a good man

    On the economic side – I would point out that France was the largest economy in Europe under Louis XIV and that his (and Colbert’s) policies were widely copied at the time and later in other parts of Europe.

    Indeed that the economic policies of Louis and Colbert (their permits and licenses and examinations and…..) are the basis of the modern world. Look at the prosperity of the modern world! And the economic policies of Louis and Colbert are practiced almost everywhere – therefore………..

    I could go like this – article after article, book after book. Presenting Louis XIV as religiously tolerant and an economic success in his policies.

    This is what Haig defenders do in their presentation of Douglas Haig as a good general.

    Much of the specific stuff they site is CORRECT – but it is picked and presented in order to support a false conclusion.

    It did not start with Haig – in started (in British historical writing) with Frederick the Great. And it was not over Frederick’s military talents (although these were presented in a one sided way – his victories stressed, his defeats almost ignored other than to say how wonderfully he recovered from them) – it was far more Frederick’s general rule that was presented as wonderful (i.e. presented in an utterly misleading way).

    Indeed as I sit here I can not think of many British writers, other than Edmund Burke, who have been hostile to Frederick the Great (our great ally……).

    Although Patrick may correct me on that – indeed I hope he does (I certainly need cheering up). A few works on what an utter nightmare Frederick actually was would be most welcome.

  • Paul Marks

    Over all I get the impression that a history degree at from a British university is better than from an American one.

    This may be because most British universities followed the Oxford practice of getting undergraduates to specialise in a certain subject and get a good grounding in that subject from day one (a proper cause at it were). Rather than allowing undergraduates to pick almost random bits-and-bobs that are so easy to corrupt into “cultural” (i.e. Frankfurt School) stuff. Although, no doubt, Britain is going down the drain to.

    Years ago (actually I mean decades) Kings College London was supposed to be very good in military history. And Cambridge (even more than Oxford) was supposed to be the peak in general history – especially Peterhouse (the oldest Cambridge college).

    I wonder if that is still true?

    Sadly, as Professor Ferguson points out, the “elite” American universities are often useless (apart from a few brave souls) in the teaching of even the history of their own country.

    Instead the students are fed the mush of disguised Marxism – in “cultural” form.

    Although no doubt there are exception universities. Hillsdale perhaps?

  • Paul Marks

    Nick Gray – sadly you are describing Switzerland before the war of 1847, not modern Switzerland.

    I assure you that Switzerland now has fiat money, an national “bank”, and a rather centralised government (including taking money from some Cantons and giving it to other Cantons) and a P.C. (ish) Constitution full of “celebrating our diversity” (the voters thought that meant the historic diversity of the Cantons – they found out that the elite had a different sort of diversity in mind) and so on.

    Not as bad as here – but not good.

    Indeed I would argue that in some ways New Zealand is less statist than Switzerland.

  • Paul Marks

    James H. – of course the “rankings” are often in Progressive hands.

    My old friend Jeff Taylor could not find a single Australian university that gave the conservative side of the argument – it was all a (largely mythical) “Australian struggle against British Imperialism” with even General Slim in the World War II presented as some sort of anti Australian British aristocrat (if he was mentioned at all – being an actual flesh and blood individual).

    Australian history used to be so much better than that. For example Charles Bean (who Denis Winter really cribs from – and at least he admitted it) allowed the facts to change his mind.

    Charles Bean did not like Jews – and he allowed this to bias him against Monash. But hard study (and respect for truth) let him to revise his judgement. That was a real victory – of the most important sort (the victory of a man over own bias).

    Charles Bean no doubt still made mistakes (everyone does) – but his objective was truth, and he believed that objective truth (not dependent on “class” or “race” or “historical period”) existed. An historian – in the sense of a seeker after the truth of what happened.

    He did not change his preference for people who are quite (not “pushy” like …….) and manly (outdoor types) rather than obsessed with staff work. But he came to see that the staff work of men such as Monash had its own value.

    Of course the Canadian generals (Bying and Currie) were, at the same time, careful in their staff work – and the sort of men that Charles Bean would have preferred (apart from Currie’s “borrowing” of regimental funds of course).

    Sean MacCartan.

    John T. descended into self parody eventually, but he did not start out as bad as that.

    It was actually rather grim what happened to him.

  • Paul Marks

    By the way I do not agree that Haig was “born into one age and forced to command in another” – that is a copout for Haig.

    A competent general (for example Wellington) would have opposed Haig tactics a century before.

    British observers had condemned such tactics when the Russians used them at the siege of P. in the war with Turkey in 1878.

    And it was not the question of a good general having a terrible off day – for example Lee with Pickett’s Charge at G. or Grant at Cold Harbour.

    Douglas Haig was not a good general – “period” as the Americans say (not to do with what age he was in).

    But can be a bad general and still a good man – one resigns one’s post.

    It became horribly clear with Douglas Haig that he was neither a good general or a good man. Even after July 1st 1916 he did not resign. As far as I know he showed no real remorse – Haig’s problem was not that he was just a bad General, he was also a bad man.

  • Mr Ed

    I sometimes wonder if the Sage of Kettering is a sort of Gandalf, and has been on Earth for 3,000 years, rallying against the forces of darkness (both evil and ignorance).

  • Alisa

    Wonder no more, Mr. Ed – of course he is.

  • Please try to keep rants about Douglas Haig attached to articles about Douglas Haig 😉

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker!) Gray

    That’s a shame, Paul. But didn’t one Canton only give the vote to Women recently? I assumed that proved that the Cantons were very autonomous, and thus that the Federal Government was weak.
    Still, the Isle of Mann is still around as a role model of sorts (not much in the way of speed limits, etc.).

  • Paul Marks

    Sorry Perry – yes I will avoid mention of the Scottish person in future on the thread.

    Yes Nicholas – only a couple of decades ago. The couple Cantons that were (at least in theory) ruled by mass gathering of men wearing their swords.

    Actually I have no objection to women carrying swords – I would suggest the “side sword” a good compromise between the hack and slash medieval long sword and the later rapier. The rapier might seem the obvious choice (as the speed of the women would be the main thing) – but some weapons (and shields) have sword breakers which a rapier can be vulnerable to.

    I like the Isle of Man – sadly it (like everywhere these days) tries to have too much done by the state – usurping (and undermining) Civil Society. But it is not as bad as here.

    Andorra did not go in for all this statism before the mid 1960s – but then it adopted it, there was no reason to do so (other than the mad fashions of our age).

    By the way – Mr Ed and Alisa….. many thanks.