The Guardian reports of a certain sense of alarm that spread in the UK’s academic and liberal circles upon the presentation given by Niall Ferguson at this year’s Hay festival, where he laid out his vision of the school history curriculum in which, he said, children should be taught that the “big story” of the last 500 years “is the rise of western domination of the world”.
I do in fact share Ferguson’s concern over the dismal standard of instruction in public institutions of education, both in UK as well as elsewhere. Ferguson’s remark of his own children not having been taught who was Martin Luther resonates with a small scandal that broke in Estonia a couple of weeks ago. But while I am sympathetic with his cause, I do remain skeptical of his proclaimed methods.
According to Ferguson, the syllabus was “bound to be Eurocentric” because the world was Eurocentric. This view is problematic even if we would agree not to bicker over the particular claim itself (which, of course, is by no means uncontentious). Ferguson seems to be of the opinion that there is a certain true and objective view of the past (and therefore also of the present) that describes the things, by famous words of Leopold von Ranke, “as they really were.” However, as both Foucault and Saïd have rather convincingly argued, knowledge is never transcendent, disinterested and apolitical — it not only describes our world, but also structures it, especially when it is something that is bestowed on the young generation as a conceptual framework to make sense of their lives, as Ferguson is insisting that it should. This means that the choice is not simply about how do we see our past, but also that of our present and our future.
Perhaps it would be good to note here that I don’t really fault people for having Eurocentric worldview. If it has to be centered on something then Europe is as good a region as any other, and people feeling strongly about their own particular historical and cultural heritage is only commendable. However, I do have a problem with this being offered as the only and objectively true option — and especially when it is presented as such when, at the same time, catering to obvious political and ideological ends. But this particular problem is of course not limited to the UK, or even Europe: one would immediately think of Hindutva education or the efforts of the Texas school book commission. The problem is thus not that of any particular ideological leaning or that of a partisan and biased view of history — it is that of reducing the plurality of different viewpoints to a single one, which will inevitably be detrimental towards the ability of critical thinking. And this is much bigger concern than that of Niall Fergusson seeing the last half a millennia as a triumph of the western civilization.