Sunday, June 13, 2010

Controversy Over the Historian’s View of Collapse

In the March/April edition of Foreign Affairs, Harvard professor Niall Ferguson attempts a maverick posture in his essay “Decline and Fall: When the American Empire Goes, It is Likely to Go Quickly.” In it, he argues that historians take the “fat tail” view of events, confusing sudden events for cyclical ones particularly when discussing the fall of empires. While accusing many members of social science community of committing the “narrative fallacy,” Ferguson’s essay is riddled with fallacies of its own.

As a teacher of global history at the high school level, I have a keen awareness that the problem of history is not that people tend to overestimate the importance of remote causes of events, rather people tend not to understand the complexity and diversity of the causes of events, and in effect, the interconnectedness of the world. I have found it much more common, not to mention dangerous, that people will oversimplify or overlook causal factors that bring about collapse. With such a limited view of the real complexity and interconnectedness of the world, individuals and groups risk failing to take actions that counter the factors that make likely a future collapse.

From a historian as prominent as Niall Ferguson, it’s shocking to find so many logical fallacies and factual misrepresentations as there are in his Foreign Affairs essay. Ferguson lines up cases that supposedly verify the argument that our current financial crisis is a recent one, and tracing its antecedents to the deregulation of the 1980s is inappropriate. Yet he talks about the fall of Rome occurring in “just 5 decades,” and his causes of the collapse of the Ming dynasty range from “political factionalism, fiscal crisis, famine and epidemic disease” that “opened the door to rebellion from within and incursions from without” (28). His own examples in fact validate the opposite conclusion!

In education, we have to understand the course of history, not just because we need to teach it, but because we also shape it and because it shapes us. Given that our country and world do face so many challenges, our intellectual leaders need to be more responsible about their use of voice and their laying of blame. Based on my study of history, I believe that we could experience another historic “collapse” along the lines of Rome or Copan, but if that is to happen the confluence of factors will be diverse and complex. Our teachers and students should not gloss over these factors, as Ferguson has, for the sake of convenience, gimmickry, or false controversy.