A Good Run
USinfo | 2013-08-12 14:43

This is a difficult time in which to present an account — and what amounts to a defense — of the West’s rise to pre-eminence and its unequaled influence in shaping the world today. The West is on the defensive, challenged economically by the ascent of China and politically and militarily by a wave of Islamist hatred. Perhaps as great a challenge is internal. The study of Western civilization, which dominated American education after World War II, has long been under attack, and is increasingly hard to find in our schools and colleges. When it is treated at all, the West is maligned because of its history of slavery and imperialism, an alleged addiction to war and its exclusion of women and nonwhites from its rights and privileges. Some criticize its study as narrow, limiting, arrogant and discriminatory, asserting that it has little or no value for those of non-European origins. Or it is said to be of interest chiefly as a horrible example.
Niall Ferguson thinks otherwise. A professor at both Harvard University and the Harvard Business School, quite aware of the faults and blemishes of the West, he flatly rejects the view of those who find nothing worthwhile in it, calling their position “absurd.” He recognizes both good and bad sides and decides that in comparison with other civilizations, the better side “came out on top.”
Many of the observations in “Civilization: The West and the Rest” will not win Ferguson friends among the fashionable in today’s academy. He upbraids critics who speak scornfully of “ ‘Eurocentrism’ as if it were some distasteful prejudice.” “The scientific revolution was, by any scientific measure, wholly Eurocentric.” Ferguson pays due respect to the intellectual and scientific contributions of China and Islam, but makes it clear that modern science and technology are fundamentally Western products. He asks if any non-Western state can simply acquire scientific knowledge without accepting other key Western institutions like “private property rights, the rule of law and truly representative government.”
Ferguson is so unfashionable as to speak in defense of imperialism: “It is a truth almost universally acknowledged in the schools and colleges of the Western world that imperialism is the root cause of nearly every modern problem, . . . a convenient alibi for rapacious dictators like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.” Contradicting historians who “represent colonial officials as morally equivalent to Nazis or Stalinists,” he points out that in most Asian and African countries “life expectancy began to improve before the end of European colonial rule.”
Excellence in these categories, Ferguson says, may explain the West’s remarkable rise, but late in the 19th century “the Rest,” especially Japan, began to catch up in all but internal competition and representative government. By the 1950s states in East Asia, especially and increasingly China, made great strides in economic modernization and now compete successfully against the West. At present, he says, we are experiencing “the end of 500 years of Western predominance,” and he foresees the possibility of a clash between the declining and rising forces. He wonders “whether the weaker will tip over from weakness to outright collapse.”
Over all, Ferguson calls for a return to traditional education, since “at its core, a civilization is the texts that are taught in its schools, learned by its students and recollected in times of tribulation” — by which he means Great Books, and especially Shakespeare. The greatest dangers facing us are probably not “the rise of China, Islam or CO2 emissions,” he writes, but “our own loss of faith in the civilization we inherited from our ancestors.”
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