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October 30, 2011

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tom

He does a great job with Ferguson, but did you really enjoy Butter Chicken in Ludhiana? first few chapters just seem to be him sneering at other Indians and tourists he encounters for being less profound and cosmopolitan than him, like Paul Theroux at his most pompous.

nick s

That's as fun as the (plural) conversations I've had on trains with academic historians about him. And spot-on in focusing on that bloody book about the Great War as the manifesto for everything that has followed.

ajay

Good Lord, James, if that's "gentle scorn" what do you think a real roasting would be like?

Chris Williams

It would look like Holger Herwig's review of _Pity of War_ in the _Journal of Modern History_:

"The author has managed to mine a plethora of superb research books, selecting material
carefully to weave together his tale of British cabal and cunning—and Teutonic innocence. It is almost as if Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf, Erich Ludendorff, and Wilhelm II never existed. History not as it was but as it should have been. And if it runs up against four decades of research, so much the better. For Ferguson’s audacious tour de force is in the best British tradition of being clever, without always being convincing."

ajay

...good answer.

Cian

That's as fun as the (plural) conversations I've had on trains with academic historians about him.

Just as much fun can be had discussing Steve Pinker with cognitive psychologists, or anthropologists.

ajay

Cian: see that rather depressing CT thread about Pinker which started with someone saying "I haven't bothered to read the latest Pinker but I'm sure it's nonsense".

JamesP

Wasn't THE HISTORY BOYS at least partially inspired by Ferguson, or am I dreaming?

Chris Williams

Having lived through the era of the History Boys, standing (perhaps behind ejh, who knows) in the queue at Stevenage Library with a pile of books on the French Revolution _this_ high, I would rather say that both share a common orgin in a certain actually existing historiographical-rhetorical style. If Bennett arrived at the ideas behind the play by reverse-engineering from Ferguson's later works, then yet more power to him.

In the last line of the review above Herwig is pretty clearly exhuming AJP Taylor so he can rip a limb off his corpse and smite Ferguson with it, hip and thigh. Well, that's my reading of it, anyway.

Cian

Ajay, having read two of his books I'm pretty sure I don't need to read the latest to know its nonsense. Just as I don't really need to read the latest Ferguson.

You could essentially take the structure of that Mishra piece and apply it to either of the Pinker books I read. And both he and Ferguson seem to be following the same path of writing ever more controversial works, which move further away from whatever their actual expertise might be. Ho hum.

CMcM

Ok, tangential question : if we've established that both Ferguson and Pinker can - er, let's say 'arouse considerable controversy amongst their academic peers' - can any of this blog's various academic or para-academic readers tell me of any Academic Media Whore Telly Don who doesn't?

Chris Williams

Well, there's Starkey. Very little controversy there, and much consensus about him and his worth.

Personally, I tend to blame producers for this sort of thing, rather than the Telly Dons themselves.

ajay

Most of the controversy Dawkins arouses is among his non-academic foes rather than other academics. Same with Stephen Hawking. I'm sure some people disagree with some of their ideas (punctuated equilibria and Hawking radiation), but that's par for the course if you're a research scientist; it's not the same as saying "he is a complete fool and pretty much all his work is worthless" which seems to be fairly widespread with regard to Ferguson.

ajay

Wasn't THE HISTORY BOYS at least partially inspired by Ferguson

That sounds familiar; I've definitely read something associating them, but I can't remember if Bennett was actually inspired by Ferguson or was just using him as an example after the fact, as it were.

Barry Freed

it's not the same as saying "he is a complete fool and pretty much all his work is worthless" which seems to be fairly widespread with regard to Ferguson.

But aren't his books on the Rothschilds still well regarded?

Best thing I've come across on the History Boys and Ferguson as inspiration is this article in Slate.
How's the movie version btw? (Oh, and Mishra's was a delicious take-down indeed.)

Gareth Rees

Ajay, when you say "punctuated equilibria", do you mean "the selfish gene"?

Richard J

Correct me if I'm missing the joke, Chris, but isn't general opinion on Starkey that he's an arse?

Cian

Charlie: there are loads. In psychology both Damasio and Kahneman are well worth reading for example. There are plenty of others.

Part of the problem with Pinker is that he's a crap scientist working in a field that seems little better than pseudo-science (evolutionary-psychology), bar a couple of exceptions. The other problem seems to be that he's addicted to controversy - though that seems to be compulsory for evolutionary-psychologists.

Barry Freed

but isn't general opinion on Starkey that he's an arse?

Right, where's the controversy in that?

CMcM

Cian,
I know diddlysquat about academic psychology, but I do watch a fair amount of telly and I'm fairly certain that Damasio and Kahneman don't qualify as 'Telly Dons', no matter how solid their academic achievements, simply on the grounds I've never seen them on telly.

I was more wondering about folk like Steve Jones, who always comes across well to me (well, until his unfortunate involvement with the A.C.Grayling thing). I rather hope he's well thought of professionally but I have no means of knowing.

& then there's Brian Cox. I hear he's quite hard to work with on the media but I have no idea if he's seen as a serious scientist.

Starkey - well, yes.

Cian

Dunno, I watch very little TV. They've both written best sellers, and their ideas have had a much wider influence because of their pop science books.

Has Pinker been on TV? Or the freakonomics guy?

Cian

By which I meant its perfectly possible to write a pop science book on one's area of research that sells well, but which is still within the bounds of blah.

Chris Williams

Starkey is worth reading on C16th century court society, and about as useful as your average rentaquote on anything else. If the question has 'constitutional historian' in it, then the answer is probably 'Peter Hennessey'. Conversely, I wouldn't trust Hennessey's opinion on C16th court society further than my own.

Trouble is, of course that producers (and indeed, audiences) don't like to see people on telly with "This person is an expert about a very small field, about which we are not really asking them, and knows diddlysquat about anything else" scrolling below their head.

None of this is stopping me trying to get a One Show gig for myself next week, although it has reminded me to email their researcher to put them in touch with the person who knows a bit more about the topic than me. But if I had a quid for every time I'd said "You don't need to talk to me, talk to X" and got the reply "No, you will do" - from someone who literally has no idea whatsoever how to tell if I'll do - I'd have about a tenner.

NB not everyone is like this: I am also currently working with an indy which is impressively and completely on the ball with historical research and attention to detail. Long-term commissioned stuff is easier to get right in this respect than current affairs.

Me, I actually think that Michael Portillo is a better history presenter than anyone with a PhD, with perhaps a couple of exceptions. Presenting history is not like doing it.

hellblazer

CMcM: Wikipedia is annoyingly sketchy on Jones's career path but my feeling is that he is a solid if unspectacular university prof (it seems like he only got into the TV and book side of things after actually doing something, which is where Dawkins more or less jumped the queue).

Oh, and seconding Gareth Rees's comment to ajay. Punctuated equilibria was Eldredge and Gould, IIRC; Dawkins takes some shots at the theory in The Blind Watchmaker.

Hawking radiation is pretty uncontroversial, no? It seems that among his academic peers Hawking is known for championing quantum gravity by the Euclidean route, whose validity is debated among Bears of Greater Brain than mine.

Cian

I know that Hawking's professional reputation is quite slight compared to his public fame, but perfectly respectable nonetheless. Dunno about Brian Cox. He certainly seems to do his best to minimise his professional achievements, which suggests that he can't be all that bad.

Jakob

Funnily enough I was chatting to a bunch of Manchester Physicists and Astronomers just the other day. The consensus seemed to be that he had been a decent academic, but that he was now more of a media personality; this may of course have been tinged with sour grapes. According to them, among physics undergrads Cox was considered good fun but not one of the legends of physics teaching, of which there are always a couple in any department.

Dan Hardie

Jakob, I meant to say thank you very much for recommending that book on antibiotics (though when you say the price isn't eye-watering, the paperback is going for £20 on Amazon, so that may be one to get from the library).

Alan Bennett mentions Ferguson, Norman Stone and A.J.P. Taylor in the preface to the published version of 'The History Boys', the first two with frank disapproval and the third with mixed feelings. The film wasn't worth it, I thought.

nick s

aren't his books on the Rothschilds still well regarded?

I know that he (by which I mean 'he and his student researchers') had privileged access to the Rothschild archives, which makes it more of an authorised family biography, with all that biography entails.

Dan Hardie

Btw, has anyone else seen these 'Khan Academy' teaching videos on YouTube? They're done by a guy called Salman Khan (not to be confused with a Bollywood star of the same name). Khan got a write up in this weekend's FT extolling him as a great teacher- he's attracted about $14m of funding from the likes of Google so far. He has degrees in maths and computer science and worked for a hedge fund before getting into the education market.

In the FT he talked breezily about how he can teach history as well as anyone- in fact, better! Because you only get the one professor teaching you on an introductory history course, whereas he can give you more than one side. (I'm not oversimplifying what he said.)

I have to say that I hope he knows his stuff on science, because I'm watching my first video by him now-'The US from WWII to Vietnam' - and cringing a lot.

Dan Hardie

He has the date of the first Soviet nuclear test as 1950, when I knew it was 1949 without having to look it up. He's producing these videos as the main effort of a company with $14 million of funding and he doesn't even do a ten second fact check?

Chris Williams

On the other hand, if you check out the free lectures available through the OER commons site (which I did last year, in a Q&D survey for work), you will find that Khan's not alone in blooperland. In Berkeley's 'Plato to Nato' lectures (everyone puts up their Western Civ course first, everyone) there are also massive factual errors knocking about (apparently, before Guernica, no city was bombed by aeroplanes...). And none of them appear to have invested in proper lighting or sound. I _love_ the competition, me.

JamesP

I've told my BBC Uyghur story before, right? Short version: I was asked to talk about Mongolians and the Chinese attitude to same for a BBC program being done by a friend. They turn up - "We've already had two people talk about Mongolians, can you talk about the Uyghur?" "Sure. Can I have 10 minutes on Google?"

ajay

Ajay, when you say "punctuated equilibria", do you mean "the selfish gene"?

Sorry, should have made it clearer that (as hellblazer guessed) punctuationism was Eldredge & Gould. But it was an issue that caused a bit of controversy, and Dawkins was on one side of it by disagreeing publicly with E&G.

Alan Bennett mentions Ferguson, Norman Stone and A.J.P. Taylor in the preface to the published version of 'The History Boys', the first two with frank disapproval and the third with mixed feelings.

Yeah, I think that may be what I'm remembering.

They're done by a guy called Salman Khan (not to be confused with a Bollywood star of the same name).

Ooh, business plan. "Aishwariya Rai Presents Fundamentals Of Invertebrate Taxonomy".

Cian

He has degrees in maths and computer science and worked for a hedge fund before getting into the education market.

Because education is easy right. Anyone can do it. I just want to line these fuckers up against the wall. Not because they're arrogant, though they are. Not because they're destructive, undemocratic wankers. Though they are.

No its because the very fact that they're selfish rich bastards makes them think that the rest of us are stupid because we're not rich and selfish. Teachers don't make much money right? Teachers must be stupid.

Fact of life. Most unsolved problems are not easy, and thinking that they are easy makes you in fact a stupid person and stupid people are unlikely to solve hard problems.

Cian

Hobsbawm likes Ferguson, bizarrely.

Chris Williams

Probably for the same reasons that Ali liked Bugner.

Jakob

Dan: Glad to be of service. I know it's not cheap cheap, but given the usurious pricing of academic presses a paperback counts as a win...

hellblazer

Most unsolved problems are not easy, and thinking that they are easy makes you in fact a stupid person and stupid people are unlikely to solve hard problems.

So sorely tempted to use this line in my day job - it should be the credo of every academic, both as a warning to give to those they train, but also when they find themselves slagging off or talking crap about other fields ("biology/economics/whatever is just physics", my arse).

nick s

Fergie demands satisfaction on the LRB's letters page, receives another gentle arse-kicking from Mishra: "Ferguson is no racist, in part because he lacks the steady convictions of racialist ideologues like Stoddard."

hellblazer

Since I avoid Ferguson, I hadn't realized he is (apparently) running after the Future = China bandwagon. Maybe he and Martin Jacques can get a room together and leave the rest of us in peace...

Cian

Part of the problem with Ferguson is stuff like this:
On the contrary, North America was better off than South America purely and simply because the British model of widely distributed private property rights and democracy worked better than the Spanish model of concentrated wealth and authoritarianism.

While this is not exactly false; clearly the British system was better than the S. American, the implication that the British system at the time was particularly democratic, or that property rights were widely dispersed is false. And he kind of gets away with it, because its preceeded by an attack on slavery. It's polemic, disguised as discussion.

ejh

Fergie demands satisfaction on the LRB's letters page

...the highlight of which is rather lower down.

JamesP

He manages to come over a complete self-regarding prat in that letter. Which isn't really surprising.

ejh

Yeah, the key passage is the one about I-know-my-ideas-disturb-your-liberal-coterie, which backs up what everybody says about Oxbridge rightists who never grow out of the habit of thinking that annoying-the-lefties is an important intellectual activity. And never have to.

TACJ

@Cian:

Because education is easy right. Anyone can do it. I just want to line these fuckers up against the wall.

Well that's a little unfair in Khan's case. AFAICS he's a nice guy trying to do good, and succeeding. His maths, physics, and finance videos are excellent. If he's guilty of anything it is in overreaching with those videos that are not in his field of expertise.

No its because the very fact that they're selfish rich bastards

Reading between the lines of Khan's profile in Wired, I'm not sure he *is* super rich. He presumably had a reasonably highly paid job at Wohl Capital, but then quit to do something worthwhile.

Cian

Perhaps, but certainly everything about him flashes the danger signs. Backing from the Bill Gates foundation - check (no I'm not being unfair - their money has been incredibly destructively used). Wild unsubstantiated claims, that seem to be completely unaware of the decades of research and practice in these areas. Check. Lots of glitzy interviews where he makes grand claims. Check.

Currently US education is filled with people with good intentions (well some of them) - rich people with good intentions - who are doing incredibly destructive things with their money. And one reason they are so destructive is because none of the fuckers will pay attention to the research, or operate proper studies. And to be honest he seems to be yet another paid up member of this technocratic belief that you can somehow automate teaching with computers, or video.

TACJ

And what does the research say[1]?

(I am sincerely interested here: if there is a particular book, paper, study, or academic you can recommend on the subject I would be most grateful.)

[1]: ISTR reading somewhere that in Finland they have the highest standards of student attainment, and that this was accomplished by:

1) Paying teachers a lot
2) Requiring teachers to be highly qualified
3) Allowing teachers to plan their own lessons
4) Lots of focused attention on less able students
5) Ignoring and/or abolishing school league tables.

Is this the sort of thing you have in mind as being a better solution?

Barry Freed

their money has been incredibly destructively used

Really? I've not been following it all that closely but after many years, nay, decades, of hating on Bill Gates and Microsoft I'd thought that he'd finally redeemed himself with all the global health stuff, vaccination programs, AIDS, TB, malaria, rabies (in Africa, IIRC), etc.

Cian

TACJ: No I'm more talking about research into computerising education. There's at least 30 years of research into it, and while there have been isolated successes, nothing to match the rhetoric you hear from politicians/administrators, etc. That's not to say its impossible, but the reality has yet to meet the rhetoric. Teachers are far more important than computers, and technology does a poor job of replacing them.

Prior to that the story was about how filmstrips were going to do away with the need for teachers (this was back in the 50s and 60s), and education would all be distance learning. The depressing thing about so many American fads, is that most of them have been tried in the past and found wanting.

On education per se - not sure. Only passing familiarity with it. But my limited grasp of the research with concur with your summary. Though something that does seem pretty clear from the socio-economic evidence is that many of the educational problems in the US are largely down to poverty, and a system that distributes more money to wealthier kids. How schools are supposed to compensate for hungry and tired students, who are possibly living in unstable accommodation, I have no idea.

Barry: The global health maybe - not been following it. The education money has been either spent badly, been spent on political advocacy to make schools the way Bill Gates thinks they should be, or on extremely poorly designed trials, which were failures and resulted in pretty disastrous outcomes for the most part.

CMcM

Oh look - you can vote for Ferguson as 'The Most Important Historian of the Last 60 Years' in History Today's online poll.

Or not, as the fancy takes you.

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