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Killer App is a bad metaphor for historical trends, good for pseudoteaching

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Niall Ferguson wrote in The Guardian some time ago about how awful history education has become with these “new-fangled” 40-year-old methods like focusing on “history skills” that leads to kids leaving school knowing “unconnected fragments of Western history: Henry VIII and Hitler, with a small dose of Martin Luther King, Jr.” but not who was the reigning English monarch at the time of the Armada. Instead, he wants history to be taught his way: deep trends leading to the understanding why the “West” rules and why Fergusson is the cleverest of all the historians that ever lived. He even provided (and how cute is this) a lesson plan!

Now, personally, I’m convinced that the history of historical education teaches us mostly that historical education is irrelevant to the success of current policy. Not that we cannot learn from history. But it’s such a complex source domain for analogies that even very knowledgeable and reasonable people can and do learn the exact opposites from the same events. And even if they learn the “right” things it still doesn’t stop them from being convinced that they can do it better this time (kind of like people in love who think their marriage will be different). So Ferguson’s bellyaching is pretty much an empty exercise. But that doesn’t mean we cannot learn from it.

Ferguson, who is a serious historian of financial markets, didn’t just write a whiney column for the Guardian, he wrote a book called Civilization (I’m writing a review of it and a few others under the joint title “Western Historiographical Eschatology” but here I’ll only focus on some aspects of it) and is working on a computer game and teaching materials. To show how seriously he takes his pedagogic mission and possibly also how hip and with it he is, Ferguson decided to not call his historical trends trends but rather “killer apps”. I know! This is so laugh out loud funny I can’t express my mirth in mere words:))). And it gets even funnier as one reads his book. As a pedagogical instrument this has all the practical value of putting a spoiler on a Fiat. He uses the term about 10 times (it’s not in the index!) throughout the book including one or two mentions of “downloading” when he talks about the adoption of an innovation.

Unfortunately for Ferguson, he wrote his book before the terms “pseudocontext” and “pseudoteaching” made an appearance in the edublogosphere. And his “killer apps” and the lesson plan based on them are a perfect example of both. Ferguson wrote a perfectly servicable and an eminently readable historical book (even though it’s a bit of a tendentious mishmash). But it is still a historical book written by a historian. It’s not particularly stodgy or boring but it’s no different from myriad other currently popular historical books that the “youth of today” don’t give a hoot about. He thinks (bless him) that using the language of today will have the youth flocking to his thesis like German princes to Luther. Because calling historical trends “killer apps” will bring everything into clear context and make all the convoluted syntax of even the most readable history book just disappear! This is just as misguided as thinking that talking about men digging holes at different speeds will make kids want to do math.

What makes it even more precious is that the “killer app” metaphor is wrong. For all his extensive research, Ferguson failed to look up “killer app” on Wikipedia or in a dictionary. There he would have found out that it doesn’t mean “a cool app” but rather an application that confirms the viability of an existing platform whose potential may have been questioned. There have only been a handful of killer apps. The one undisputed killer app was Visicalc which all of a sudden showed how an expensive computer could simplify the process of financial management through electronic spreadsheets and therefore pay for itself. All of a sudden, personal computers made sense to the most important people of all, the money counters. And thus the personal computer revolution could begin. A killer app proved that a personal computer is useful. But the personal computer had already existed as a platform when Visicalc appeared.

None of Ferguson’s “killer apps” of “competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumer society, work ethic” are this sort of a beast. They weren’t something “installed” in the “West” which then proved its viability. They were something that, according to Ferguson anyway, made the West what it was. In that they are more equivalent to the integrated circuit than Visicalc. They are the “hardware” that makes up the “West” (as Ferguson sees it), not the software that can run on it. The only possible exception is “medicine” or more accurately “modern Western medicine” which could be the West’s one true “killer app” showing the viability of its platform for something useful and worth emulating. Also, “killer apps” required a conscious intervention, whereas all of Ferguson’s “apps” were something that happened on its own in a myrriad disparate processes – we can only see them as one thing now.

But this doesn’t really matter at all. Because Ferguson, as so many people who want to speak the language of the “young people”, neglected to pay any attention whatsoever to how “young people” actually speak. The only people who actually use the term “killer app” are technology journalists or occasionally other journalists who’ve read about it. I did a quick Google search for “killer app” and did not find a single non-news reference where somebody “young” would discuss “killer apps” on a forum somewhere. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen but it doesn’t happen enough to make Ferguson’s work any more accessible.

This overall confusion is indicative of Ferguson’s book as a whole which is definitely less than the sum of its parts. It is full of individual insight and a fair amount of wit but it flounders in its synthetic attempts. Not all his “killer apps” are of the same type, some follow from the others and some don’t appear to be anything at all than Ferguson’s wishful thinking. They certainly didn’t happen on one “platform” – some seem the outcome rather than the cause of “Western” ascendancy. Ferguson’s just all too happy to believe his own press. At the beginning he talks about early hints around 1500AD that the West might achieve ascendancy but at the end he takes a half millenium of undisputed Western rule for granted. But in 1500, “the West” had still 250 years to go before the start of the industrial revolution, 400 years before modern medicine, 50 years before Protestantism took serious hold and at least another 100 before the Protestant work ethic kicked in (if there really is such a thing). It’s all over the place.

Of course, there’s not much innovative about any of these “apps”. It’s nothing a reader of the Wall Street Journal editorial page couldn’t come up with. Ferguson does a good job of providing interesting anecdotes to support his thesis but each of his chapters meanders around the topic at hand with a smattering of unsystematic evidence here and there. Sometimes the West is contrasted with China, sometimes the Ottomans, sometimes Africa! It is hard to see how his book can help anybody’s “chronological understanding” of history that he’s so keen on.

But most troublingly it seems in places that he mostly wrote the book for as a carrier for ultra-conservative views that would make his writing more suitable for The Daily Mail rather than the Manchester Pravda: “the biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusilanimity” unless of course it is the fact that “private property rights are repeatedly violated by governments that seem to have an insatiable appetite for taxing out incomes and our wealth and wasting a large portion of the proceeds”.

Panelist Economic Historian Niall Ferguson at ...

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It’s almost as if the “civilized” historical discourse was just a veneer that peels off in places and reveals the real Ferguson, a comrade of Pat Buchanan whose “The Death of the West” (the Czech translation of which screed I was once unfortunate enough to review) came from the same dissatisfaction with the lack of our confidence in the West. Buchanan also recommends teaching history – or more specifically, lies about history – to show us what a glorious bunch of chaps the leaders of the West were. Ferguson is too good a historian to ignore the inconsistencies in this message and a careful reading of his book reveals enough subtlety not to want to reconstitute the British Empire (although the yearning is there). But the Buchananian reading is available and in places it almost seems as if that’s the one Ferguson wants readers to go away with.

From metaphor to fact, Ferguson is an unreliable thinker flitting between insight, mental shortcut and unreflected cliche with ease. Which doesn’t mean that his book is not worth reading. Or that his self-serving pseudo-lesson plan is not worth teaching (with caution). But remember I can only recommend it because I subscribe to that awful “culture of relativism” that says that “any theory or opinion, no matter how outlandish, is just as good as whatever it was we used to believe in.”

Update 1: I should perhaps point out, that I think Ferguson’s lesson plan is pretty good, as such things go. It gives students an activity that engages a number of cognitive and affective faculties rather than just rely on telling. Even if it is completely unrealistic in terms the amount of time allocated and the objectives set. “Students will then learn how to construct a causal explanation for Western ascendancy” is an aspiration, not a learning objective. Also, it and the other objectives really rely on the “historical skills” he derides elsewhere.

The lesson plan comes apart at about point 5 where the really cringeworthy part kicks in. Like in his book, Ferguson immediately assumes that his view is the only valid one – so instead of asking the students to compare two different perspectives on why the world looked like it did in 1913 as opposed to 1500 (or even compare maps at strategic moments) he simply asks them to come up with reasons why his “killer apps” are right (and use evidence while they’re doing it!) .

I also love his aside: “The groups need to be balanced so that each one has an A student to provide some kind of leadership.” Of course, there are shelf-fuls of literature on group work – and pretty much all of them come from the same sort of people who’re likely to practice “new history” – Ferguson’s nemesis.

I don’ think using Ferguson’s book and materials would do any more damage than using any other history book. Not what I would recommend but who cares. I recently spent some time at Waterstone’s browsing through modern history textbooks and I think they’re excellent. They provide far more background to events and present them in a much more coherent picture than Ferguson. They perhaps don’t encourage the sort of broad synthesis that has been the undoing of so many historians over the centuries (including Ferguson) but they demonstrate working with evidence in a way he does not.

The reason most people leave school not knowing facts and chronologies is because they don’t care, not because they don’t have an opportunity to learn. And this level of ignorance has remained constant over decades. At the end of the day, history is just a bunch of stories not that different from what you see on a soap opera or in a celebrity magazine, just not as relevant to a peer group. No amount of “killer applification” is going to change this. What remains at the end of historical education is a bunch of disconnected images, stories and conversation pieces (as many of them about the tedium of learning as about its content). But there’s nothing wrong with that. Let’s not underestimate the ability of disinterested people to become interested and start making the connections and filling in the gaps when they need to. That’s why all these “after-market” history books like Ferguson’s are so popular (even though for most people they are little more than tour guides to the exotic past).

Update 2: By a fortuitous coincidence, an announcement of the release of George L. Mosse‘s lectures on European cultural history: http://history.wisc.edu/mosse/george_mosse/audio_lectures.htm came across my news feeds. I think it is important to listen to these side by side with Ferguson’s seductively unifying approach to fully realize the cultural discontinuity in so many key aspects between us and the creators of the West. Mosse’s view of culture, as his Wikipedia entry reads, was as “a state or habit of mind which is apt to become a way of life”. The practice of history after all is a culture of its own, with its own habits of mind. In a way, Ferguson is asking us to adopt his habits of mind as our way of life. But history is much more interesting and relevant when it is, Mosse’s colleague Harvey Goldberg put it on this recording, a quest after a “usable past” spurred by our sense of the “present crisis” or “present struggle”. So maybe my biggest beef with Ferguson is that I don’t share his justificationist struggle.

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Life expectancy and the length and value of life: On a historical overimagination

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About 10 years ago, I was looking through a book on populations changes in the Czech lands. It consisted of pretty much just tables of data with little commentary. But I was shocked when I came across the life expectancy charts. But not shocked at how short people’s lives had been but how long. The headline figure of life expectancy in the early 1800s was pretty much on par with expectations (I don’t have the book to hand but it was in the high 30s or low 40s). How sad, I thought. So many people died in their 40s before they could experience life in full. But unlike most of the comparisons reporting life expectancy, this one went beyond the overall average. And it was the additional figures that shocked me. Turns out the extremely short life expectancy only applies right at birth. Once you make it to 10, you have a pretty good chance to make it into your late 50s and at 30, your chances of getting your ‘threescore and ten’ were getting pretty good. The problem is that life expectancy rates at birth only really measure child mortality not the typical lives of adults. You can see from this chart: http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0005140.html that in 1850, the US life expectancy at birth was a shocking 38 years. But that does not mean that there were a lot of 38-year-olds around dying. Because if you made it to 10, your life expectancy was 58 years and at 30, it was 64 years. Now these are average numbers so it is possible that for any age cohort, exactly half the people died at the start of it and exactly half died at the end of it. But that was not the case after a certain age. Remember, a population where exactly half the people born die at or near birth (age 0) and exactly half live to be 60 will have the average life expectancy of 30. If you reduce child mortality to 10%, you will have the average life expectancy of 54. If you reduce it to 1%, the average life expectancy will be 59.4 years. Most people still die at sixty but very few die at 1. Massive gains in child mortality reduction will have made no difference to the end of life.

In reality, as the US charts show, the life expectancy at birth doubled but life expectancy at 10 went up by only about a third. That’s still a significant gain but shows a much different profile of life span than the normal figure would have us believe. It was not unusual to live into the late 50s and early 60s. And there were still a large enough number of people who lived into their 70s and 80s. Now, there are exceptions to it, during famines, epidemics and wars and for certain groups in society, the life span was significantly shorter (notice the life expectancy of whites vs. non-whites in the US). But for most populations throughout history, the most common age of death for any given person born was before the age of 10 not in their 30s.

I don’t understand why this is not commonly known. Even many historians (particularly the ones who write popular history) either don’t know this or are unwilling to distrub their narrative of how young people died in the past (in other words, they lie). I certainly was not taught this during my brief (long-ago) studies of ancient and medieval history.

What brought all this to mind is a most disturbing example of this is in a just published book called Civilization by the prominent public historian Niall Ferguson. In the preface he quotes a poem about death and suffering from John Donne and he comments on it:

“Everyone should read these lines who wants to understand better the human condition in the days when life expetancy was less than half what it is today.”

To say I was aghast is an understatement. I nearly threw my Kindle against the wall. Here’s this public intellectual, historian who goes about preaching on how it is important to understand history and yet he peddles this sort of nonsense. If he had said days with high child mortality and a shorter typical life span, I’d have no problem with it. But he didn’t and didn’t even hint that’s what he meant.

He then goes on blathering about how awful it is that all these historical luminaries died so young. Spinoza at 44, Pascal at 39. Saying:

“Who knows what other great works these geniuses might have brought forth had they been granted the lifespans enjoyed by, for example the great humanists Erasmus (69) and Montaigne (59)?”

Common! Bringing forth great works! Really?!? Pathos much? He then goes on comparing Brahms (died old, disliked by Ferguson) and Shubert (died young, liked by Ferguson). So much for academic distance. Why on earth would Ferguson think that listing artists who died young means anything. Didn’t he ever hear of Jimmy Hendrix or Kurt Cobain?

But more importantly, he doesn’t seem to notice his own counterexamples. Erasmus died almost a hundred years before Spinoza was born. What does that tell us about life expectancy and historical periods?

And since when has naming random people’s ages been considered evidence of anything? What about: Isaac Newton 84, Immanuel Kant 79, Galileo 77, John Locke 72, Voltaire 83, Louis Pasteur 72, Michael Faraday 75, Roger Bacon 80. Isn’t that evidence that people live long before the advent of modern medicine?

Or what’s any of that have to do with how much people may have contributed, had they lived l

Louis Pasteur

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onger? I don’t think longevity can serve as a measure of intellectual or cultural productivity. Can we compare Plato (80) and Aristotle (60). It seems to me that Aristotle produced a lot more and varied work than Plato with 20 fewer years to do it in. Aquinas (49) was no less prolific than St Augustine (75). Is it really possible to judge the impact of the inventive John L Austin (who died at 49 – in the 20th century!) is any less than of the tireless and multitalented Russell who lived pretty much forever (97)?

But there are still more counter examples. Let’s look at the list of longest reigning monarchs. The leader of that board is a 6th dynasty Pharaoh (who arguably acended to the throne as a child but still managed to live to a hundred (2200BC!). And most other long-lived monarchs were born during times when life expectancy was about half of what it is now. Sure, they were priveleged and they are relatively rare. And there were a lot of other rulers who went in their 50s and 60s. But not typically in their 40s! Maybe there is already a study out there that measures the longevity of kings with relation to their time but I doubt a straightforward corellation can be found.

Finally, I can match Ferguson poem by poem. From the ancient:

Our days may come to seventy years,
or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
(Psalm 90:10)

to the modern:


Sadness is all I’ve ever known.
Inside my retched body it’s grown.
It has eaten me away, to what the fuck I am today.
There’s nothing left for me to say.
There’s nothing there for me to hate.
There’s no feelings, and there’s no thoughts.
My body’s left to fucking rot.
Life sucks, life sucks, life sucks, life sucks.
http://www.plyrics.com/lyrics/nocash/lifesucks.html

Clearly all that medicine made less of an impact on our experience of life than Ferguson thinks.

Perhaps I shouldn’t get so exercised about a bit of rhetorical flourish in one of many books of historical cosmogeny and eschatology. But I’m really more disappointed than angry. I was hoping this book may have some interesting ideas in it (although I enter it with a skeptical mind) but I’m not sure I can trust the author not to surrender the independence of his frame of mind and bend the facts to suit his pet notions.

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