Niall Ferguson is a Scottish-born historian, political commentator, and public intellectual. He is also the Lawrence Tisch Professor of History at Harvard. Ferguson graduated from Magdalen College and studied for two years as a Hanseatic Scholar in Hamburg and Berlin. Before joining the Harvard faculty, Ferguson taught at Oxford University and New York University.
A prolific commentator on contemporary politics and economics—he came out in favor of the Iraq War in 2003—Ferguson is a contributing editor for the Financial Times and publishes regularly elsewhere in the British and American press. In 2004, Time magazine named him one of the world's hundred most influential people. Ferguson is the bestselling author of the popular histories The Pity of War: Explaining World War One, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, and The War of the World. Ferguson splits his time between the United Kingdom and the United States.
Question: What impact does your work have on the world?
Ferguson: Oh probably none. I mean what can one do as a writer and lecturer but to write, put it out, make the arguments as best one can, and hope that somebody somewhere is listening?
All my adult life I’ve dabbled in journalism. It’s been my hobby the way other people have fishing as a hobby. And I also write for a serious reason, which is that I want as many people as possible to hear what I say. And they may also be inclined to read 1,000 page long books. So I give them the 1,000 word version or even the 900 word version. Or I make television programs. Or I do interviews for web sites; because in this idealistic way I want to communicate to the largest possible audience and not just to that privileged elite of people who get to study at Harvard.
Whether anybody is paying the blindest bit of attention is very hard to gauge. It’s not like being an opera singer. You’ve had a good night when they stand and cheer. When you write, often it’s a deafening silence. You can’t even tell if the people who buy the book have bothered to read it. And you can’t even tell if the people who’ve read the book have made the first bit of sense of it.
So I don’t know. I suppose I try to make arguments about the issues that I’ve wrote towards understanding. And I have this naïve, undying optimism that at least some people are listening to these arguments; and maybe, maybe, maybe in their decision-making, whether it’s the decision to vote or some higher order decision, they will be influenced by something I’ve said.
Recorded on: Oct 31 2008
Niall Ferguson: I’m constantly struck by the levels of historical ignorance that I encounter. In rooms full of very well-paid financial professionals, nobody appears to have read any of the major works of...