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.
Topic: Growing up nationalist.
Niall Ferguson: My name is Niall Ferguson. I’m Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard, but I’m also William Ziegler Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. And I’m a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, and of Jesus College, Oxford.
I was born in Glasgow in 1964, and I grew up in an atmosphere of, I suppose, late Calvinism crossed with the Scottish enlightenment.
My parents were both scientists. They were rationalists and are rationalists, and encouraged me to think of the world in the terms that had been, in so many ways, pioneered in 18th century Scotland.
If I took a day off school, my father would hand me a copy of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and say, "You should use this time usefully. Read that."
And so I guess I acquired from early on his work ethic. Max Faber was right about Protestants and work, at least where the west of Scotland was concerned. But I think that was tempered by a kind of skepticism that Scotland produced rather later in the 18th century.
Question: How did living in Kenya shape your sense of colonial history?
Niall Ferguson: I was very small indeed when my father took a job in Nairobi. I think I was all of two years old, and we lived there for two years. So this was in my early, early childhood. My earliest memories are of Africa and of its extraordinary luminosity. This became much more powerful as a memory in contrast with the dreary, gray, cold Glasgow that we returned to when I was turning five.
I can say that at the age of four, I had very sophisticated political insights. I don’t think I then knew the difference between a colony and an independent state, which Kenya had only just become. So I’m not sure that I can claim that those childhood experiences had a very profound affect on my thinking as an historian; but they did implant in me a passionate, visceral love of that part of the world.
And whenever I go back to east Africa, I’m amazed at the power of these deep childhood memories. I have my pristian moments exclusively in Africa.
Recorded on: October 31, 2007
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...