True Confessions: I only skimmed this book, while waiting for a friend to pick me up at the library. The perfect title for Niall Ferguson’s book would be “The Rise and Fall of Western Civilization”, since that is his topic. Unfortunately, all the great titles are taken! So he calls it: Civilization: The West and the Rest.
Written by a Yale historian, I thought this would be wordy, tedious, and pretty boring, but as it turns out I couldn’t put it down. Essentially the thesis looks like this:
The Western culture is becoming more and more dominant worldwide based on six “killer applications”: stable legal structure, competition, science, consumerism, modern medicine, and the work ethic. He also argues that all culture is cyclical and current civilization is facing decline, just like the fall of the first “Western Civilization,” — the Roman Empire.
This sounds really boring when I say it, but he makes it fascinating — which probably explains why he is a best-selling author and I am a whenever-I-get-around-to-it blogger.
What fascinated me was his analysis of RELIGION. He says the spread of a specific type of Christianity, Protestantism, gave rise to three ideas that literally changed the world:
1. The Protestant Work Ethic: work as a privilege and a divine obligation. [Observation: a cultural work ethic also appears pretty clearly in Asian cultures.]
2. Literacy: The ability to be able to read the Bible is fundamental to spiritual progress. [I would add that Judaism has historically promoted literacy and critical thinking skills, for the same reasons.]
3. Frugality:thrift is next to Godliness.
Basically, Western religion planted the seeds for hard work, an educated workforce, and a tendency to save (invest), without which western culture would never have flourished as it has.
He also says that other cultures are taking on many of these same values, while presumably the West is absorbing some of the more holistic values of other cultures, leading in his mind to “downfall” of Westernism, and in my mind to a stronger civilization all around. (I’ll read more and report back.)
I think I find this especially interesting because I’m starting to realize just how strong the work ethic is in my own life. My parents, incredibly hard-working professionals in the mid-western United States, inculcated my sisters and I with a ferocious work ethic, thrift, and unquestioning faith in the value of higher education. In my town, young people worked after school and went straight to college (or university, as the Canadians call it); I really don’t remember any other model.
The concept of a “Gap year” between high school and college was something I never even heard of, until I reached my 30′s. We did travel, but never during a school year.
So why does that matter? I think it’s important to recognize our own biases. I am biased towards education, when the reality is it may not be a workable plan for all young people, in every financial situation.
I’m also aware that not everyone in the world thinks, as I do, that hard work will fix almost every ill. My grandfather had a 10th grade education and worked 6 days a week all his life, for one company, and I can still hear him saying to me “just do your work, Christie,” when I was upset and complaining about office politics. Work in his mind was the antidote to almost every problem, and while I recognize that workoholism kills people and relationships almost every day, I tend to agree with him, still, after all these years.
One more thing: Niall Ferguson also addresses the decline of church attendance in Europe. The US maintains a strict separation between church and state, while England (and most of Europe) has a state-sponsored church system. Because of that, Fergussen argues, American churches have to compete between themselves to attract congregants, resulting in more attractive, “consumer-friendly” religious services and institutions. It’s the shopping-mall theory of religious observance.
Controversial. But very well written. You’ll find yourself challenged by this thoughtful, well-written book.