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The Ascent of Money

James Dean of MONEY.CA interviews Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson to discuss Money, Economics, and Canada.

Niall FergusonNiall Ferguson (born April 18, 1964, in Glasgow, Scotland) is a British historian who specializes in financial and economic history as well as the history of empire. He is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University and the William Ziegler Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. He was educated at the private Glasgow Academy in Scotland, and at Magdalen College, Oxford where he was a Demy and graduated with first class honours in 1985, where he completed both his undergraduate degree and PhD. After two years as a Hanseatic Scholar in Hamburg and Berlin, he took up a Research Fellowship at Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1989, subsequently moving to a Lectureship at Peterhouse. He returned to Oxford in 1992 to become a Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at Jesus College, a post he held until 2000, when he was appointed Professor of Political and Financial History at Oxford. Mr. Ferguson taught at Jesus College Oxford for nearly a decade before he decided to cross the ‘pond’ because the U.S. higher education system was doing things at his speed; a quicker more efficient way of doing things impressed him a lot. Niall was soon a professor at New York University in 2001-2002 and then 2 years later he accepted positions with Harvard University and Harvard Business School in 2004. He remarks that Harvard took it’s time, but it’s one institution that attains the highest standards in higher education regularly and therefore it was worth waiting for them do their homework. Dr. Ferguson is also a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University Niall Ferguson is a regular contributing editor of the Financial Times and his latest book “The Ascent of Money” is on the New York Times Best Seller List.

He is now best known for telling the story and history of money in all its lustre, lore and affect on humans since the beginning of commerce and trade. Outside of the academic world Ferguson is known for his revisionist type views that try to rehabilitate imperialism and colonialism. Within academic circles he is the champion of counter-factual history and he himself is often times the subject of some considerable controversy.
I had the chance to speak with Niall Ferguson recently and I was sure to let him know that I am personally a great fan of his work but pointed out the fact that he has some critics out there.

Ferguson goes on to respond: ‘I am only interested in one thing and that is historical truth only to understand the world better. Nobody gains if historians take liberties with the past so I use my best efforts to research widely as I possible can to make sure that I’ve read as much of the existing specialist literature as I can to try to use the archives but research in my own right. I am trying to draw conclusions that are as accurate as I am able to make them. Explaining the complexities of the past financial history is not easy because this is a technical subject and there is an enormous complexity to the international financial system. So for television particularly we try to make it simpler. I think simplification is essential for teaching, as long as you don’t simplify to the point of distortion and misrepresentation, then it seems to me that it is indeed perfectly legitimate and most desirable.’

The Intellectual Process; Ferguson goes on to sum up how it all works: ‘I think every serious historian wants to stimulate debate on a subject because the historical process is not like science, we don’t just sit around in laboratories re-running human history. We offer our interpretations on the basis of the facts that we’ve been able to establish and then we discuss them and debate them intelligently.’


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