Everything is Illuminated the story of big history by Andrew Ross Sorkin (New York Times Magazine, Sept. 7, 2014) tells the story of how Bill Gates got the idea of bringing a course created by David Christian called Big History to schools in place of existing history courses. While this sounds very cool it is not without controversy. To get an idea of what this is all about, you can watch Christian’s TED Talk, The History of Our World in 18 Minutes.
In the Beginning
- Big History is unusual in that it does not confine itself to any particular topic, or even a single discipline. It is a synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy, and other disparate fields that deal with life on Earth. The course is divided into eight thresholds. They are for example: the bing bang, the origin of Homo sapiens, the appearance of agriculture, and forces that shape our modern world. This course is available on DVD as part of the Teaching Company’s Great Courses. After viewing the course, Bill Gates approached Christian telling him that he wanted to introduce this course in high schools all across America. (It is also available online for free. Teachers have to register first and then give course codes to students.)
The Project Launch
- In 2011, the Big History Project debuted in five high schools. As of this fall (2014) 1,200 schools and 15,000 students are involved. In many places like New York it runs into problems with regulations that require students to take certain specific history course, but states like California allow it to be taken in place of more traditional courses. Christian was teaching history at Macquarie University in Sydney when he started his own form of cross-disciplinary scholarship. The big idea is that everything is connected. As he started to look at the bigger picture of life on Earth, he realized that he needed to go to the starting point, or the beginning of the universe itself.
- When he started testing his ideas he was delighted by the reaction of the students, and the notion that the course allowed him to address big questions like How did we get here? and Where are we going? that were not possible to ask in a course confined to a silo of content. It also allowed for insights across subjects and wildly ambitions narratives. This is just the opposite of what most students experience in school, which is “one damn course after another” with no connections between the courses.