One morning while walking on his treadmill, Bill Gates was watching a Teaching Company course entitled Big History by Professor David Christian. Gates was intrigued by the way Christian integrated science and other fields of knowledge into what was at heart a history course. Christian feels that you can’t understand history without understanding the context within which it took place. How can you understand that people died from plagues centuries ago, for instance, without understanding the state of medicine at the time or the squalor in which many people lived from birth to death? How can you understand slavery in the South, a largely agrarian society at the time of the Civil War, without knowing something about geography, economics and climate? He believes that history teachers must learn about things in areas that most history teachers don’t know much about – even if they feel uncomfortably out of their depth while doing so. In fact, Christian believes that to learn history properly you need to begin with the physics of the Big Bang.
An excellent way to get an idea of how Christian integrates various fields of knowledge into his Big History Project is to watch his TED talk on the history of the world. It takes Dr. Christian a mere 18 minutes to explain how it all began. You can also read about Christian’s ideas in his book Maps of Time.
Gates, a self-admitted nerd who has set up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, arranged a meeting with Dr. Christian, and was so impressed with him that he began pouring money into making Christian’s ideas about how to revamp the teaching of history a reality. The first thing they had to do was to convert the college-level course into a high school-level course. Then they had to find schools that were willing to pilot the course. With the help of Gates, the pilot schools were found, and now the Big History course is being taught in over 1,000 schools.
Professor Christian is not the first person who has looked at history in this multidisciplinary way. Many people in the past – including Charles Darwin (The Origin of Species), Carl Sagan (Cosmos), Jacob Bronowski (The Ascent of Man), and Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies) – have looked at history in this complex manner. Christian has been instrumental in its growth over the last 25 years or so, but so have others like Cynthia Stokes Brown, Walter Alvarez, and Graeme Snooks. Brown has written a popular book titled Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present; Alvarez, a geologist, began teaching a course called “Big History: Cosmos, Earth, Life, Humanity” at UC Berkeley in 2006; and Snooks has developed a theory to explain complex living systems.
In response to the interest in Big History, The History Channel aired a series called Big History in 2013 which is composed of 16 episodes. The series is available on a three DVD set, and the History Channel has a site where teachers and everyone else can view a study guide for each episode.
And most important of all there is a Big History Project website. At the website students and teachers can take the online course (if you have the proper code), and the rest of us can take a different version of it at a different location on the website. Many of the videos are narrated by John Green, the author of The Fault in Our Stars, with occasional appearances by his brother, Hank, and others. Even the Khan Academy has partnered with the Big History Project.
Where is this going? If Bill Gates can pull it off we will all be taking courses that are nominally history courses, but are, in reality, multidisciplinary courses that tell us about the past in a way that may not be as dry as the courses we took back in the old days.