Big History

Nasa/JPL-Caltech via Big History Project

It’s not every day that history is the cover story of The New York Times Magazine. This weekend, however, saw the cover devoted to Bill Gates and his dream to reimagine how students are taught world history. It’s called the Big History Project and is a collaborative project between Gates and a professor from Australia named David Christian. As Andrew Ross Sorkin details in the story, Gates became enchanted by a series of  48 lectures Christian had put together for “Great Courses” on world history, called “Big History.” To Gates’ surprise, Christian did not take a conventional approach to teaching the history of the world. Instead, as Sorkin writes, Christian “put forward a synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields…into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth.” You can get a sense of Christian’s style and what Big History is about by watching his 2011 Ted Talk:

What Gates and Christian hope to do is to bring their vision of history–this mixture of the sciences and the arts–to classrooms everywhere. A free curriculum with resources are available online for schools to use. According to Sorkin, about 1,200 schools throughout the country will offer the course to students this year. While this doesn’t seem like much, considering there are over 35,000 secondary schools in the country, it is significant considering the project started in just five high schools in 2011. Gates has used part of his vast fortune, and Christian’s charisma, to promote this endeavor. They both hope over time to see Big History implemented in most schools, supplanting the traditional world history course that has been taught pretty consistently since the 1970s.

While I’m no expert on the Big History Project, I think it might be worth a look. Teachers can register for more information here. I just don’t know enough about the course to offer a critique at this point. At its core, I think Big History might be useful because it does what many successful history teachers do in their classes–it shows connections between events that happened in the past with what is going on today. It encourages students to make connections. It’s why when my students studied the Middle East, we’d also listen to Malala Yousafzai and learn her story. Or, when we studied the industrial revolution we would also study current revolutions, like those happening in fields like synthetic biology. When we fail to make connections and show relevance between events in the past and our own lives and passions, the study of history will fall flat. Do we need a new world history curriculum? I’m not sure, but I’m always ready to listen and learn.