This past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine featured an interesting article by Andrew Ross Sorkin about Bill Gates’ Big History initiative. Apparently, a few years back, the newly retired Gates was doing his daily treadmill workout while watching one of the Teaching Company’s “Great Courses” series and he happened upon a course that mesmerized him. “Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity” developed by David Christian of Australia’s Macquarie University is a course that covers a lot of ground (as evidenced by its title) but rather than considering historical moments and epochs as discrete units, it instead aims to make connections for students to show that these are conversations and developments that occur over time. In courses I regularly teach, like World Literature, for example–this is an important message for students. Just as literature does not exist in a vacuum (it is always responding to what came before or anticipating what might come next), neither does history.
Christian designed and taught the course in 1989 for the first time to a group of 300 students. Word spread and quickly the course became overenrolled. Within a few years, the news Christian’s brainchild had traveled externally and he began to receive requests from other colleges and universities on how they could develop their own models of his course. In 2005, he was spotted by a Teaching Company scout at a conference and was asked to tape the class for the “Great Courses” series. The 48-lecture program was released in 2008, and the rest, as they say, is history.
After meeting with Christian, Gates made him an offer: they could partner to offer “Big History” to high school students across America and he would personally fund the project, so convinced he was of its promise. As of this fall, the course (The Big History Project) will be offered to more than 15K students in more than 1200 schools.
But the project is not without its critics.
Some suggest that teaching history in this way eliminates important elements of historical discourse (methodology, for one) and doesn’t allow for students to make the connections and draw conclusions independently, organically.
And as Sorkin‘s piece points out, some critics are skeptical because of the involvement of Gates himself. The former Microsoft chair has become a bit of a lightening rod within the education community–no doubt due to his foundation’s $200 million support of the Common Core initiative and involvement in other high profile education policy projects. Some suggest that Gates is simply throwing money at a cause, while lacking the discipline-specific expertise that is needed to spearhead such a plan. Scott L. Thomas, dean of the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University puts it this way: “[Gates is] enabling the pursuit of this project. And frankly, in the eyes of the critics, he’s really not an expert. He just happens to be a guy that watched a DVD and thought it was a good idea and had a bunch of money to fund it.”
I am a bit conflicted on the project myself–on the one hand, it runs the risk of being a “fast-food” version of thousands of years of information. But on the other hand, it could be a way to introduce the big ideas and larger connections that might spark students’ interest to investigate various topics in greater depth. And I am also not sure how I feel about private funding in public education as a practice anyway.
What do you think about the Big History Project? Is this part of what the public education system in the U.S. is lacking? Or do we run the risk of diluting content and critical thinking by making easy connections?
Watch David Christian’s TED Talk: “A History of the World in 18 Minutes” and see what you think.