Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

The Big Idea of Big History

Students routinely complain about the irrelevance of history, science and math to their daily lives in the digital age.

Why memorize historical facts when the Internet is a click away. Or learn algebra when you can get an answer faster with a calculator on your smart phone.

art-history-420x0Bill Gates – yes, that Bill Gates – has the answer: Big History.

Never shy about big ideas, Gates is urging educators to scrap Small History, a mosaic of dates, places and people, with a narrative that weaves history, science, math and human behavior into a single narrative – or what some call “blended learning.”

His Holy Grail of Big History was developed by Australian college professor David Christian. Seeing the world from down under and projecting it from a make-shift TV studio, Christian has divided history into threshold moments that include:

  • The Big Bang
  • Origin of man
  • Appearance of agriculture
  • Forces that gave rise to the modern world

In a TED Talk, Christian gave a history of the world in 18 minutes.

Some may view this as oversimplification. The National Rifle Association might worry it would omit the invention of gunpowder. But Christian sees it as simplification that leads to clarity and continuity.

“I hope by the end of this course,” Christian advises students, “you will have a much better sense of the unity of modern knowledge.”

For someone like Gates accustomed to seeing the world in digital terms of “on” and “off,” Christian’s ideal of Big History is extremely appealing. Sitting atop his mound of money in his foundation, Gates told Christian he wanted to adapt his course into something taught in every American high school. There should be time since we no longer require students to take typing class.

The immediate thought was that Big History could replace World History in the high school curriculum. Think for a moment about what you remember about world history from high school. I suspect not much. First off, the “world” was usually restricted to Western civilization and its march of domination over everyone else’s world. Video games these days do a better job of teaching that.

As we face an Ebola outbreak in Africa, sectarian strife in the Middle East, powerful drug cartels in Latin America and the rise of a powerful Chinese economy, the notion that Western civilization is an island or even a dominating force has come into serious question. It is almost like a new Renaissance when Europeans emerged from their Midieval caves to discover the philosophy of the Greeks, the ingenuity of the Romans and the math of the Muslims.

aotLike any revolutionary idea, Big History has its detractors. Many educators fret this is the latest faddish idea to divert attention from the real problem in the classroom – too many students, too many students experiencing unsettled home lives or suffering from learning disorders and inadequate teacher pay.

Gates has discovered he also is a lightning rod. In addition to all the simmering memories of PC crashes attributed to Microsoft software, educators wonder what his real motivation is. Does he really think the march of history can be reduced to a keyboard and an online interface?

The answer may be simple – Gates sees value in seeing the world inside out.  He has made billions looking at the world differently.Gates concluded Big History was a powerful idea while watching Christian’s course video as he worked out on his home treadmill.

In a world crowded with knowledge, bits of information seem random and, as a consequence, less essential. Without anchors, information swims around in our head without much purpose. By telling a story about history, Big History creates marinas in the mind to dock all that information.

The history of everything, ironically, might parallel the advent of the Internet of things. And it would be a monumental contribution if Big History helped us understand the role of science and math in making the world what it is today.

Big History could help us bring the world to our feet. Like my epiphany many years ago at Tektronix when I learned that three guys in a warehouse pioneered innovative display technology by conducting experiments on a giant ripple tank, just like the one I fooled around with in high school physics.

That makes Big History seem like perhaps the next Big Idea.


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