Everything that Bill Gates does is BIG. He is the founder of Microsoft and regularly ranks at the top on the list of the world’s richest person. Now he is entering history, but not just any kind of history, fittingly, Big History. He, along with his wife Melinda and billionaire Warren Buffet, formed a BIG foundation; the world’s largest with an endowment of $38.3 billion in 2013. He has already poured millions into the Common Core standards and he is now interested in promoting a course on Big History that he ultimately plans to have implemented into every school around the world.
Big History and the Bill Gates connection are so interesting that the New York Times magazine ran a story about it on Sunday, September 5, 2014. I found the story intriguing and I urge you to read it. But I don’t want to critique the article; I want to talk about Big History.
The New York Times article coincided with the fact that I just presented a paper at the Big History conference held in August 2014 at the beautiful Dominican University campus in San Rafael, California. The subject of Bill Gates’ involvement in the organization was whispered about, but it was mainly a minor footnote to the conference that discussed other important issues for educators and the general public to mull over. From 9:00 in the morning to the evening hours, conference attendees were treated to a banquet of stimulating topics from panel discussions to a viewing of the award-winning documentary Journey of the Universe. I have attended my share of educational conferences but this one was different in my estimation. What made it different?
First of all, Big History is a relatively new association and is advocating for a new field of study. You may think that we already have world history so why another association and another field of study. But Big History claims to go beyond the disciplinary boundaries of world history and U.S. history to a transdisciplinary approach. This means it incorporates the sciences and humanities into the mix of telling our human story. The previous cut-off line of starting history with written records about 3500 BCE is cast aside, as the human story travels to the time of the Big Bang. Humans are placed within the story of the cosmos and not elevated to the highest pinnacle. This is a big difference.
I like Big History but I have some caveats about the course. In my presentation at the conference, I explained how my holistic world history approach, based on my book Waves of Global Change: A Holistic World History, fits into the Big History framework. I start with the Big Bang, describe the formation of our Solar System, Sun and life on Earth, trace human evolution, and summarize human commonalities. But my point in the presentation was that our 40,000 year human story should have front and center attention. If it is labeled a history course, I think humans should have center stage, if it is called Big Science, then humans can take a minor role.
The Big History Association is pushing, some say even evangelizing, for a course for all college students on Big History. This is an ambitious goal. But as I argued in my presentation, Big History can take away from the human story somewhat. I fully support the idea that humans are embedded within a story of the cosmos, earth history, and mammal and human evolution. But I find that humans are somewhat lost within Big History. Their social, economic, and religious expressions are either ignored or diminished, while political history in still in the limelight. I am concerned that as our human species faces the most important challenge in our short history – environmental calamity – we need to know how our species can change our innate behaviors and cultural constraints to deal with it.
Nonetheless, the Big History Association put on a wonderful conference that didn’t shy away from controversial issues or opposing viewpoints. The founders of world history – primarily David Christian and Cynthia Stokes Brown – welcomed different voices and encouraged more writing and research on the topic.
Even though Bill Gates involvement in the Big History project was whispered about, unfortunately, there were no formal presentations to discuss the matter. It was like the elephant in the room. I have mixed feelings about his involvement. To no one’s surprise, his millions are directing the project to favor high tech applications around which the course is organized. Are technological solutions the most important answer to our most pressing issue of the day, environmental crisis? In my opinion, well-meaning billionaires are having an undue influence in education today. Their way of solving problems – through competition, measurement, and technological fixes – are having more sway than ideas from actual trained educators.
Bill Gates’ enthusiasm and involvement in trying to make the world a better place, however, is commendable. And I probably would be less critical of his role in education if he latched on to my holistic approach to world history, as he did to Big History, as the most interesting course he had come across in his lifetime. Oh well, I will just have to find a way to slip my book into his must read list!
- What is your opinion about “Big History?” Do you think it would be a valuable or interesting class to take?
- Do you think that billionaires should use their money to influence educational policy and programs? What would the benefits be? Drawbacks.