Science Rules? The Unfortunate Consequences of Big History’s Ascension

While debates over high school curricula are heating up in Erstwhile’s home state of Colorado, Travis R. May (Ph.D. student, University of Colorado) explores the potential pitfalls of another teaching trend: “Big History.”

There is a revolution in the offing in secondary education. Not one involving guillotines and cockades and (likely apocryphal) cake, mind you, but a revolution all the same.   A new approach to the study of history, known as “The Big History Project,” is rapidly gaining momentum in high schools across the country. If the project and its powerful supporters manage to successfully storm the bastions traditionally held by the high school World History course, the results will be far-reaching and disruptive in troubling ways.

Stressing the importance of making interdisciplinary connections between history, economics, the social sciences, and—most importantly—the hard sciences of physics, biology, and chemistry, Big History asks students to see the “big picture” of life in our universe, and to draw connections between the distant past and the present. For example, a lecture beginning in the Mesozoic with the study of dinosaurs might end with a discussion of the modern-day use of fossil fuels. This kind of breathtaking scope, ranging over thirteen billion years from the Big Bang to the present day, has captured the imaginations of many educators and school boards. More importantly, it has also garnered the attention and enthusiasm of Bill Gates, one of the richest men and most generous philanthropists of our time.

Gates, a man whose prodigious wealth would put a Lannister to shame (house sigil: a stained glass window set against an azure sky), has leveraged his considerable fame and fortune to promote the Big History Project and its founder, Dr. David Christian. He is adamant that academic disciplines as they currently are constituted are too narrowly focused, and it is clear that he truly believes that providing the larger context to students will help them draw connections between subject materials that may never have been taught together previously. He and Christian—originally an Oxford-educated professor of Russian history teaching in Australia but now the dynamic founder of a global interdisciplinary cause célèbre—are of like minds in this regard: they both believe that the Big History Project has the opportunity to invigorate active learning in the all-too-often dismal and stultifying environment of the high school classroom. They may not be wrong, but what they and others have failed to acknowledge is that their all-encompassing approach to the study of the past represents, at best, a Faustian bargain.

Source: “Earth Full South Pacific,” from Orbiter, Creative Commons

For all the merits of this innovative way of approaching diverse material, and there are indeed many, the Big History approach comes with significant inherent weaknesses and disadvantages. The most serious danger is that Big History might very well undermine our society’s ever-tenuous connection with a basic knowledge of human history. As class time remains a limited and valuable commodity, small-scale history—the close examination of change over time in peoples and societies found in the World History courses of the present—will almost necessarily be neglected and relegated to the background as the sciences creep in. Only one of the twelve epochs in the Big History course timeline is concerned with human civilization, and while even this meager allotment massively over-represents human history in the geological timescale, it is clear that there will not be enough time to adequately cover even a fraction of the material now being taught in World History courses after shoehorning in the entirety of our universe’s existence.  In fact, given the distribution of material, it might be more accurate to describe The Big History Project as the “Big Natural History Project” or “The Big Science Project” since it seems relatively clear that science and not history will play a dominant role in the arrangement.

If the Big History Project has its way, as Gates and countless others are currently campaigning for, students of the future might well spend significantly more time studying the Pleistocene than the Ancien Régime in their “history” courses. While there are doubtless many useful things to be learned about giant sloths, saber-toothed cats, and other mega-fauna of this lost world, and what they can teach us about the present, the cost of this new realignment of priorities—losing the close humanistic study of the consequences of interactions between peoples and in a sense what it has meant to be human since we first were able to articulate as such—is far too great to countenance lightly. Even so, the popularity of the Big History Project may be able to teach us something useful. The modern public is fascinated by direct connections between their own lives and the past, and perhaps more than at any other time in the history of scholasticism there is widespread interest in a broad array of academic fields even among students at the high school level. We, as active historians of the present day, must respond meaningfully to the concerns voiced by proponents of Big History—that traditional World History is too insular and stodgy and unconnected to the lives of students living today—by striving to bring interdisciplinary and dynamic techniques and knowledge into our work. If we fail to address these grievances, history as a distinct and relevant discipline taught at the secondary school level risks meeting the same fate that awaited Marie Antoinette as she ascended the executioner’s scaffold at the Place de la Révolution. But, by then, no one will be left to make the connection.

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