Monday, September 8, 2014

So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class

In 2008, shortly after Bill Gates stepped down from his executive role at Microsoft, he often awoke in his 66,000-square-foot home on the eastern bank of Lake Washington and walked downstairs to his private gym in a baggy T-shirt, shorts, sneakers and black socks yanked up to the midcalf. Then, during an hour on the treadmill, Gates, a self-described nerd, would pass the time by watching DVDs from the Teaching Company’s “Great Courses” series. On some mornings, he would learn about geology or meteorology; on others, it would be oceanography or U.S. history. 
As Gates was working his way through the series, he stumbled upon a set of DVDs titled “Big History” — an unusual college course taught by a jovial, gesticulating professor from Australia named David Christian. Unlike the previous DVDs, “Big History” did not confine itself to any particular topic, or even to a single academic discipline. Instead, it put forward a synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields, which Christian wove together into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth. Standing inside a small “Mr. Rogers"-style set, flanked by an imitation ivy-covered brick wall, Christian explained to the camera that he was influenced by the Annales School, a group of early-20th-century French historians who insisted that history be explored on multiple scales of time and space. Christian had subsequently divided the history of the world into eight separate “thresholds,” beginning with the Big Bang, 13 billion years ago (Threshold 1), moving through to the origin of Homo sapiens (Threshold 6), the appearance of agriculture (Threshold 7) and, finally, the forces that gave birth to our modern world (Threshold 8). 
Christian’s aim was not to offer discrete accounts of each period so much as to integrate them all into vertiginous conceptual narratives, sweeping through billions of years in the span of a single semester. A lecture on the Big Bang, for instance, offered a complete history of cosmology, starting with the ancient God-centered view of the universe and proceeding through Ptolemy’s Earth-based model, through the heliocentric versions advanced by thinkers from Copernicus to Galileo and eventually arriving at Hubble’s idea of an expanding universe. In the worldview of “Big History,” a discussion about the formation of stars cannot help including Einstein and the hydrogen bomb; a lesson on the rise of life will find its way to Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. “I hope by the end of this course, you will also have a much better sense of the underlying unity of modern knowledge,” Christian said at the close of the first lecture. “There is a unified account.” 
As Gates sweated away on his treadmill, he found himself marveling at the class’s ability to connect complex concepts. “I just loved it,” he said. “It was very clarifying for me. I thought, God, everybody should watch this thing!” At the time, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had donated hundreds of millions of dollars to educational initiatives, but many of these were high-level policy projects, like the Common Core Standards Initiative, which the foundation was instrumental in pushing through. And Gates, who had recently decided to become a full-time philanthropist, seemed to pine for a project that was a little more tangible. He was frustrated with the state of interactive coursework and classroom technology since before he dropped out of Harvard in the mid-1970s; he yearned to experiment with entirely new approaches. “I wanted to explore how you did digital things,” he told me. “That was a big issue for me in terms of where education was going — taking my previous skills and applying them to education.” Soon after getting off the treadmill, he asked an assistant to set a meeting with Christian.

Related links:

Big History Project (site)

Big History Project (YouTube videos)

Related previous post: TED Talk - David Christian: Big history