So what exactly is big history? Well to put it in the words of those who teach it “Big History is a framework for all knowledge”, basically it’s the use of math, science and history to help unravel the mystery, that all started with the big bang. Sound familiar? Well you’ve probably heard something similar on your TV.
The argument behind big history is that history should not just be about the past 20,000 years or so, but should be in fact the whole of time as we know it1. Big history aims to teach a basic history of everything, from the beginning of the universe as we know it 13.8 billion years ago, right up until the present day and even into the future. Big history courses include the use of math, all fields of science and of course history in order to help explain how and why things came to be.
Who had this crazy idea you ask? Well that would be Professor David Christian. He began his long path towards success studying the history of Russian and the Soviet Union of which he obtained a Doctor of Philosophy for in 1974. He then spent the next 25 years (1975-2000) teaching at Macquarie University during which, in the 1980’s he developed a large interest on the history of everything. After many years churning the idea in 1989 he began teaching courses on the history of everything, now known as big history. In 2001 Professor Christian took up a position at San Diego State University where he continued to teach up until 2008. During his time in the US he published the first text on big history (2004) and constantly pushed his idea of big history into the world. After returning to Macquarie University in 2009 Professor Christian continued work as a historian receiving an ARC grant to support some of his research. The biggest development came in 2011 when the Big History Project (BHP) was launched; this project, which Professor Christian co-founded with Bill Gates aimed to bring big history into schools for free. Since the website launch in 2011 the BHP has now been used in around 300 schools in the US and 100 in Australia. This project is now Professor Christians main focus as he wishes to see big history taught in every school in every country.
I’m sure you’re all thinking this is a cool idea, but how on earth can someone teach 13.8 billion years worth of history over a semester. That’s where Professor David Christian comes in, not only is he exceptionally knowledgeable in the field but he can run you through a brief history in about 15 minutes. That’s right 13.8 billion years of history in 15 minutes. Don’t believe me? Well just watch the video below.
The goal Professor Christian has for big history as you may have just heard is to have it taught in every school in the world. Obviously that is a huge ask, but this is where the Big History Project comes into play. This project, which David co-founded with Bill Gates is very well funded and provides free teaching and learning materials for those that wish to participate in big history courses. In order to help teachers the course is broken into 8 modules that aim to interlink with each other to allow students to develop knowledge. This aims to help them understand patterns and themes that run within and between each module with the hope that they will be better able to understand our place in the universe2.
One of the key aspects of big history is the ability for students to understand the complex idea of deep time and the context in which we as humans fit in it3. Clearly this idea wasn’t something that schools were going to jump right into. Initially a few schools offered to teach the program in a pilot study in order to gather initial feedback and information. The information gathered from these pilots was vital to insuring the course was taught correctly and students and teachers both gained from it. Now big history is taught in around 300 schools in the US and around 100 in Australia, with the free cost and availability of materials being a huge part of its success.
Big History has come such a long way in such a little time. In 25 years it has gone from “a cute idea” to something that is being taught in schools and universities worldwide with its popularity and success growing rapidly. I believe that the type of thinking big history promotes is key to reaching out to and encouraging the young generations to enter the fields of math, science and history in order to further develop and increase our understanding of the universe and its entire ‘big history’.
1. Christian. D. 1991. The Case for “Big History”. Journal or World History, 2(2): 223-238.
2. Hawkey. K. 2014. A new look at big history. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46(2): 163-179.
3. Chaisson. E. 2014. The Natural Science Underlying Big History. The Scientific World Journal, 1: 384912.