History Comes in All Sizes but There's a Big Debate over 'Big History' vs. the History That Humans Have Written Down

By Shribman, David M | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), December 7, 2014 | Go to article overview

History Comes in All Sizes but There's a Big Debate over 'Big History' vs. the History That Humans Have Written Down


Shribman, David M, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


The most contentious historical question in the country is not a dispute over whether the United States is at heart a revolutionary or conservative force in world affairs, nor a conflict over how deep was Abraham Lincoln's devotion to the anti-slavery cause, nor even a battle over the origins of the Cold War. The most contentious historical question in the United States is over what history is - or, more precisely, how long history is.

In one camp are scholars who may disagree over whether history's engine is economic or political - or over whether the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War are proof that the United States has deep imperialist roots - but who basically agree that the study of history should concentrate on what has happened in the past 2,000 years or so.

In another camp is a growing group of scholars and educational activists who believe history should be taught on a 14-billion-year scale.

So, into an academic realm where big business and big data have been recent preoccupations enters another big area of controversy: Big History.

Big History is the notion that academics err when they concentrate on the Thirty Years War, or the French Revolution, or American progressivism, without putting them into a context that includes the Big Bang, the Pleistocene Era and the appearance of millet and yams in sub-Saharan Africa.

The teaching of history in this Big fashion was the lonely crusade of an obscure Australian academic until Bill Gates listened to a series of recorded lectures and decided that his next cause was to promote Big History and to try to persuade school boards across the country to adopt it. The intrusion of a non-academic with a Big fortune and not a Big academic pedigree into the decidedly Not Big world of history caused the predictable Big outcry.

History as viewed by David Christian, who teaches history at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and holds a D.Phil in Russian History from Oxford, is history on an entirely different scale.

Its virtue - and I listened to 12 of Mr. Christian's lectures before coming to this conclusion - is that it puts history into perspective. It leads you to conclude that the co-evolution of humans and domesticated animals, including livestock - the humans changing culturally, the animals changing genetically - is a more important passage in human history than Watergate. It leads you to believe that the appearance of agriculture only 11,000 years ago is a bigger oddity than the Soviet-Nazi Pact of 1939.

And - critical to our own age, a slender strand of history - is the broader dynamic of climate change and how humans have adapted to it: with migration across the globe and with increasing impact on the environment, through, among other things, fire and farming. Wow. The debate over the Versailles Treaty sounds pretty peripheral in that context.

At the center of this view of history is Mr. Christian's contention that historians concentrate on a mere 5 percent of history because they only examine the record of written material and documents - and because they (wrongly) believe that not much happened in that first 95 percent: No novels, no symphonies, no documents hidden in pumpkin patches on Maryland farms or retrieved by Freedom of Information requests. …

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