Big History

By Gustafson, Lowell | The International Schools Journal, April 2014 | Go to article overview

Big History


Gustafson, Lowell, The International Schools Journal


The Big History Project was started by Bill Gates and David Christian to enable the global teaching of big history. It is a course that covers history from the big bang through to the present in an interdisciplinary way. The Big History Project 'is dedicated to fostering a greater love and capacity for learning among high school students'.

Bill Gates became interested in big history when he heard a series of lectures by Christian. For Gates, 'he really blew me away. Here's a guy who's read across the sciences, humanities, and social sciences and brought it together in a single framework. It made me wish that I could have taken big history when I was young, because it would have given me a way to think about all of the school work and reading that followed. In particular, it really put the sciences in an interesting historical context and explained how they apply to a lot of contemporary concerns.'

After Gates and Christian met to discuss the lectures, the genesis of the Big History Project occurred. They founded the project, and developed a team to achieve their stated goal: 'to get big history taught to as many students around the world as possible'. The Big History Project was launched at the 2011 TED conference at Long Beach, California.

The past is not what it used to be. History has often been considered to be the few thousand year-old written record of the human past. Big History places that written record within the natural record of the entire past since the Big Bang 13.82 billion years ago.

History has often been learned from careful reading of books, diaries, letters, and all kinds of written sources. Big history places that within the 'readings' of other kinds of evidence such as light, rocks, bone, and blood. Ironically, it has not been traditional historians who have revolutionised our understanding of the past but the natural scientists - the physicists, astronomers, mineralogists, earth scientists, biologists and others - who have provided the evidence and analysis that have extended the past from a few thousand years to almost 14 billion.

Historians often break their subject into periods. Histories of the 19th century, the 1960s, the medieval period, the Ancient Period etc are common. Big historians define periods of time by thresholds, or the first appearance of matter, galaxies, stars, chemicals, the Solar system, life on earth, hominines and humans, agriculture, and industrialization and urbanization. Each period incorporates portions of the earlier period; each is successively more complex.

Not only does the work of big historians challenge the discipline of history to redefine itself; it does the same for other disciplines in the liberal arts. The physical sciences and big history, sometimes also called cosmic evolution, offer much to those who focus not only on time but also culture, politics, ethics, religious studies, literature, and other human endeavors.

In one way this is nothing new. The famous ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, wrote a book on Physics, another on Politics, a third on Ethics, and many others. In Politics, he wrote that humans are by nature political animals. In the European medieval period, Thomas Aquinas developed Aristotelian thought on natural law; he argued that humans were created within a politicallyconstituted community.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, such state of nature political philosophers as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau postulated human politics before or without such institutions as the state. They wanted to determine how to construct states so that they helped resolve the basic problems of human nature. For all of their differences, they all saw humans as rooted in nature. None of them had the same understanding of nature as has developed since Darwin, Einstein, Hubble, Heisenberg, and others in the past two centuries.

Big history and contemporary physical sciences lead us to new understandings of human nature. …

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