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Big History Course

Bringing It All Together!

David Christian

Can you imagine a history course that could be taught in every country in the world so it could bring people together rather than divide them? Not easy! But one of the most exciting things about Big History is that it really is global. We expect a chemistry course to work as well in Beijing as in Rio or Johannesburg or New York. But not a History course. This is because History has traditionally been so caught up in nationalism. A course in Australian or Russian or Japanese history makes sense, but not a history of humanity. Most history courses portray humanity as divided into different national tribes. 

Big history offers the first history course that will work, with barely any changes, in all parts of the world. That is because in a big history course, you encounter humans not as Americans or Germans or Russians or Nigerians, but as members of a single, genetically homogeneous, species, Homo sapiens. And you follow the trajectory, not of any one tribe or group or nation, but of humanity as a whole.

Because of this, we expect big history courses to spread throughout the world. Already today, in the second year of our pilot program, courses in big history are being piloted in schools in Korea, China, Scotland and the Netherlands as well as in Australia and the USA.  Eventually, we hope that the online big history syllabus will be translated into many different languages. Big history teachers in Korea are already translating many of the unit lectures.

We hope that big history courses will begin to build bridges between different countries, different regions, and different nations. And we would love to see students of big history working together in different countries; perhaps a student in Seoul could write an essay on the extinction of the dinosaurs together with a student in Scotland and another in Melbourne. And perhaps their teachers and principals might end up sharing emails about how great the papers were! That really would be global education.

Big history can also help us build bridges between the sciences and the humanities because it tells a story in which cosmology flows seamlessly into chemistry, which flows into geology and biology and eventually, into human history. We’ve found in our first pilot program that many students (and teachers!) who were previously scared of science or felt it was just not for them, have discovered that the science makes sense when you see it as part of a larger story.

The periodic table can look pretty intimidating, sitting up there in the chemistry lab, looking important.  But it begins to make so much more sense when you start to understand that the periodic table, too, has a history. The first two elements, right at the top, were created in the big bang.  All the rest were forged either inside dying stars (all the elements up to Iron, No. 26 on the table), or cooked up in the exploding stars we call supernovae. (Check out Unit 3, “Navigating the Periodic Table”.) And as they poured out into the space between stars, atoms of different elements began to combine, swapping or sharing the electrons in their outer shells to form molecules of water or dust particles or globules of metal. From these bits and pieces planets and moons and asteroids and new suns formed, including, eventually, our own solar system and our own home planet, the Earth. 

The early earth provided the perfect environment for much more complicated chemistry. Here we find a great mix of solids, gases and liquids, mild temperatures so that oceans of water can form, and energy from the sun—the perfect ‘Goldilocks’ conditions for interesting chemistry. Atoms began to join to form molecules, chains, and then huge bundles of billions of different atoms, until eventually they formed the first living organisms. As these evolved over almost 4 billion years they created trilobites, ferns, dinosaurs and, eventually, you and me.

Our ancestors, who first appeared just 200,000 years ago, began to learn faster than any other animal until, today, we live at one of the most extraordinary moments in the planet’s history, at a moment when one species, our own, dominates the entire biosphere. At this point, those science students who always hated history might be starting to think that human history, too, is pretty interesting. And once we’ve got to humans we can start asking one of the most important questions of all: where is the story going? What’s the next chapter? The next threshold?

I have taught big history for twenty years, and I love the way it brings it all together: different disciplines, different time scales, different cultures. That’s why I think of big history as a sort of knowledge hub. It is linked to so many different forms of knowledge that if you know the story of big history, you will find you have an overview of all of knowledge.  

I also love big history because it’s exciting. What could be more exciting than to learn the history of everything!  For me, teaching big history is a bit like riding a racing motorbike along a winding, cliffside road. You move really really fast in big history and you see it all. And people are embarking on the same journey in many different parts of the world. Have fun.

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