"Big" History

I’ve just discovered a site called the Big History Project. Much of the content is similar to that of the film, Journey of the Universe. Both are designed to help young people and adults make sense of their world as a starting point for understanding and direction. It’s remarkably good.

The course began as a co-project of historian David Christian and Microsoft’s Bill Gates. Prof, Christian began as a Russian historical scholar but became interested in a multi-disciplinary approach that would cover history from the Big Bang to the present. For someone like myself, whose secondary school history focused on Canadian and British constitutional history and expanded to European history in university, it’s a revolutionary approach. It also has real implications for young peoples’ understanding of our current world As an addition to the more serious presentation the online site has joined forces with John and Hank Green’s parallel version for the kids. While the latter is lighthearted and sometimes frenetic, it also delivers the goods.

Occasionally I am asked to teach Sunday School and I am always pleased to be at the same table with this group of kids aged six to ten.  Their world outside that one hour of the week could not be more different than the one presented in a curriculum of early bible land often replete of Victorian art. It doesn’t surprise me that as soon as the kids have any ability to object to this worldview they depart.  Churches spend a lot of time wringing their hands about the absence of young people – as they should.  But they may be missing the point. 

David Christian noted in 2010, “Over the next fifty years we will see a return of the ancient tradition of "universal history"; but this will be a new form of universal history that is global in its practice and scientific in its spirit and methods.”  This is what our kids are already learning in school and it is supplemented by online learning like this project. Most religious education programs focus on a small segment of this history without realizing the wider framing that the kids are experiencing.

With assistance from Bill Gates, the Big History Project was launched with a TED talk in 2011.  After comprehensive pilot testing, the course has been made available on a site here for free to teachers, students and interested life-long learners.While the course is intended primarily at the middle and high school level, adults will benefit in several ways.  History starts with cosmogenesis and moves through several distinct stages that the creators term The Goldilocks effect were exactly the right conditions produce something dramatically new. When we meet the planet, we have lots of indications of how things came to be.  When humans enter the picture, there are clear indications of how they live through stages and how their interactions with the physical environment affect cultural development.  Unlike my own history courses years ago with too many forgotten dates and documents, these sessions are lively and relational – and focus on why things are as they are.  They are also a reminder of the pace in which our young people operate.  It’s sometimes dizzying – and it is also real.

Modern kids and adults now have resources and sense of scale that are totally different from those covered in any Sunday School curriculum. We also have access to disciplines that were not known to all but a few of the people of those times.  We had better remember that.