Monday, September 8, 2014

Three Cheers for Big History, David Christian, and Bill Gates


Nerd fest. Love it.

The NYT published its education issue of the Magazine that included an article entitled “So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class . . .” written by Andrew Ross Sorkin about Bill Gates and his promotion of “Big History”. The article details the Big History project that grew from the inquisitive mind of David Christian, an academic who started his teaching career as a Russian history specialist in Australia. Christian decided to widen the scope of history, and he developed a course that runs from the Big Bang to the present (and that even peers over the edge into the future). Bill Gates, like me, came across the Teaching Company course and really liked it. (Bill watched on his treadmill. I listened in my car.) Gates was taken with the concept and now actively promotes it. It’s heartening (in a small, silly sort of way) that the world’s richest nerd shares my enthusiasm. 

The article describes the genesis of the project, beginning with David Christian’s personal history, his initial course development, his “discovery” by the Teaching Company, and their release of the course in 2008. Gates (a fellow Teaching Company aficionado) not only became enthusiastic about the course, but he put his money where his mouth (and brain) is and began to promote it through his Foundation. Now the course is taught in more and more schools. 

Some of the article includes comments from those who carp about Gates and his involvement in education. Such comments are petty. He puts ideas to the test and backs up his enthusiasm with money, testing, and refinement. Business leaders who promote educational reform (even real change) aren’t going to lead us to the educational mountaintop, but they can help. Gates seems exemplary in this regard. At least he’s not out trying to buy elections for right-wing causes. Besides, he’s a rather likeable nerd, and he channels his nerdiness to good use. I’ll never share his income bracket, but I do share his enthusiasm for this and other topics. (He posts lists of books that he’s read that’s a treasure of serious, non-fiction reading.)

The other gripe in the article came from Stanford history professor Sam Wineburg, who complained that the course left out too much history (of the archives and texts variety) to focus on natural science. This misses the point of the course, which is—contrary to the organization of colleges and universities—truly multi-disciplinary. This should not be a turf war. We can view history through a telescope looking back into vast areas of time, space, or topic, or we can view it through a microscope, focusing on moment-to-moment events documented by texts in archives. Each has its place and irreplaceable value. No single perspective, large or small, distant or recent, can supplant all of the others. 

The best aspect of this article, however, is that it gives us pause to think about history and to asses its nature and value. What is history? History is the master discipline, the source of knowledge. Every thing has a history: the universe, you and me, civilizations, disciplines (math, science, literature, etc.). Every thing changes over time (although sometimes too slowly for us to appreciate). All knowledge is from the past. This idea isn’t my creation, but a gift that I received from John Lukacs. Lukacs calls on C.S. Lewis to help explicate the insight: 

The past in our minds is memory. Human beings cannot create, or even imagine, anything that is entirely new. (The Greek work for "truth, aletheia, also means "not forgetting")"There is not a vestige of real creativity de novo in us," C.S. Lewis once wrote. No one can even imagine an entirely new color; or an entirely new animal; or even a third sex. At best (or worst) one can imagine a new combination of already existing—that is, known to us—colors, or monsters, or sexes.

Lukacs, At the End of an Age, 52.

Lukacs goes on: 

In sum, the history of anything amounts to that thing itself. History is not a social science but an unavoidable form of thought. That "we live forward but we can only think backward" is true not only of the present (which is always a fleeting illusion) but of our entire view of the future: for even when we think of the future we do this by remembering. But history cannot tell us anything about the future with certainly. Intelligent research, together with a stab of psychological understanding, may enable us to reconstruct something from the past; still, it cannot help us predict the future. There are many reasons for this unpredictability (for believing Christians let me say that Providence is one); but another (God-ordained) element is that no two human beings have ever been the same. History is real; but it cannot be made to "work", because of its unpredictability. 

Lukacs, At the End of an Age, 53-54

Strictly speaking, I would define history as the study of the recorded past (again following Lukacs). That has meant mostly documents, but it now includes a variety of other media as well. For more remote times, we get glimpses of life from the world of signs, symbols, and non-perishable tools. But in a larger sense, the “Big History” sense, we can understand history as the story of change. Thus, we move beyond (but do not discard) the story of politics, war, individuals (biography), social relations, or economics, among the more traditional subjects of history. We now encompass the natural world as well. The cutting edge of physics investigates the changing universe, while biology was revolutionized by its incorporation of history, which we label “evolution”. This appreciation of change is relatively new to the Western mind. It has a genesis going back to Heraclitus, but ideas about static Being and an unchanging God dominated for the greater part of Western history. With the likes of Hegel, Whitehead, and Eastern thinking (Daoist and Buddhist), we now enjoy a conceptual orientation that better appreciates the fundamental perspective of change and process. 

The other point to consider about the value of the Big History project comes from its value for bridging the two cultures. Since everything has a history, including every body of knowledge (as a field of study and in the “real world”), each subject can be taught through its history. I first received this idea from the late Neil Postman. (Sorry, I don’t have my library here to provide you the title in which he makes this point.) But as usual, John Lukacs has a pertinent quote, and from none other than the greatest American philosopher, William James: 

William James wrote: "You can give humanistic value to almost anything by teaching it historically. Geology, economics, mechanics, are humanities when taught by reference to the successive achievements of the geniuses to whom these sciences owe their being. Not taught thus, literature means grammar, art a catalog, history as list of dates, and natural science a sheet of formulas and weights and measures" 

At the End of an Age, 53, quoting James, Memories and Studies (1911), 312-313.

So I say “three cheers!” for Bill Gates, David Christian, and Big History.