Monday, September 8, 2014

"Big History" - Another Bill Gates' McGuffin?

According to a recent NY Times review piece by Andrew Ross -Sorkin, Billionaire Bill Gates appears to have been thunderstruck by another flash idea to add to his common core aspirations. This one doesn’t involve algebra but rather the teaching of history, BIG History. Gates evidently got the idea while working out on his treadmill and watching a DVD entitled ‘Big History’ – part of the Great Courses series. In this case the lecturer was a convincing Aussie prof named David  Christian.
Christian’s shtick lies in developing a college level course predicated on a synthesis of history, biology, astronomy, chemistry and sundry other fields. The aim? To present to students a sweeping and coherent arc of human history not confined to specific events or human actors-agents, but rather tying multifold cosmic and human events into a narrative of "everything" - thereby  providing a unifying picture of the history of life on Earth.
Christian, in one academic interview, explains that he was influenced by the Annales School- a group of early 20th century French historians who all insisted that history be taught on multiple levels of time and space. Christian, enthralled by the idea, developed his course which incorporated eight separate “thresholds” beginning with the Big Bang 13 billion years ago (Threshold 1) moving through to the origin of Homo sapiens (Threshold 6) to the appearance of agriculture (Threshold 7) and finally to the forces shaping our modern world.(Threshold 8)
Christian’s aim was not to give a distinct account of each period but instead to integrate them all into "vertiginous, conceptual narratives sweeping through billions of years" in the parlance of a worshipping Ross-Sorkin who comes over more as Gates' groupie than objective critic (especially when discussing Randi Weingarten's and the American Federation of Teachers' reaction to Gates' Common Core agenda, and how the AFT pulled away from further Gates' funding.).
Anyway, Gates then checked out one of Christian’s classes at San Diego State University and marveled at his class’ ability  to connect the complex concepts presented. Before anyone could say "Common Core" , Gates and Christian were chatting it up and developing a similar course for high school students. This has since become part of the Big History project which now includes a website open to the public – and an electronic textbook chock full of interactive videos and graphics.
Big History itself debuted in 2011 in five schools and this fall will reach 15,000 students in 1,200 schools. For those who like to keep track of numbers that translates to an average of just over 12 students per school. Why so few? Because an integrative approach is damned difficult! It demands students and teachers of high executive brain function, to be able to easily synthesize disparate concepts in their minds as well as effectively use the materials to advance to meet the course objectives.
While a class might start, say with the emergence of life via coacervates, then proceed to photosynthesis before moving to eukaryotes and multi-cellular organisms- the ordinary student will be left with mouth agape and wondering if he is really taking history or an advanced form of organic chemistry or evolutionary theory. Part of the problem is that students have been conditioned to think in 'boxes' or categories and not to pierce the shells to go inside and try to unify seemingly disparate ideas, concepts. Similarly, teachers are conditioned to teach in boxes, as opposed to presenting a hybrid course that is truly integrated.
According to Ross-Sorkin’s piece on the subject:
“Few schools had teachers willing or able to instruct a hybrid course, and other schools demanded that two teachers lead the class together.”
Having myself developed an Integrated Science curriculum, I’ve seen it all before. I saw that unless one could command the service of teachers skilled equally in multiple disciplines (physics, biology, chemistry, astronomy) the project was doomed to failure. This is why the original integrated science courses developed in the Caribbean in the 1970s have now reverted to specialized courses for advanced students. So, if you're taking Physics you'll hardly see a chemistry reference, or one for biology or astronomy. This is a shame because it propagates the disjoint 'boxes'  conditioning.
The other problem with a mammoth, gestalt-framed course like Big History is that its emphasis on the Big will give short shrift to the critical one –off events as well as undercurrents (deep politics) that tilt the historical forces one way or other. These aberrations I refer to as “punctuated history” and the examples have played no small role in shaping our modern world. (Of course, if viewed from a perspective of billions of years they recede into insignificance but then most human feats, events would as well.)
But to see what I mean, consider the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, which triggered World War I and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Consider also the assassination of John F. Kennedy by the national security state which – not coincidentally – saw the unrestricted rise of war for profit as well as the ascent of the national security state worldwide and which now defines all our telecommunications.   Then consider a singular, devastating event like 9/11 which has totally reshaped our modern world to be hyper-security conscious and paranoid ever since it happened. If you think nothing changed, you haven't been flying very often! The point is Big History is designed to miss or ignore the punctuated events that will bear most intensely on the modern historical era (Christian’s Threshold 8).
It seems then that Big History, like the Gates' Common Core proposals-  is destined to become a prize slice of academic titillation but not much more. Certainly not to the extent of developing a historical sensibility and appreciation, which most of our students lack.
I still maintain if people-students are to truly understand history they need to see the counterpoised forces shaping it, and that implies conveying the conflicts at every level: between nations, between different ethnic groups, between different religions, between different economic strata, between corporations and citizens, and between the state and its citizens. Unless this is done, with strong elements of deep politics sewn seamlessly into the framework, history will merely be reduced to the cartoon of a long series of unrelated events.
It is time that changed, but I don't believe that Bill Gates' and David Christian's Big History idea is the way to achieve that. I do suggest that for a few dedicated or highly intelligent people, it could be a template for grasping the gestalt of history as embracing all facets of human events within a cosmic perspective.

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