Why the Big History project funded by Bill Gates is alarming

Sep 15, 2014 by

Katherine Edwards – As UK state schools increasingly follow the US model, someone with no background in education could disrupt the learning of thousands of children

The idea for the Big History project – currently being piloted in the US and funded by Bill Gates – apparently came to the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft in 2008 while exercising on his treadmill. He was watching a series of lectures by David Christian, an Australian professor whose interdisciplinary approach integrates physics, geology, biology and many other subjects with history to offer a single coherent narrative – “a framework for all knowledge”. Judging by the number of viewings Christian’s TED Talk on the subject has received, Gates was not alone in thinking, “God, everybody should watch this thing!”. But in an age where money is increasingly driving public education policy, the difference is that he may not be far off from making this happen.

It is easy to admire the commitment Gates has to education and to empathise with his excitement at an imaginative and intellectually ambitious vision that promises to “go beyond specialised and self-contained fields of study to grasp history as a whole”. Most teachers would agree that it is inspiring and motivating to break down the traditional fences we put around different school subjects; my colleagues and I have long aimed to encourage “cross-curricular links” to spur lateral thinking.

But Christian’s approach goes further. He was inspired by the Annales school of French historians who sought to write “histoire totale”, avoiding the usual tunnel vision created by separating economic, political, social and other forms of history.

The concept of “total history” has long been debated by academics. While the idea has led to some interesting experiments in historical writing, the general consensus among historians is that history without any form of tunnel vision is a utopian impossibility. It may be possible to integrate the study of society, religion, economics and demography, say, when concentrating on a small microcosm of life, like a single medieval village, but here the inherent restrictions of geography and time are themselves a form of tunnel vision. To make sense of the past we have to impose categories upon it and split it into themes while accepting that these are necessarily artificial and provisional.

via Why the Big History project funded by Bill Gates is alarming | Katherine Edwards | Comment is free | theguardian.com.

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