By DAVID MYTON
In the closing decades of the 20th century postmodernism was the philosophy of choice within the humanities, with the likes of Foucault and Derrida the sages du jour. Their influence was felt particularly within the history discipline, where skepticism abounded, micro histories flourished, and ‘metanarratives’ were viewed with incredulity.
So what did Macquarie University historian Professor David Christian do?
Swimming against the postmodern tide, he devised the meta of all metanarratives – a new course he dubbed Big History.
Big History would attempt what sociobiologist E.O. Wilson had termed ‘consilience’ – a return to the goal of a unified understanding of reality as opposed to the prevailing disciplinary siloes then dominant in academe and scholarship.
It would be a modern ‘origin story’, beginning 13.8 billion years ago with the Big Bang, moving through space and time to Earth’s primeval evolution and thence into modernity, incorporating academic expertise from scientists, biologists, paleontologists, geologists and cosmologists among others.
Big History soon became a big deal.
On a journey
It took the Oxford-educated Christian on a journey that eventually saw him working with Microsoft founder Bill Gates, giving a much-viewed TED talk, helping to develop a Big History MOOC on Coursera, and overseeing the foundation of Macquarie University’s Big History Institute.
Christian, by training, is a historian of Russia and the Soviet Union and began teaching Russian and European history at Macquarie University in 1975.
In 2001 he moved to San Diego State University, where among other things he taught World History and Big History, returning to Macquarie in 2009 where he has mainly taught Big History.
Today Big History is taught in several universities and in hundreds of high schools, mostly in the USA and Australia, through the Big History Project, a free, online high school syllabus in big history, launched in 2011 and funded by Bill Gates.
Christian is at pains to point out he is not the only one driving Big History – “Eric Chaisson had been teaching astronomer’s versions for more than 20 years, and it was being taught in Amsterdam by Fred Spier and Johan Goudsblom, in Dallas by John Mears, in San Rafael by Cynthia Stokes Brown, in Melbourne by Tom Griffiths and Graeme Davidson, and elsewhere,” he says.
Nevertheless, he was a major driving force and his resistance to the postmodernist pushback was a significant step forward.
“There was a postmodernist conviction that we should be in the business of telling multiple stories and breaking down over-confident narratives,” he recalls.
“There was a widely spread idea that big narratives by definition were damaging or harmful.”
But in his view there is nothing intrinsically wrong with big narratives – “If academics refuse to engage with them then basically they will exist anyway but academics will just lose any influence they have over big stories.”
Big History began in 1989 at Macquarie as an experimental first year course on the history of the universe.
“The idea from the beginning was that it would bring together multiple disciplines and to place humanity within scientific knowledge as a way of trying to get at a unified history of humanity.”
As well as lecturing himself, he invited speakers from different disciplines such as astronomy, biology and geology – “at first it was kind of chaotic” – but by the mid 90s a serious scholarly narrative was emerging which he brought together in his 2004 book Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History.
As the course grew in popularity he moved to the San Diego State University, where, in addition to teaching and research activities, he engaged in a project that involved video-recording 48 lectures on Big History that were made public by a specialist teaching company.
Captivated Bill Gates
By chance, Bill Gates watched the lectures while he worked out on his exercise bike in the mornings, and was captivated by them.
He contacted Christian and put to him a proposal – that he would fund the creation of a free online high school course in Big History centred on Christian’s lectures.
In 2011, Gates, with Christian, launched the Big History Project and a centrepiece was a TED talk by Christian titled The history of our world in 18 minutes which has racked up more than seven million views on YouTube.
“Since then, through the support of Bill Gates, we’ve been able to take Big History into schools where it works very well indeed as a way of unifying the different disciplines, while giving students a sense that there is a unity to this fragmented world that they encounter,” says Christian.
Big History seeks to tell a unified story of the history of humanity, which also includes its significant impact on the planet itself – the anthropocene.
“The changes to the environment we are unwittingly causing today are now on a geological scale. This is the first time in four billion years that a single species has dominated change in the biosphere,” he says.
The fragmentation of knowledge into separate disciplines had resulted in the absence of a shared “origin story”.
“I sometimes think that if you had been educated in Australia 500 years ago you’d have got a much better education than you do today,” he says.
“You would have been instructed by elders. You would have learnt the rudiments of a coherent understanding of your place in the cosmos and then you’d have gone on to understand that story in deeper ways; there would have been lots of important empirical details that would have gone along with it.
“Gradually the details of that origin story would have given you a richer and richer understanding.”
One quality of Big History as an origin story, he says, is that it is not dogmatic.
“It is constantly being tested, re-tested, tweaked, re-jigged – the basic structure of the story will hold together probably for a few decades, maybe for longer than that.”
Big History can be thought of as map, he argues.
The circle of humanity
“It allows us as individuals to map ourselves onto a series of concentric circles – myself, friends, work, sporting team or church, and then there is my nation, then beyond that there is the circle of humanity, which of all these circles is the least developed while the others are often very well developed in modern education.
“Beyond that is the circle of the biosphere, with humans as part of this larger enterprise of life. Then there is the circle of the universe, life on this planet being part of a much larger story. Big History can move up and down those scales from the self to the larger scale of all.”
Christian has been teaching first year Big History for 25 years but plans to stop next year, when he will go back to teaching Russian history.
Big History, however, will continue, taught by others.
He has written a new study of modern Russia, due to be published next year.
Also in the works is a popular version of Big History aimed at the general public.
“Already we have sold the rights to seven different languages for translation. My hope is that this book will bring a larger number of people to Big History.
“It will be the first origin story that is for humans across the world no matter their religious or cultural traditions.
“It is the first global origin story.”