May 19th, 2019


The big debate over 'Big History' vs. the history that humans have written down

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published Dec. 9, 2014

The most contentious historical question in the country is not a dispute over whether the United States is at heart a revolutionary or conservative force in world affairs, nor a conflict over how deep was Abraham Lincoln’s devotion to the anti-slavery cause, nor even a battle over the origins of the Cold War. The most contentious historical question in the United States is over what history is — or, more precisely, how long history is.

In one camp are scholars who may disagree over whether history’s engine is economic or political — or over whether the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War are proof that the United States has deep imperialist roots — but who basically agree that the study of history should concentrate on what has happened in the past 2,000 years or so.

In another camp is a growing group of scholars and educational activists who believe history should be taught on a 14-billion-year scale.

So, into an academic realm where big business and big data have been recent preoccupations enters another big area of controversy: Big History.

Big History is the notion that academics err when they concentrate on the Thirty Years War, or the French Revolution, or American progressivism, without putting them into a context that includes the Big Bang, the Pleistocene Era and the appearance of millet and yams in sub-Saharan Africa.

The teaching of history in this Big fashion was the lonely crusade of an obscure Australian academic until Bill Gates listened to a series of recorded lectures and decided that his next cause was to promote Big History and to try to persuade school boards across the country to adopt it. The intrusion of a non-academic with a Big fortune and not a Big academic pedigree into the decidedly Not Big world of history caused the predictable Big outcry.

History as viewed by David Christian, who teaches history at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and holds a D.Phil in Russian History from Oxford, is history on an entirely different scale.

Its virtue — and I listened to 12 of Mr. Christian’s lectures before coming to this conclusion — is that it puts history into perspective. It leads you to conclude that the co-evolution of humans and domesticated animals, including livestock — the humans changing culturally, the animals changing genetically — is a more important passage in human history than Watergate. It leads you to believe that the appearance of agriculture only 11,000 years ago is a bigger oddity than the Soviet-Nazi Pact of 1939.

And — critical to our own age, a slender strand of history — is the broader dynamic of climate change and how humans have adapted to it: with migration across the globe and with increasing impact on the environment, through, among other things, fire and farming. Wow. The debate over the Versailles Treaty sounds pretty peripheral in that context.

At the center of this view of history is Mr. Christian’s contention that historians concentrate on a mere 5 percent of history because they only examine the record of written material and documents — and because they (wrongly) believe that not much happened in that first 95 percent: No novels, no symphonies, no documents hidden in pumpkin patches on Maryland farms or retrieved by Freedom of Information requests.

Mr. Christian disagrees. “A lot indeed did happen in the Paleolithic era,” he argues in one of his lectures. “This was not a period of stagnation. Our astonishing creativity is already evident in this era.”

In an email exchange, Mr. Christian asserted that most societies taught something like Big History in the past, calling it origin stories. “The weird thing is that modern secular education stopped teaching such stories about a century ago, yet one lurks within modern science waiting to be told,” he said. “We’re trying to tell it and return education to the notion that students need a framework for thinking about everything.”

That’s not how many university-based historians see it. “Academic historians know that all things are important to history,” argued Amy Dru Stanley, an American historian at the University of Chicago. “But what concerns me is that this is a cultural approach to science more than a new approach to history — and it threatens to displace established methods of historical scholarship.”

Even so, Big History is making inroads among academics. The next American Historical Association meeting will include a session exploring Big History, and Patrick Manning, a University of Pittsburgh historian and president-elect of the historical association, is working on a similar approach to world history for students in Mt. Lebanon.

“It’s not so much a threat as an alternative,” Mr. Manning contended. “It simply introduces a larger time frame and says the natural sciences have history the way humans have history. Really, it’s just an expansion of history.”

That expanded history doesn’t ask students only to consider the causes of the War of 1812 but also to consider why whales have thumbs. It not only addresses the history of racial conflict in America but also the notion that information is cumulative for our species and not for any other — which, when you think about it, is the essence of history itself.

And that expanded history is in some ways the basis for “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” a book by Hebrew University (Jerusalem) historian Yuval Noah Harari — yet another product of Oxford — that has become an international best seller and is to be published in the United States next February.

This may ultimately be a meaningless dispute. The sum of human knowledge is so vast that no series of courses can begin to cover it. And young Americans have so little general knowledge — how the Earth was formed, what the planets are, where India is, who fought in the Korean War — that any exposure to anything, well taught and presented in a fair-minded way, is a valuable undertaking.

Conventional history is worthwhile. Earth history is worthwhile. A combination of each is worthwhile, though there also is virtue in the argument that American students should most of all know the contours of American history and be exposed to the mainstreams of the American experience.

And so, as we conclude our history lesson for today, let us recall and appreciate the motto of Faber College, the mythical institution from the film classic “Animal House”: “Knowledge is good.” Pretty much any knowledge is.

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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