Forget about history wars: Go big

History is important. How we see the past and what we teach our kids about it helps determine how we perceive ourselves and build the future, writes Will Brodie.

Historians must be meticulous, analysing specific dates, individuals, and documents.

But one Australian historian created an entirely new branch of the discipline by considering the biggest possible picture. Seeking a “unifying story that could bring everything together, that could give a sense of the whole of history”, Macquarie University’s David Christian created Big History, which encompasses the big bang, the present day and even the distant future.

Big History uses insights from cosmologists, palaeontologists, geologists and biologists. It integrates the work of the sciences, history, and economics to ask if our perception of the universe and ourselves is altered by considering the full span of time.

“When you string all those stories together, if you do it carefully, you get an amazing, cohesive story that’s fantastically interesting,” Christian told ABC News.

Wide angle

The resulting “wide-angle look at the universe” so excited tech billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates that the Big History Project (BHP) was born, with the goal to adapt the Big History university course for as many high school students as possible.

The BHP was launched at a TED conference in March 2011, when Christian presented a key lecture, History of the World in 18 Minutes, introducing Big History and the goal of reaching ninth grade students worldwide with an online course.

Christian and Gates had hit a nerve. The TED Talk was viewed 18 million times and more than 1000 teachers around the world embraced Big History resources.

Teacher Sarah Trotter was one of the first Australian teachers to participate in the “pilot phase” of the “open, online, and free” Big History Project.

It was the interdisciplinary nature of Big History that attracted Trotter, who was history co-ordinator at Redlands School in NSW at the time.

“The key problems we face, such as climate change, can’t be solved by concentrating on one discipline. We need to look more broadly than just science and integrate areas such as sociology and anthropology,” she said.

“This course, at its very core, is interdisciplinary – it involves both science and the arts.

“It was incredibly popular, the kids just flocked to it.”

Building critical skills

Trotter describes teaching Big History as “absolutely one of the most rewarding” phases of her career.

She says the critical thinking skills students gained from Big History helped them to become “active and informed citizens”.

Year 10 Redlands student Jasmine Cavanough said: “You need to have an understanding of how everything is connected because if you just learn a bit of knowledge from every subject but can’t put it into a bigger framework, it’s not very fulfilling.”

Big History complemented the existing curriculum.

“It was more the idea that this was a valid way of thinking rather than replacing anything,” Trotter said.

Christian said it was a “dream come true” when he saw younger students excited by Big History.

The other side

But there are critics. Clara Florensa, physicist, biologist, and science historian, told Spanish site that Big History narratives don’t include “all manner of scientific controversies, debates and disagreements about what happened”.

She says such viewpoints are crucial to fostering critical capacity.

“The seductive aesthetic of Big History has an anesthetizing effect; it doesn’t prepare kids to develop a critical mindset with which to face the challenges of the future,” Florensa said.

“The revolution in education is not teaching Big History, it’s applying a view of history that introduces controversy and disagreement, and that breaks down the processes of consensus building – inseparable from the historical context in which they occur – because scientific practice is basically that.

“It is much more enriching to present kids with different viewpoints, what happens behind the scenes in the production of scientific knowledge, and to foster in them a spirit of inquiry and criticism than to give them a version carved in stone that they don’t even have to think about. We have to show them that the process is also important, and this is, ultimately, what is lost with Big History”, she said.

Big History proponents argue that it provides a “big picture framework” for students and that this helps them organise what they learn.

It is important that the people who will be running planet Earth in 20 years understand the history of the planet.

“Big History’s not going to replace existing educational courses,” Christian told the Australian Financial Review. “It’s not an attack on specialisation. It is simply the argument that specialisation needs to be complemented with an overview, which I think is scientific common sense.”

Game changer

By 2018 Macquarie University had launched the Big History School, which offers three courses specifically tailored for age groups from eight to 18. They say it is an “educational game-changer”, which “expands the minds of students with a journey from the beginning of the universe to modern societies, to show how everything is connected.”

Christian said he wanted Big History to be more than an “optional extra” and urged for it to be included in the Australian school curriculum.

In January 2019 the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) endorsed Big History to be taught as an elective in NSW schools. In 2021, the Macquarie School of Education took on the management of the Big History course and began reviewing each component of the program.

Christian said Big History was originally inspired by his actor wife Chardi’s interest in psychologist Carl Jung, who proposed the idea of the collective unconscious – a set of archetypes all humans share – which myths, including origin stories, explore.

He came to feel Big History was the “origin story for our times”. His bestselling 2018 book was titled Origin Story.

Christian believes modern children lack the origin story they would previously have received from elders, leaving them “without any understanding of their place in the cosmos”.

People running Earth

“We live at a turning point in the history of Earth. For the first time in 4 billion years, one single species has so much power that will shape the future of the biosphere.

“It is important that the people who will be running planet Earth in 20 years understand the history of the planet and the place of humans in its history.”

The current goal is for Big History School to “complement and thread seamlessly through traditional subjects, overlapping a number of disciplines and providing all-important context to subjects that are often traditionally taught in isolation”.

Christian hopes Big History will become the “missing link”, enabling students to grasp the place of those subjects in something larger.

Regardless of whether it gains acceptance in every classroom, it’s certainly having a big impact.

The Big History Project website provides the content and support materials necessary to deliver the course and features more than 300 custom-designed and curated pieces of content, from info graphics and texts to animations. This material reaches millions of students worldwide in eight languages.

Christian says his grand-daughter was his other inspiration. He wants the world she grows up in to be informed by big-picture thinking.

“I have this fantasy that in future negotiations over climate change, instead of going into that room and saying I’m defending Chinese interests, or I’m defending Australian interests – there will also be an identity inside of each of the negotiators thinking ‘I’m also defending human interests’.”