So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class…

Anyway, that’s the headline and, considering that Gates already thinks he knows how to fix American education, it’s not a big stretch for him to replace the traditional high school history curriculum.

The story began when Bill had some time on his hands following his retirement as Microsoft CEO and started watching a series of lectures by Australian professor David Christian titled “Big History”. In his classes, Christian wove together topics from history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields “into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth”.1

A lecture on the Big Bang, for instance, offered a complete history of cosmology, starting with the ancient God-centered view of the universe and proceeding through Ptolemy’s Earth-based model, through the heliocentric versions advanced by thinkers from Copernicus to Galileo and eventually arriving at Hubble’s idea of an expanding universe.

In the worldview of “Big History,” a discussion about the formation of stars cannot help including Einstein and the hydrogen bomb; a lesson on the rise of life will find its way to Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey.

Gates thought this approach could be used to replaced the standard chronological approach to teaching history in high school and started working with Christian to adapt his work.

I don’t often agree with Gates, about his ideas for education reform or much else, but in this case he’s on to something. In most high schools, the major curriculums are highly segregated, especially when it comes to math and science. As a result, students get a very unauthentic view of the world.

However, before praising Gates and Christian too highly, it needs to be pointed out that “big history”, the idea of using interdisciplinary approach to understanding history, is not at all unique.

In the 1970’s, science historian James Burke wrote, produced, and hosted a wonderfully entertaining series for the BBC (later shown on PBS) called Connections, an “alternative view of change”. In the series (plus two sequels and a half dozen books) Burke takes a storytelling approach to illustrate the many links between science, philosophy, world events, art and more, all with great humor, a sense of curiosity, and a large dose of caution about our reliance on technology.

The original series is on YouTube, although somewhat difficult to find,2 so if you have 50 minutes or so, watch part 1 to get a good idea of Burke’s pre-“big history” approach to explaining how our current world developed from seemingly unrelated connections in our past.

Anyway, original or not, Gates’ idea to punch holes in the silos in which we keep high school academic subjects is a good one, something that’s long overdue. I’m just not sure he is the person to make it happen.