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Friday, February 26, 2016

‘Big History’ Kicks American History to the Back of the Class

Posted by Mary Grabar

The buzzword in education these days is “global.” Education reformers promise to prepare students for “global citizenship” with suitable work skills for a “global economy.”

Where the word “global” ascends, the word “American” tends to fade. This is true in history as well as in ideas of citizenship beamed at the young.

“Big History,” with the attendant “transnational turn” and “New World History,” delegitimizes American history as a topic of study, or even a concept.  In fact, among many historians, it is becoming politically incorrect even to speak of such a category as “American history.”

That is what I learned, oddly, at the 2014 meeting of the Organization of American Historians, which claims to be “the largest professional society dedicated to the teaching and study of American history.”  New York University history professor Thomas Bender, who is credited with initiating and implementing the “transnational turn” in a series of summertime meetings at NYU’s Villa la Pietra, in Florence, Italy, in the 1990s, chaired a panel on “Internationalizing American History.”  The sole dissenter offered up Hegelian theories to make his case for the very category of “nation.”  His claims were met with skepticism and distaste by Bender and co-panelists.

My interest was in how the Advanced Placement American History was being “reframed” under the new leadership of David Coleman at the College Board.  A panel on “Teaching the Construction of Race and Slavery in the AP U.S. History Course” demonstrated that critics of the new AP course had reason to be concerned about wildly politicized lessons.

They will now need to set their sights on AP World History, as it is being revised by the new president of the World History Association, Rick Warren, the Jane and Frederic M. Hadley Chair in History at Wabash College.  Described as “an expert in the field of early modern Latin American history, and food in world history,” Warren serves on the Advanced Placement World History test development committee for the College Board.  He promises to make the test more consistent with the “trans-national, trans-regional, and trans-cultural perspective” of the Association.

Warren told the Journal Review, “World history as a practice has changed radically, moving beyond a Western Civilization focus into new territory that is sometimes called the ‘New World History.’”  The borderless regions of study as well as the new topics, such as “food,” promise to promote a global perspective, with a focus turned away from significant human events to such biological concerns as “food.”

Such a re-conceptualization is evident in the Association’s list of recommended books, which includes authors such as Arnold Toynbee and H.G. Wells, but more recent figures such as David Christian, author of Maps of Time.  Topics shift away from chronological and national categories, giving us such things as “Beyond States and Societies: Alternative Conceptions of Social Space,” “Dependency and World System Analysis,” “Migrations and Diasporas,” and “Biological Exchanges and Environmental Change.”

World History is being joined by “Big History,” a term I heard at a recent presentation on New York State’s new social studies standards.  James L. Davis, Social Studies Coordinator for the Oneida-Madison BOCES (Boards of Cooperative Educational Services) remarked that teachers are beginning to experiment with Bill Gates’ money in the “Big History” movement. (New York has adopted the Gates-supported Common Core-aligned C3 social studies standards.)

Big History’s evolutionary tinge is represented by a typical college course title: “Big History: From the Big Bang to the Blackberry.”

Big History can seem like a fun, vanity project of the world’s wealthiest man, who proclaimed in 2013, “In this version, there are no writing assignments or lesson plans. You watch lectures and experiment with interactive features.”

But in Big History the Big Questions that once intrigued the greatest philosophical minds are boiled down to two-minute video segments with New Age platitudes.  Last summer, Gates announced the winner of his video contest tackling the question, “What does it mean to be human?”  The winner (selected by a panel of teachers and students), an 18-year-old rising freshman, explained in less than two minutes with a hand drawing rapidly on a whiteboard that being human is “more than a species designation.”

She explained that humans are more evolved than ducks and elephants because humans can extend compassion beyond their immediate biological circle (protecting their own young, as ducks and elephants do) to “all of humankind,” thus sharing “an infinite circle of compassion” and demonstrating “a responsibility to ourselves, to our planet, and to each other.”  She was awarded $5,000 and a job producing videos.

The online lessons are free for teachers and students, as well as for lifelong learners.  Gates is also financing academic conferences for the International Big History Association.  The two conferences, in 2012 and 2014, drew professors and independent scholars from a wide variety of fields, including history, environmental science, geology, religion, sociology, education, and English, along with new disciplines such as “Big Politics” and “Complexity.”

At the 2014 conference at Dominican University in California, David Christian, professor of history at Macquarie University and president of the Association, who spearheaded the interdisciplinary approach, was the keynote speaker.  Christian, along with co-panelists Cynthia Brown of Dominican University, and Craig Benjamin of Grand Valley State University, discussed writing the first big history textbook, Big History: From Nothing to Everything.

The panel, “Transformative Learning Experience and the Little Big History Project for Secondary Students,” included papers that advocated teaching Big History in the primary grades and using “kinesthetic teaching methods.”

A panel called “Human Nature, Conflict, and Social Change” featured a “Methow Naturalist” (referring to a river and valley in northern Washington State) discussing “Big History and the End of War.”

Panels included “Theories of Thresholds,” “Cosmopolitics,” and “Contingent Time and Flow.” Panelists tackled religion: “Interpretations,” featured a paper titled, “Growing Beyond Religion: Big History and the Meaning of Life”; “Human History” featured a paper on a “Darwinian attempt” to explain witch-hunting; and on the Art panel there was “Shakespeare in the Cave: A Big History of Art.” An English professor offered a paper on “Narratives of Power” in the “Power and Social Organization” panel.  Linda Sheehan, of the Earth Law Center, presented a paper on “Big History and Earth Law” in the panel, “Big History: The View from Gaia.”

Scholars came from such places as Villanova; Georgia Gwinnett College; the University of Pennsylvania; the University of Southern Maine; California State University, Fullerton; Ewha Woman’s University (in South Korea); Volograd Centre for Social Research (in Russia); and the University of Amsterdam.

Such panels followed the general thrust of the inaugural 2012 conference, which was themed “The Reshaping of Planet Earth: Connections between Humans and the Environment in World History.”  That presidential election year saw a paper titled “On Power: George Lucas, Jerry Garcia, and Barack Obama’s Big Black Helicopters.”  Independent scholar Jeremy Lent, presented on “The Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex,” i.e., the seat of rationality.

In spite of the New Age-ish titles, Gates’s big capitalist company, Microsoft, is promoting its own products at the conferences.  For example, in 2012, The “Research Connections” session had this enticing description:

Zoom through time and learn about different techniques and tools for exploring the timescales of Big History with ChronoZoom. ChronoZoom is a free online timeline tool currently being developed by UC Berkeley, Moscow State University in Russia and Microsoft Research. In this session, we will demonstrate the latest features, and ask for your input and ideas. . . .

The International Big History Association offers a list of Big History college courses all over the world, including twenty U.S. institutions, ranging from Arkansas Technical University to Harvard.

Most of the courses follow in the spirit of Washington University’s BIO/EPS/PHYS L41 210A “Epic of Evolution: Life, Earth, and the Cosmos,” co-taught by faculty from departments of Biology and Earth & Planetary Science.  It promises “a study of the evolution of the Universe, Earth and life, all woven together in a narrative,” with “themes of complexity, scale, entropy and information . . . applied to the Big Bang, origins of matter, formation and history of the Earth, origins of life and diversification of species.”  That seems acceptable as a course of study, until we see how it broadens out: “We study the implications of the scientific epic for religion, philosophy, the arts and ethics.”  One recalls the paper on “Earth Law” (presumably superseding American Constitutional law) at the 2014 conference.

Big History also gives warnings about future ecological devastation. At Lewiston-Auburn College, University of Southern Maine, geographer and archeologist Barry Rodrigue and chemist Daniel Stasko teach LCC 350, “Global Past, Global Present: From the Big Bang to Globalization,” a core curriculum course, which promises to give students “a more realistic understanding of how humans fit into the vast expanse of the universe, instead of orienting the universe around humans.”  Students will be asked to “consider the challenges of modern globalization” and to pursue a “quest to develop sustainable and ethical lifestyles.”

While Big History involves scientists teaching subjects once left to those in the humanities, humanities professors also tackle Big History.  At the University of Missouri, Kevin Fernlund, Professor of History and Education, who has authored and edited books on the American West and President Lyndon Johnson, teaches HIS 1999 “Big History: From the Big Bang to the Blackberry.” It promises the usual survey of 13.7 billion years, from “the origins and evolution of the universe,” to “the evolution of life on earth, the emergence of human beings, the creation of complex societies and how they creatively expressed themselves, the impact of these societies on the environment, as well as the future of the planet.”  An important subtheme concerns “Western thought,” how “the sciences, social sciences, and the arts (or their intellectual equivalents and antecedents), have—over the past 500 years—fragmented into specializations and then gradually reunited.” HIS 1999 represents the reunification of thought “upon which students can build their future learning as well as understand their place in the story of the universe.”

No American Identity

Far-reaching speculation replaces objective and evidentiary modes of inquiry under Big History. There is an attempt to eliminate a Western, even human, perspective. Furthermore, such courses are required core courses while courses in American history are not.  The attempted evisceration of American history by such radical revisionism bodes ill for maintaining a sense of American identity, or for upholding Western civilization, for that matter.

My field is English, but by the current standards, it seems that I would be qualified to suggest readings.  Therefore, I suggest novelist Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos, in which Carl Sagan (a father figure in Big History) is brought back down to earth through gentle mockery.

Mary Grabar is a visiting fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization.

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