The Big History Project
[Somebody’s] Truth about the Universe and How You Fit into It
In the 1980s, David Christian, a 40-ish year-old professor of Russian history at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, became discontent teaching “just the history of one country.” “[N]ot really sure … in a sense, who I am,” he wanted to know about the history of humanity as a whole. “That question forced me back,” he said. “If you want to know about humanity, you have to ask about how humans evolved from primates.” His inquiry continued pressing backward until he was asking about the origins of the earth and then finally of the whole universe. He read widely, synthesized what he found into a course, and began teaching it as “Big History” in 1989.
Bill Gates later saw the DVD series and wanted to make it available to more people. He tracked down Christian and the two founded the Big History Project to disseminate Big History globally, beginning with high schools. The resulting 10-unit, 50-lesson course spanning 13.7 billion years of “universe history” went online in late 2013. The project is funded by Gates’s LLC, bgC3 (Bill Gates Catalyst 3), which is described as a think tank, incubator and venture capitalist firm.
Big History is billed as “a true history course … with a goal of helping students understand a historical narrative and ultimately human civilization’s past, present and future.” Christian and Gates speak of it with infectious enthusiasm. “This is my favorite course of all time,” says Gates. It’s very special because “it creates a framework for so many of the things [students] will learn in other courses.” How was the universe created? Why does it work the way it does? Why do we find ourselves on this tiny planet, buzzing with life? What does it mean to be human? These are the question Big History purports to answer. They fascinated Christian from the beginning and motivated him “because they made me feel I was a part of something absolutely huge and quite wondrous.” “By the end of this course,” he says, ”you’ll have surveyed the whole history of the universe. And you’ll know how you fit into it.”
The question that needs to be asked, though, is, In what sense is this history? When Gates concedes that it “blurs the boundaries between science and geography and history,” he doesn’t go far enough. Take another look at the questions Big History aims to answer:
- How was the universe created?
- Why does it work the way it does?
- Why are we here?
- What does it mean to be human?
These aren’t the questions of science, geography, or history, but of philosophy and religion. Big History purports to be “Universe History,” “Universe History” being the grammatical equivalent of “Russian History” or “Film History.” But that’s not what it is. Big History is a story of the universe, according to a particular metaphysical worldview – the materialist naturalistic, or atheistic one – to be specific.
A broad range of schools are already implementing Big History in the United States and internationally. The project provides all materials and teacher training and offers subsidies to cover additional direct expenses incurred by schools. Given the funding and big names behind it, Big History is sure to be expertly produced, engaging for students, and widely propagated,
But if we take the first definition listed for ‘religion’ on Dictionary.com, “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe,” there is no way to take Big History as anything but an alternative religion. A slickly presented, secular religion, now showing at a school near you.
This article first appeared in Salvo 27, Winter 2013