Billionaire History Man

Talk about weird news: last weekend, the New York Times reported that Bill Gates has developed an enthuasism for history. Not just as bedtime reading, either. Through his foundation, he’s begun pouring money into history teaching, in the hope of making history classes more interesting and more useful to America’s high schoolers. It’s all part of a bigger plan, apparently. More interested students will be better students, they’ll stay in school, get good jobs, not sink into drugs and despair, and help bring back the productive middle-class America that Gates grew up in.

The lightbulb moment apparently came during an early morning home treadmill session. Not wanting to waste that time, Gates likes to absorb improving material while he jogs, and this morning it was a Teaching Company lecture about “Big History,” by an Australian history professor named David Christian. Gates was blown away. Meetings followed, lesson plans were developed, financing was promised, and now Big History is being taught at a growing number of high schools, public and private alike.

Here I won’t say much about the substance of Big History. The key thing seems to be that it divides all time into eight stages, with the appearance of homo sapiens constituting stage 6 and the invention of agriculture stage 7. That leaves for stage 8 everything we usually think of as “history”– you know, Greeks and Romans, Confucius, the rise of Islam, slavery, industrial revolutions, African empires, American, French, Haitian, Russian, Chinese, and Vietnamese revolutions, the American Civil War, the Holocaust, that kind of thing. Fitting all that into one-eighth of a high school semester (about ten days, by my count) must make for some lively teaching.

So Big History’s content is plenty worth discussing, but for now I want just to say a little about Bill Gates’s involvement in it.

I’ll start with the obvious stuff. First, schools need money, and it’s a Good Thing that a billionaire wants to give it to them. Second, it’s Not A Good Thing that one billionaire gets to decide what millions of children learn, with add-on implications for hundreds of thousands of future teachers. Because if millions of high schoolers have to learn Gates’s version of history, an awful lot of college students will have to do the same if they want careers in education.

Third, it’s bad news that a semi-retired billionaire is getting his ideas about history from DVD lectures and TED talks. The whole story would still be creepy, but at least it would have been comforting to learn that Gates’s flash of insight came from a summer spent reading Edward Gibbon, Fernand Braudel, Natalie Davis, Jonathan Spence, and William Cronon. If billionaires are going to redesign American education, can’t they at least do some homework? Have real books become that difficult for them?

So there’s plenty here to get someone like me riled up. But there’s another angle to the story that deserves some thought, and that’s the strange spectacle of a billionaire tech oligarch concerning himself with history in the first place. Of course there are the obvious explanations, and they pop up often in the comments on the Times website. There’s the warm-hearted philanthrophy explanation: American schools aren’t doing all that well, and Gates is at least trying to fix them. And there’s the capitalism explanation: there’s money to be made in the education business, from selling books, programs, and other gear to a vast captive market. (Believers in the second hypothesis will note that the story itself comes from Andrew Ross Sorkin, a Times business writer who runs their semi-independent Dealbook blog, and who has on occasion served as a conduit for big-business opinion. The Times apparently didn’t involve its education writers in the story, and Professor Christian is the only living historian that it quotes.)

But maybe the particular motives don’t matter very much in a case like this– maybe the big fact is just the depth of Gates’s involvement in what is basically a cultural debate. He’s not just giving money or selling gadgets to schools– he’s pushing one vision of history and criticizing others, using philanthropy to shape what does and doesn’t count as history knowledge; and because of the big dollars involved, his intervention doesn’t just concern the target audience of high school students–it’s about teachers, potential teachers, and their teachers too.

We historians often worry that what we do is irrelevant to society at large, but Bill Gates is here to teach us otherwise– apparently power players are thinking about our enterprise. Big History at least has that Big Message for us.