Tag Archives: Bill Gates

More thoughts about Bill Gates and Big History

My last post commented on the enthusiasm and money that Bill Gates has been pouring into Big History, a way of teaching history that focuses on very, very long-term processes of change. There I mostly talked about the institutional sides of the story– what it means to have one not-very-well-informed rich guy making decisions about what everyone else should learn.

Here I want to talk content. I want to ask about the messages conveyed in a Big History approach to the past and the background assumptions that it seems to embody.

But before going any farther, readers should probably glance back at the consumer warning that’s at the top of this Opinions section. It explains that the opinions here are just that, opinions, not scholarship or value-neutral reporting, and that’s double extra true when it comes to Big History. I haven’t read up on the details or tried to see all the arguments in its favor. I haven’t looked into the pedagogy side either. It may be that Big History works great in classrooms full of teenagers– we’d still want to know whether it was worth teaching in the first place.

So today we’re skipping the nuances and subtleties, and getting straight to Big History’s Big Implications. What would it mean to make a Big History perspective the foundation of young people’s understanding of the past? David Christian, whose ideas so inspired Bill Gates, describes the intent as providing “a clear vision of humanity as a whole.” In a Guardian article, Gates himself is quoted as saying that the approach will help students “understand what it means to be human.” So what kind of answer is he funding?

One answer is, it’s a vision in which human beings don’t count for too much. In the Gates-funded version of Big History, we’re a speed bump on a long highway. We humans only showed up recently; relatively speaking, we’re not going to be here much longer, and the rest of the universe will get along just fine after we’re gone.

We also don’t have too much influence while we’re here, because so much of “what it means to be human” was fixed long ago: first by the geology, chemistry, and biology of the earth we inhabit, then by our earliest neuro-wiring as humans, for things like language and community life.

Within those parameters, there’s not much room for difference or transformation– the gaps separating us 21st-century Americans from, say, ancient Egyptians count for much less than the basics we share. Seen within the 250,000-year history of humanity, Aristophanes, Shakespeare, and Amy Heckerling might as well be the same person. Ditto for Confucius, Thomas Aquinas, Mary Shelley, Karl Marx, and Rosalind Franklin.

You get my drift: Big History sure sounds like a training in resignation to all the inevitabilities that have built up over the last few hundred thousand years, not to mention the millions of years before we humans arrived. The changes that matter are bound up with enormous processes that we can’t do much about, and whatever we humans can achieve doesn’t match up against all that we can’t change. Bringing fast food workers’ wages up to $15 from the current $8?  Does that issue really amount to a hill of beans from the Big History perspective? Workers and activists should save themselves a lot of heartbreak and just accept the world as it is.

Is it unkind to suggest that a billionaire in today’s America might think that’s a great lesson to teach?



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.