There seems to be no limit to the ambition of Bill Gates.
After making tens of billions in the personal computer revolution, Gates has become a full-time cheerleader for leftist causes on a global scale—whether it’s reducing carbon emissions to zero by mid-century or reducing the world population by spending billions to pay for contraceptives in poor countries.
Now Gates is hoping to transform education. The Microsoft co-founder has recently made headlines here and elsewhere for backing a new nationalized curriculum known as the Common Core. But his ambitions for education are even bigger. Gates has recently teamed up with historian David Christian to launch the Big History Project, a free online curriculum piloted last year in 55 high schools—45 in the United States, including four Catholic ones, and ten in other countries, from China to the Netherlands.
Big History lives up only to the first part of its name. It encompasses a 13.7 billion year-timeline in a bold effort to tell the entire history of the universe.
But it is not really history in any recognizable sense of the word. History traditionally takes as its starting point recorded history beginning with stories of Egyptian mummies and pyramids, or perhaps in the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia. Big History, on the other hand, begins with the Big Bang. The ten-unit course devotes nearly half its time to covering the formation of stars and the solar system, then turns to the birth of life and the appearance of the earliest humans, before arriving at history proper, in the seventh unit. It’s tailor-made for the attention-challenged student of today, with the typical unit featuring minutes-long video lectures, interactive exercises, and floridly illustrated articles.
Big History is thus really a blend of cosmology, astrophysics, geology, evolutionary biology, and anthropology. None of these disciplines is inherently anti-faith: the Catholic Church has long taught that evolution, as a science and not a philosophy, is not incompatible with belief in God. And the Big Bang, declaring as it does that the universe had a definite beginning and therefore a cause, is rich with theistic implications. (Little wonder, then, that the first person to propose the earliest version of the Big Bang theory was a Catholic priest, Monsignor Georges Lemaitre.)
The problem arises in how these disciplines are stitched together to tell what its advocates describe as a sweeping history of everything. In the first unit of the course, students are introduced to six ancient “origin stories”: Australian aboriginal, Chinese, Greek, Iroquois, Judeo-Christian, and Mayan—in that order. For the Greek one, students read from Hesiod’s Theogony. For the Judeo-Christian perspective, they read Genesis 1.
Such “origin stories” are broached only as a foil to Big History. “Big History is a modern version of all these stories,” David Christian explains in a video introducing the course. Christian is more explicit about the secular design behind Big History in his book, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. The author identifies the Christian account of creation as a “myth”:
Creation myths are powerful because they speak to our spiritual, psychic, and social need for a sense of place and a sense of belonging. Because they provide so fundamental a sense of orientation, they are often integrated into religious thinking at the deepest levels, as the Genesis story is within the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. (Maps of Time, 2).
The perceived need for a modern origin story, as Christian sees it, points to the broader ambition of Big History. It is not merely an account of the origin of all things. It aims, rather, to answer the big questions of life, which, according to Christian, include the following: “Why do we find ourselves in this particular part of the universe on this tiny planet buzzing with life?” “What does it mean to be human?” “Who am I? Where do I belong? What is the totality of which I am a part?” (See his video introduction to Big History available here and Maps of Time, 1.) Such questions are normally asked and answered by a ‘worldview,’ which is what Big History ultimately is—entirely bereft, of course, of the supposedly mythic trappings of old traditions.
As such, Big History itself is the latest chapter in the decades-long story of the secularization of public education, beginning in the 1960s, when public-school prayer and Bible readings were ruled unconstitutional. In the ensuing decades, social conservatives and traditional humanists have sought other ways of helping students find their moral and metaphysical bearings as they embark upon the stormy seas of moral relativism and cultural pluralism—creationism, intelligent design, values curricula, and character education. (Some obviously have more merit than others.)
Big History is a secular counteroffensive. The curriculum provides an entirely materialist account of the origin of everything from stars to cells to cities—impersonal processes, often catalyzed by chance, brought each into being. For example, in his book, Christian compares the gravitational forces that sculpted stars to the social forces that shaped states:
In the early universe, gravity took hold of atoms and sculpted them into stars and galaxies. In the era described in this chapter, we will see how, by a sort of social gravity, cities and states were sculpted from scattered communities of farmers. As farming populations gathered in larger and denser communities, interactions between different groups increased and the social pressure rose until in a striking parallel with star formation, new structures suddenly appeared, together with a new level of complexity. Like stars, cities and states reorganize and energize the smaller objects within their gravitational field. (Maps of Time, 245.)
It’s a neat analogy, but one that ignores the role of individuals and ideas, not to mention outside agents, such as God or Satan, from any role in human history. There simply is no need for any sort of transcendental reality in Big History: it presents a world closed in on itself, in which everything within can be explain by reference to something else within it. Big History does not explain the soul, the nature of good and evil, the virtues, the dignity of the human person, and, needless to say, our desire for the transcendent.
From Advocating Environmentalism to Economic Materialism
One is led to the inescapable conclusion that this earth and everything on it is all we have. Reducing climate change and conserving scarce resources then become the most important ethical priorities. Such is the stated goal of the curriculum at its outset: “This unified story provides students with a deeper awareness of our past, hopefully better preparing them to help shape the future of our fragile planet.” The message is reinforced at the end of the course. In one video, M. Sanjayan, a scientist with The Nature Conservancy and a CBS News commentator, tells students that, as the planet population swells to ten billion, every impact on the environment will have a ripple effect. Mindful of his young audience, M. Sanjayan adds, “We are starting to once again understand that nature, in some ways, is the ultimate social network and we humans are very much part of it.” As we realize the impact our activities have on nature, we can work collectively—on a planetary scale—to do something about it, Sanjayan concludes. The final unit even features a cartoon strip depicting superheroes that fight for sustainable alternative energy sources on an alien planet and has guidelines for an interactive classroom exercise in which humanity is prosecuted in a mock trial for crimes against nature.
The call to conserve scarce resources is a message that easily bleeds into economics. In another video, Harvard luminary Henry Louis Gates, Jr. marvels at the technological innovation and knowledge that will surely be ours in the future. He wonders if everyone will be able to share in such futuristic riches. “Or will some of us have disproportionate access to these resources? Will there be huge class differentials both here in the United States and throughout the world? Will there be a Third World of poverty and a First World of economic prosperity and economic development?” Gates asks. “That, I think, is the fundamental question facing your generation. And I have absolutely no doubt that you will make the right decision—about the distribution of wealth and knowledge.”
Of course, all this is not to say environmental conservation or extreme inequities in wealth are unimportant issues. Yet to give priority to some fashionable, and highly debatable, causes while diminishing others is not necessarily what a high school history curriculum is meant to do. Furthermore, any worldview that limits its top priorities to these is one with a flattened view of humanity and a diminished and uninspired understanding of our purpose on earth. It also implicitly assumes that belief in a new heaven and a new earth, to a life after this one, is unworthy of serious consideration. It seems that Big History actually may not be big enough.
Ignoring the Age of Faith
Of course, Big History advocates will stress that with a 13.7 billion timeline and just ten units, there’s only so much that can be covered. Even so, the course makes omissions that can only be the result of deliberate choices, not chronological necessities. For example, the ninth course unit covers a 500-year increment of time, from 1500 AD—naturally it’s CE (Common Era) in the curriculum materials—to the present. The preceding eighth unit focuses on the Silk Roads and other trade and travel that flourished between the 1300s and the 1500s. But between that unit and the one before it is a nearly millennium-long gap that begins with the fall of the Roman Empire. That’s the Middle Ages—when faith moved minds and empires, perhaps more so than economic interest. Of course, the crusades aren’t as relevant to today’s world as, say, the industrial revolution—or are they? In a post-September 11 world, ancient wounds seem ever new, as anyone living on the West Bank will tell you.
In his book, Christian openly admits his bias against anything in history that is “divisive.” As might be expected, faith and religion are among the usual litany of suspects:
[I]n a world with nuclear weapons and ecological problems that cross all national borders, we desperately need to see humanity as a whole. Accounts of the past that focus primarily on the divisions between nations, religions, and cultures are beginning to look parochial and anachronistic—even dangerous. (Maps of Time, 8)
Earlier on the same page, Christian says that conventional historical time frames “hide … humanity.” But who really is hiding humanity here? It really says something about the historical merits of a curriculum billing itself as “Big History” that its founder apparently needs a refresher course in how bloody history has been. Of course, Christian would respond that what’s more important is what unites us. This value judgment shapes—and distorts—much of Big History.
But even when judged against its own standards Big History fails yet again. It’s undeniable that, at least up until the last one hundred years or so, one fundamental element common to all races and cultures was the religious impulse, the yearning for the transcendent. But the element of faith is almost completely absent from Big History. The unit devoted to trade and globalization of the late Middle Ages fails to note that religion was a main driver of the European explorations of the early modern period: in finding a sea-based connection to India, the Catholic world hoped to open a new front against the Islamic Middle East (see The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyages of Vasco da Gama by Nigel Cliff). Perhaps this inconvenient fact explains why Vasco da Gama is missing from the story and Christopher Columbus receives only passing mention in an article about Marco Polo, which says little about his religious background. Otherwise, the unit focuses on the Muslim itinerant judge Ibn Battuta and Chinese admiral Zheng He, himself the consummate multiculturalist. Born into a Persian Muslim family, Zheng served Confucian-era emperors while personally worshiping an ancient Chinese goddess known as Tianfei.
Elsewhere, the influence of faith is minimized. In the seventh unit, which covers the transition from hunter-gather societies to agricultural civilizations, one article delves into the history of Jericho, “the oldest continuously inhabited city.” Don’t be fooled: much of the article is about climate change and environmental prehistory with the actual “human history” of the city itself sequestered in a separate section in which the author notes an inconsistency between archeological accounts of the destruction of Jericho with the biblical chronology. In the same unit, more than a millennium of Greco-Roman history—from the rise of democracy in Athens to the fall of Rome—is packed into a single article. Here, the birth Christianity gets just two paragraphs: the crucifixion of Christ is described as an imperial necessity to stave off a Jewish rebellion and the spread of Christianity, from Paul to Constantine, gets a scant few sentences.
Otherwise, in this year-long, ten-unit course there are only four moments in which the curriculum directly engages with faith—but only to ease any friction that might arise between the science-laden content and any religious belief students may have. In the introductory unit, an article on “Cosmology and Faith” by Georgetown theologian John Haught offers a decent explanation of how faith and science can be compatible. A nearly identical article by Haught appears in evolution unit. But this is to treat faith as something apart from Big History: faith is not something that informs the wide lens through which students view the world, it is an outside realm of thought and action which must not impede the pursuit of scientific knowledge.
The two other engagements with faith occur in the second unit, on the Big Bang. There, the discussion of religion and science takes a turn for the worse. In an article on the Copernican Revolution, Haught, who should know better, drags out the tiresome canard about how Galileo Galilei ran afoul of the Inquisition. A second article about the Vatican Observatory seemed promising—how could the Church not get some credit here for a faith-formed openness to scientific discovery? The article does as much, and, in a welcome surprise, even quotes from the encyclical Fides et Ratio. But for every unavoidable positive, the author, identified as Michelle Feder, seems to feel a need to offset it with a negative. The Galileo affair is rehashed, as is the fact that the Church “apologized” for its behavior. The author just can’t seem to let it go: she quotes the former director of the observatory, Father George Coyne, saying that the “Church is a human institution, and a human institution can make, and had made mistakes.” That “human institution” is at it again, the author concludes, noting with consternation that Pope Benedict XVI once had said the Church’s “verdict against Galileo had been ‘rational and just.’” (To understand the true history of Galileo and the Church, see Light and Shadows: Church History amid Faith, Fact, and Legend by Walter Brandmuller.)
A Secular Curriculum for Catholic Schools?
Perhaps this is all par for the course in a thoroughly secularized public school of today: to criticize Big History is, perhaps, really just a way to question anew the godlessness of public education. But why on earth would a Catholic high school adopt the Big History curriculum?
When that question was posed to Dr. Karen Tichy, the associate superintendent for instruction in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri—where three high schools have Big History—she stressed the compatibility of faith and science, quoting the Vatican II “Declaration on Christian Education” which calls for students acquire knowledge of the “world, life, and man.” When the International Big History Association was contacted for comment, its secretary, Villanova University political scientist Lowell Gustafson made a similar argument. “It is true that some Biblical literalists who do not include tradition and reason along with Scripture reject science. But they do not speak for the Catholic church,” Gustafson wrote in an e-mail.
But such responses miss the larger point. At issue is not an individual unit on astronomy or biology, but the totality of the perspective that is presented to students. In a freshman biology course, perhaps a nod to the compatibility of faith and reason is sufficient in a Christian setting. But it is not appropriate to promote a course that advocates a materialistic worldview.
Tichy also noted that teachers supplemented the official course materials with readings from the catechism, the writings of theologians, papal encyclicals, and other Church sources. But when a list of supplementary materials was requested, this author was told none was available: there was no official diocesan list; teachers added material at their own discretion. And, as the request came at the end of the school year, no teacher was apparently available for an interview. This leaves only two possible outcomes: either enough Catholic content has been added to dilute the inherently secular outlook of Big History—leading one to question what advantage Big History brings in the first place—or the additions have been insufficient, and the secular bias persists. (The fourth Catholic high school that piloted Big History is St. Scholastica Academy, in Louisiana, near New Orleans.)
But, in an interview, Tichy disagreed that Big History is hostile to religious belief. “I don’t believe it’s antithetical,” she said. Likewise, when it was suggested that Big History offers a materialist, rather than metaphysical, account of humanity, she offered this response, restated in an e-mail: “[W]hat is more metaphysical than the origins of the world, life, and the human spirit (soul)?” Such questions are indeed metaphysical when it’s poets, philosophers, and theologians answering them, not physicists and other scientists.
Nor is religion itself absent from the curriculum itself, she added. She said even an agnostic would be exposed to religious thinking. Tichy pointed to the introductory section, where various origin stories are quoted (addressed above). She also pointed to a section in the seventh unit on the “birth of religion.” But that turned out to be just a link to an outside source: a June 2011 National Geographic article on a relatively recent archeological discovery of the oldest temple in the world, and how it had revolutionized anthropologists’ understanding of the development of religion—interesting, to be sure, but hardly an invitation to faith.
It may be easy for anyone who doesn’t take faith seriously on any level—personally, intellectually, or otherwise—to dismiss such concerns. But the faith-related gaps and putdowns outlined above hint at Big History’s broader failing as “history.”
The curriculum apparently makes no reference whatsoever to the many influential minds of the West, like Plato, Locke, Kant, and Hegel or even to their counterparts in other cultures. (This conclusion is based not only on a review of all the unit headings and subheadings, but also through use of the online curriculum search function, after being given official access to the backend of the site.) Shakespeare and Homer appear to be absent as well as any serious engagement with art or music. These are scandalous omissions for anything calling itself “Big History.”
Admittedly, the subject matter of history has always been somewhat amorphous, but, as one of the humanities, it’s always been understood to occupy the intellectual territory somewhere in between philosophy and literature. History is, to paraphrase one of its practitioners, philosophy teaching by experience—by stories that are true, stories from which lessons are learned. History is thus the inherited wisdom of the ages. As an encounter with the great minds of the past, history, properly taught, can prepare a young mind for a lifetime in search of the truth. Big History, on the other hand, shrinks the horizon of experience, offering a truncated vision of the world that pushes God to the edge and diminishes humanity in the process.
Editor’s note: The photograph above depicts Bill Gates with Big History creator David Christian.