His passion has drawn the attention of Bill Gates, and now Professor David Christian will be bringing the forthcoming ‘Big History’ MOOC to a panel discussion at Learning and Teaching Week. We asked Professor Christian to give us an insight into Big History and its famous devotee.
What is Big History about?
Big History courses teach the entire history of the universe and show how human history fits into that larger story. You can think of it as a modern, Science-based ‘Origin Story’.
How did you develop an interest in the Big History Project?
I began teaching Big History over 25 years ago because I wanted to see how Human History fits into the history of life on Earth, of planet Earth, and of the Universe as a whole. This was in part because I thought that the separation of human history from the history of the biosphere was unhealthy, a conclusion that makes more and more sense as we become aware of the huge impact of humans today on the biosphere, on climates, on the ocean and of other species.
Why do you think this is an important topic?
Big History can help us understand how remarkable the times we live in are. This is the first time in four billion years that a single species (our own) has dominated changes across the entire planet. What we do in the next 50 years will have a vast impact on the biosphere as a whole and on many other species, quite apart from the impact it will have on our own descendants in the next 200 years. To understand today’s world, we need to understand how it emerged, why we humans acquired so much power, and what we need to do. Understanding the challenges we face today requires an ability to think across different disciplines – to understand multiple time scales, and to think globally rather than just in terms of the interests of particular nation states.
What do you want people to take away from finding out more about the Big History Project?
I want them to understand that there is a unity to modern knowledge, that different disciplines can support each other, and that seeing the links between disciplines is vital to understand the complex, and fast-changing world we have created.
Why do you think this topic has created so much interest in the academic arena?
At present, most education and most research is conducted within specialised disciplines. Specialisations has been immensely productive in the last 100 years but it can also hide from us the links between disciplines. I believe there is a growing awareness of the need to link disciplines, and that is why I believe there is growing interest in projects such as Big History that try to do this.
As a Keynote Speaker for Learning and Teaching Week, what should people attending your panel discussion expect?
They should expect to hear a short history of the Universe as a whole, and an explanation of why we need to understand this story in order to understand where we are today.
People who know something about the Big History Project would know about your association with Bill Gates. Any insight on what it was like working closely with someone so well known?
Gates is an omnivorous reader and someone who is passionate about using his immense wealth to help us think more clearly about where the world is going. He has been particularly supportive of attempts to improve living conditions in the Third World, and also to improve modern education. He believes that Big History is a crucial form of education for today’s world and that’s why he supports it through the Big History Project.
What are you most looking forward to during Learning & Teaching Week?
I think it’s great to come along and share my passion with everyone and I think the same goes with other presenters there. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of the panel discussions.
The Big History MOOC Panel Discussion with David Christian is one of the highlights of Learning and Teaching week, on Wednesday 16 September, 11.30am-12.30pm. Places are limited so register today, and check the full schedule for other interesting events.