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So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class ...

Bill Gates, right, with David Christian, a professor from Australia with a new approach to teaching history.Credit...Mark Peterson/Redux, for The New York Times

By jarzazPublished 2 years ago 7 min read
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By Andrew Ross Sorkin

Sept. 5, 2014

In 2008, shortly after Bill Gates stepped down from his executive role at Microsoft, he often awoke in his 66,000-square-foot home on the eastern bank of Lake Washington and walked downstairs to his private gym in a baggy T-shirt, shorts, sneakers and black socks yanked up to the midcalf. Then, during an hour on the treadmill, Gates, a self-described nerd, would pass the time by watching DVDs from the Teaching Company’s “Great Courses” series. On some mornings, he would learn about geology or meteorology; on others, it would be oceanography or U.S. history.

As Gates was working his way through the series, he stumbled upon a set of DVDs titled “Big History” — an unusual college course taught by a jovial, gesticulating professor from Australia named David Christian. Unlike the previous DVDs, “Big History” did not confine itself to any particular topic, or even to a single academic discipline. Instead, it put forward a synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields, which Christian wove together into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth. Standing inside a small “Mr. Rogers"-style set, flanked by an imitation ivy-covered brick wall, Christian explained to the camera that he was influenced by the Annales School, a group of early-20th-century French historians who insisted that history be explored on multiple scales of time and space. Christian had subsequently divided the history of the world into eight separate “thresholds,” beginning with the Big Bang, 13 billion years ago (Threshold 1), moving through to the origin of Homo sapiens (Threshold 6), the appearance of agriculture (Threshold 7) and, finally, the forces that gave birth to our modern world (Threshold 8).

Threshold 1: The Big BangCredit...CreditBig History Project

Christian’s aim was not to offer discrete accounts of each period so much as to integrate them all into vertiginous conceptual narratives, sweeping through billions of years in the span of a single semester. A lecture on the Big Bang, for instance, offered a complete history of cosmology, starting with the ancient God-centered view of the universe and proceeding through Ptolemy’s Earth-based model, through the heliocentric versions advanced by thinkers from Copernicus to Galileo and eventually arriving at Hubble’s idea of an expanding universe. In the worldview of “Big History,” a discussion about the formation of stars cannot help including Einstein and the hydrogen bomb; a lesson on the rise of life will find its way to Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. “I hope by the end of this course, you will also have a much better sense of the underlying unity of modern knowledge,” Christian said at the close of the first lecture. “There is a unified account.”

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As Gates sweated away on his treadmill, he found himself marveling at the class’s ability to connect complex concepts. “I just loved it,” he said. “It was very clarifying for me. I thought, God, everybody should watch this thing!” At the time, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had donated hundreds of millions of dollars to educational initiatives, but many of these were high-level policy projects, like the Common Core Standards Initiative, which the foundation was instrumental in pushing through. And Gates, who had recently decided to become a full-time philanthropist, seemed to pine for a project that was a little more tangible. He was frustrated with the state of interactive coursework and classroom technology since before he dropped out of Harvard in the mid-1970s; he yearned to experiment with entirely new approaches. “I wanted to explore how you did digital things,” he told me. “That was a big issue for me in terms of where education was going — taking my previous skills and applying them to education.” Soon after getting off the treadmill, he asked an assistant to set a meeting with Christian.

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A few days later, the professor, who was lecturing at San Diego State University, found himself in the lobby of a hotel, waiting to meet with the billionaire. “I was scared,” Christian recalled. “Someone took me along the corridor, knocks on a door, Bill opens it, invites me in. All I remember is that within five minutes, he had so put me at my ease. I thought, I’m a nerd, he’s a nerd and this is fun!” After a bit of small talk, Gates got down to business. He told Christian that he wanted to introduce “Big History” as a course in high schools all across America. He was prepared to fund the project personally, outside his foundation, and he wanted to be personally involved. “He actually gave me his email address and said, ‘Just think about it,’ ” Christian continued. " ‘Email me if you think this is a good idea.’ ”

Christian emailed to say that he thought it was a pretty good idea. The two men began tinkering, adapting Christian’s college course into a high-school curriculum, with modules flexible enough to teach to freshmen and seniors alike. Gates, who insisted that the course include a strong digital component, hired a team of engineers and designers to develop a website that would serve as an electronic textbook, brimming with interactive graphics and videos. Gates was particularly insistent on the idea of digital timelines, which may have been vestige of an earlier passion project, Microsoft Encarta, the electronic encyclopedia that was eventually overtaken by the growth of Wikipedia. Now he wanted to offer a multifaceted historical account of any given subject through a friendly user interface. The site, which is open to the public, would also feature a password-protected forum for teachers to trade notes and update and, in some cases, rewrite lesson plans based on their experiences in the classroom.

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Credit...Dan Winters for The New York Times

Gates, who had already learned about the limitations of large bureaucracies through his foundation, insisted that the course be pitched to individual schools, rather than to entire districts; that way, he reasoned, it could grow organically and improve as it did so, just like a start-up company. In 2011, the Big History Project debuted in five high schools, but in the three years since, Gates and Christian — along with a team of educational consultants, executives and teachers, mostly based in Seattle — have quietly accelerated its growth. This fall, the project will be offered free to more than 15,000 students in some 1,200 schools, from the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies in New York to Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, Mich., to Gates’s alma mater, Lakeside Upper School in Seattle. And if all goes well, the Big History Project will be introduced in hundreds of more classrooms by next year and hundreds, if not thousands, more the year after that, scaling along toward the vision Gates first experienced on that treadmill. Last month, the University of California system announced that a version of the Big History Project course could be counted in place of a more traditional World History class, paving the way for the state’s 1,300 high schools to offer it.

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“We didn’t know when the last time was that somebody introduced a new course into high school,” Gates told me. “How does one go about it? What did the guy who liked biology — who did he call and say, ‘Hey, we should have biology in high school?’ It was pretty uncharted territory. But it was pretty cool.”

The American high school experience, at least as we now know it, is a relatively recent invention. Attendance did not start to become mandatory until the 1850s, and the notion of a nationwide standardized curriculum didn’t emerge until the turn of the century. But by the early 1900s, most children were taking the same list of classes that remains recognizable to this day: English, math, science and some form of history. For much of the 20th century, this last requirement would usually take the form of Western Civilization, a survey course that focused on European countries from around the rise of Rome through modernity.

But by the early ‘70s, as the Vietnam War heightened interest in nations outside Europe, Western Civ was on the decline. In pedagogical circles, a book called “The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community,” by William Hardy McNeill, a historian at the University of Chicago, persuasively argued that Western Civ was not merely biased against other cultures but also failed to account for the enormous influence that cultures had on one another over the millenniums. In 1976, McNeill told a roomful of teachers at an American Historical Association meeting, “I find the apathy truly amazing; suicidal; absurd.”

In the wake of McNeill’s rebuke, Western Civ was slowly replaced by World History, a more comparative class that stressed broad themes across cultures and disciplines. Over the past 30 years, World History has produced its own formidable academic institutions and journals; these days, three-quarters of all American students take World History. The course was just beginning its ascent as David Christian, then a young professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, was incubating his own form of cross-disciplinary scholarship. Christian, who was teaching a course on Russian history, liked to examine his subjects from a number of unconventional angles. In the 19th century, “on average, 40 percent of Russia’s revenues came from vodka sales, so what I realized is that if Russians stopped drinking vodka, you can’t pay for the army, and the superpower collapses,” he told me. “So I thought, Here’s a modern government building its power by selling a mind-altering substance. I was looking at it at the fiscal level, at the treasury level — but also in the village and also in the tavern.”

Christian began wondering if he could apply this everything-is-connected idea to a larger scale: “I began thinking, Could I teach a course not of Russia but of humanity?” He soon became infatuated with the concept. “I remember the chain of thought,” he said. “I had to do prehistory, so I have to do some archaeology. But to do it seriously, I’m going to talk about how humans evolved, so, yikes,

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