Big History! When I first started teaching it I thought: “This is so fantastic! I’ll just have to describe it to people and they’ll be off and running with it! Who wouldn’t want to learn about the history of the entire universe in a single course!”
And quite often, I’d have enthusiastic conversations with people who’d say things like: “Can’t wait to tell my colleagues!” or “My university would LOVE a course like that” or “Can’t wait to read your book on Big History”. But then … well, I suppose it’s entropy really. Life takes over, other priorities loom larger, there are essays to mark and, big history slides off the radar. Nothing happens.
Over the years I’ve slowly realized that Big History won’t quite sell itself. In fact, big history is really hard to sell. In a world in which each discipline is like a fiefdom, and many people are quite comfortable thank you inside the disciplines (I’m not complaining; I know the feeling; I’m a Russian historian), and there are very few structures and very little money to support big history and no clear career paths and no obvious path to academic respectability … Well, it’s really tough.
But … then I think where big history was thirty years ago, and I begin to perk up again. Slowly, slowly, we are making progress. There are quite a few big Historians and they are doing good stuff. They have produced a lot of very good books, given a lot of interesting lectures and interviews, held a few very interesting if unpredictable conferences. And there’s an academic association, the IBHA (not to be confused with the International Buck Horse Association), a journal, and lots of University courses, and tends of thousands of school children are studying it. The High School course arose, of course, because Bill Gates saw the light and generously offered to support us and that was a huge boost. Now, at Macquarie University, we’re releasing a new free online course in Big History, Big History School, and that will include a primary school course, “Big History Junior”. (Today, I went to a fabulous presentation where primary school students told me how they were planning to terraform Mars, and what that taught them about life on earth.). In the last few months I’ve attended several high profile interdisciplinary conferences where I could see cosmologists and evolutionary biologists and big data economists beginning to understand that the big history story provides a great way of thinking deeply about the world’s big issues. Big history is also beginning to escape from the Anglosphere; by my latest count, big history books will soon be available in well over twenty different languages, including some of the most widely spoken, such as Mandarin and Spanish.
Recently, I have been having a lot more of those exciting conversations about big history, because I have been giving talks and interviews about my new book, Origin Story, which is a “trade book”, written with a wide audience in mind. And that means that this year I’ve been hearing again private stories about how thrilling big history can be and how transformative, and how “I’m going to make sure my children learn it because this is what you need to know in the Anthropocene.” I even found myself doing what they do in the films: sitting at a table with a line of people (sometimes long, sometimes short) queuing up for me to sign. That’s fun. And they wouldn’t stand in line if they weren’t at least half hooked!
And I think: Yes, it may be slower work than we all thought when we first got interested in big history but, boy! we really are getting somewhere!
Director, Macquarie University Big History Institute