'Big History': Could This New Course Revolutionize HS Ed?

A new high school course being offered at a growing number of high schools and promoted by Bill Gates could change the way the U.S. views high school education.

The New York Times reported this weekend about Gates pushing a new high school course based on the so-called 'Big History' college course pioneered by Australian educator David Christian. The course is different from the traditional history course taught at most schools using an interdisciplinary approach combining elements of science, mathematics and other fields to paint a picture of the history of the Earth.

The course starts at the Big Bang and works its way through to the creation of the earth, to  early humans, eventually to the development of the modern world.

The subject of World History taught in most high schools evolved from the old Western Civ class focusing on European history beginning with the Greeks and Romans but excluding outside cultures, the report said. In the 1970s many experts began to question this approach not only because it ignored many cultures but because it was ignorant to the influence these other cultures had on the development of the "Western World."

I could not help but wish there was such a class when I was in high school as I tried to approach history from the same big picture perspective. To me, it is really impossible to divide the subject from the other subject, particularly science. Even history itself is intrinsically tied the historical context that the history is written. This is apparent from the evolution of the Western Civ course.

The point is history both provides context and needs context. The current division of subjects and focus on math and science in isolation may fail to show students the bigger picture.  All the great scientists of our time understand history and how times have dictated and influenced development of their field. Stephen Hawking edited and published a book entitled "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants" including landmark writings of some of the greatest scientific thinkers. Also there is Neil deGrasse Tyson's reboot of Carl Sagan's television show "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" show (which I highly recommend). It focuses largely on the historical context of how science has made the leaps that it has.

Perhaps, history is best understood not as a stand alone subject but as part of other subjects themselves. However, I fear this line of thought may lead to the elimination of history courses altogether, which I do not think is the right answer either.

Regardless, as Gates is again changing how we think about the world, in this case how we in the U.S. educate our youth.