Prominent historian Dr David Christian was in town to give a talk on Big History, a subject that he has been teaching for more than a decade. His personal narrative is interesting: he started off as a professor of Russian history, with a focus on the role of vodka in 19th century Russian society. After teaching the subject at Macquarie University in Sydney for a number of years, he asked himself how his courses were preparing his students to meet future challenges personally and for the human race generally.
He began to examine 19th century Russia in the context of Russian tribes and early European civilisations. And then he realised that to understand how those civilisations developed their unique characteristics, he had to take a step back to see the even bigger picture of migration patterns of prehistoric man from Africa to Russia. Before long, he had gone all the way back to the Big Bang.
Such introspection led Christian to develop his unique course on Big History. As he sees it, our formal education has become too narrow and fragmented, divided into disciplines and sub-disciplines and sub-sub-disciplines. He has taken learning in the opposite direction. His course starts with the Big Bang 13 billion years ago, with nary a mention of mankind until halfway through the semester. He provides this big picture for students to understand how all disciplines fit together, from cosmology to chemistry to geology to biology to anthropology.
Through this trans-disciplinary approach, students are able to move beyond their narrow view of an increasingly complex world. This approach allows students to understand how the specific subject matter they are studying fits together with other subjects. Hopefully, this will also encourage them to gain a global perspective and, simply put, to care more about planet Earth.
Christian cites Kevin W. Kelley's The Home Planet, a coffee-table book of photos of earth taken from space. Each photo is accompanied by a quotation from someone who has seen Earth from space. The common theme among such musings of astronauts from 18 different countries is an appreciation for collective humankind.
One astronaut explained that on the first day they saw Earth, each person on board looked for his own country. The next day, they pointed out their own continent. And by the third day, all they saw was one Earth.
My own example of the importance of taking a step back and looking at the big picture involves my friend's first-grader. He wrote the sentence: "The pepo in the park had fun." My friend understood that it was common for beginning writers to spell out words phonetically, but she was perplexed that her son could not spell "people" because he had just learned it for a spelling bee. When she gently reminded her son about the spelling bee, he said: "Oh, so this 'people' is the same as that 'people'?"
The boy was so focused on learning spelling that he didn't recognise those vocabulary words in the context of his own life.
Bill Gates took up this cause upon hearing Christian's lectures a few years ago. Gates and Christian are working on the Big History Project, with the aim to put a Big History class into grade nine curricula round the world.
What a sensible idea: to provide an overview and intellectual compass to all knowledge. By doing so, memorising the periodic table will no longer be viewed by students as a remote and isolated study. Instead, students can appreciate chemistry for its role in the creation of life on Earth.
Annie Ho is board chairwoman of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong bringmeabook.org.hk