Big History, Bill Gates & Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is the rarest of scholars—one who reports her findings and conclusions, even when they go against conventional wisdom and even when they counter her earlier, publicly espoused positions.”     Howard Gardner

‘So Bill Gates Had This Idea for a History Class’, although inaccurately titled, is quite a good article from The New York Times about Professor David Christian‘s conceptually important Big History course. ‘Did You Know that Bill Gates is Funding his Own History Curriculum’ is Diane Ravitch’s riposte.

I write this post because I think Big History is an extremely important opportunity for educators and their students. It saddens me that any groups or individuals would discourage teachers from exploring these ideas and the free resources provided because Bill Gates was involved.

It essential for all of us to have an understanding of the history of our universe that is based on sound science and can change, as more evidence comes to hand. Most secondary and tertiary students experience balkanised curriculum that does not assist one to even remotely conceive a narrative for everything. In fact, such grand narratives have understandably been distrusted for some time now, as Christian points out in his opening to the course.

It seems to me that Ms Ravitch, who I largely agree with on educational matters, should reconsider her opposition to the support Bill Gates offers by looking more closely at the course and resources. Her opposition to Gates is complete and when Ravitch blogs that: “…there is something unseemly about a history course sponsored by the richest man in America…”  I have a different response; it actually gives me some hope. He is not (re)writing this history just giving teachers and students an opportunity to experience an innovative approach to learning. It is a good thing to support. Schools can choose, unlike mandated state curricula, to avail themselves of this free course – or not.

You may wish to read about the mission of the Big History Institute which goes way beyond American high school courses; it is an international movement:

Big History has been taught as a large first year course at Macquarie University since 1989, and more recently we have also begun teaching it at the graduate level. Our Big History MOOC will launch in mid-2014… The Big History Institute is dedicated to disseminating Big History to a wide global audience. We are committed to outreach efforts with schools and communities around the world to promote the study of Big History.

I do understand how many American teachers and parents feel about Bill Gates and his ‘educational philanthropy. Most of these concerns make complete sense and there is no doubt as to why the battle-lines have hardened. The influence of capital on educational policy is undeniable and now that a majority of American politicians are in the ranks of the super-wealthy it is not just the various billionaires’ manoeuvrings that one should be concerned about impacting on schools/society negatively. However, I do think it would be fair for the people commenting at this thread to actually check Big History out before automatically assuming that everything Gates does is bad. I always feel that educators should give the general public a sense that they are sensible and balanced, rather than polemical and exponents of hyperbole.

Most of my readers are Australian and relatively few will know much about Diane Ravitch who has had a stellar career in American political and academic education circles. I enjoyed The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2010) and blogged admiringly about it at the time. I have not read her most recent book but have a feed from her blog.

Ravitch became well-known when she was the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Education in the early 90s. At this time she was an enthusiastic proponent of some very nasty political decisions, the antecedents of the world we have today, to reform education. Here is a good overview of her career, including when, in 2010, the scales fell from her eyes about the nature of No Child Left Behind, Charter Schools and the reforms she championed.

Every since completing the 48-lecture course, I have been very enthusiastic about Big History – here are my posts – and plan to teach it next year with a few innovations of my ownThis personalisation would have been a previously unimaginable experience for students or their teacher. We will have Professor Christian and National Geographic to thank…and, Bill Gates too.

What do you say about Big History, Bill Gates and Diane Ravitch?

FEATURED IMAGE: creative commons licensed (BY) flickr photo by jurvetson: http://flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/5611725024

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1 Comment

  1. Paul:

    Good luck with your project – I am sure the students will like it. I must say I like the idea of Big History, but it is hardly a surprise – usually, it’s called Geology and has been taught for decades! Adding a few extras just makes it that bit more relevant to learners.

    As one currently fighting a lacklustre draft Geography syllabus it irks me to see Earth Science languishing under it’s old titles but being raised up just because it has “History” in the title.

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