Why did Bill Gates give $10million to history teacher David Christian?
There’s a pretty good argument for saying that while Bill Gates may be the richest person in the world, the most powerful person in the world is an affable historian called David Christian. The argument goes like this: Gates and Christian know each other. They get along and they share Christian’s take on the history of the Universe. Gates is using his unfathomably large fortune to help Christian disseminate this version of history to schools in America, Australia, Korea, the Netherlands and now Britain. And, as Confucius say, he who controls the past controls the future.
Christian doesn’t look like a Time Lord and unlike Gates he doesn’t have his days divided into five-minute segments like a head of state’s. He looks like an uncle. He wears a fleece even though it’s a balmy Indian summer’s day. He meets me at the Oxford college where he’s staying for a few days and we go to his “cell” (an apt description) to talk at leisure about asteroids, dinosaurs and the Big Bang. “I think it’s absolutely essential that everyone has a preliminary grip on the idea of the Big Bang [among many other things] as a teacher I can do that,” he says. As a history teacher, mind you.
It’s been said often in the past few weeks that Christian is Gates’s favourite historian, but this isn’t strictly true. He’s Gates’s favourite Big Historian, and Big History is the study of history on such unimaginably large timescales that it ends up being at least as much about science as people.
This may be one reason why Gates likes it. When they meet up, as they do from time to time, “it’s just great nerdy conversation”, Christian says. But the other reason Gates likes Big History is that it brings together everything we know, or think we know, or hope we know, in one all-encompassing story. This is something that Christian thinks is missing from modern secular education at huge cost to our children’s understanding of the modern world, never mind the ancient one, and it’s something Gates wishes he was taught way back in high school.
We know this because he said so six years ago in San Diego. Gates had recently retired from day-to-day management of Microsoft and was spending a lot of time pounding his treadmill at home in Seattle, watching educational videos. One day he sampled a Big History course fronted by the irrepressible Christian. He found himself hurtling through 13.7 billion years of physics, chemistry, geology, anthropology and engineering in exhilarating but easily digested instalments and he was smitten. “I just loved it,” he said years later. “I thought, God, everybody should watch this thing.”
As you do when you’re Gates, he had his people set up a meeting. It happened down the coast in San Diego because Christian was teaching there at the time and it went famously. “Look,” says Christian. “I grew up in England. England does not admire multimillionaires, unlike the United States, so my default position on millionaires was that they’d be corrupt or stupid or something. And I’m slightly embarrassed to find myself singing Gates’s praises but I’ll do so happily.”
Gates, he says, is obviously a good businessman but is also “very, very smart indeed”, an “intellectual enthusiast”, “deeply ethical, but not in a pious way”, “absolutely sincere”, and “works like crazy on all his projects”. What Gates actually said at that meeting, as Christian recalls it, was: “I had a lot of fun making a tonne of money. I’m having even more fun trying to find ways of spending it in ways that maximise the good stuff that money does.”
Here was the archetypal software billionaire channelling Andrew Carnegie, Jeremy Bentham and the entire western enlightenment in search of the greatest possible improvement for the greatest possible number. Since then Gates has spent an estimated $10 million to fund a Big History Project website, conferences to teach teachers how to teach Big History and small grants to schools that choose to include it in their timetables.
Some people are alarmed by what they see as the implications. Educationalists canvassed for a recent New York Times Magazinecover story fretted about whether Gates was foisting his own view of history on a generation of kids just because he could. Since then similar things have been said elsewhere. This miss or deliberately ignore two key points, and Christian is annoyed.
“One of the reasons I’m annoyed at some of the comments is they assume we’re telling a dogmatic story,” he says. “I don’t know why they assume that. I’m a university teacher. I expect my smarter students to receive whatever I say critically.” The other thing that vexes him is the suggestion that the Big History course on offer to schools and through the web has been devised by Gates himself. It’s been done by Christian, over 20 years, as a labour of love.
It grew out of a frustration with conventional history teaching, which focuses on particular themes and periods like the Russian history in which he used to specialise, with little attempt to join them up. That grew into a more general frustration with modern teaching’s insistence on keeping subjects in separate silos. “In most societies we know of, education included a kind of universal story, so what I’m doing is not original,” Christian says. “What is really weird is modern education, which does not teach such a story. It teaches knowledge in bits and pieces and except within religious traditions we don’t teach kids a sort of unified account of reality.”
Starting in the late 1980s at Macquarie University in Sydney, Christian set out to fix this problem with a new, scientific universal story that differed from the religious ones by being, for want of a better word, true. HG Wells tried this shortly after the First World War but the science wasn’t good enough. Crucially, it couldn’t punctuate prehistory with dates with any confidence. In the past century all that has changed and Christian’s story starts at a remarkably precise point, a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second after the Big Bang because that’s when the data kicks in.
From that tiny fraction of a second after the bang, “we can tell an evidence-based story”, he says. “It’s pretty good science. It’s based on a huge amount of data. Lots of rigorous maths. It fits with everything we know about physics. Before that we just run out of data. We have no evidence.” But why take a historian’s word for it? His answer, paraphrased, is why take a teacher’s word for anything? “How many teachers are actually teaching only in the area in which they do primary research? Most teachers spend most of their time talking about subjects that they’ve tried to get on top of, but they are not research experts.”
He tells a story about a recent World Economic Forum meeting in China at which he held forth on cosmology only for a real cosmologist, Lawrence Krauss, to approach him afterwards with “one or two minor corrections” on the subject of energy at the dawn of time. “Thank God they were minor, [but] that’s as it should be.”
Christian says proudly that he’s always been a nerd. For much of his Big History syllabus his method has been to hoover up the best scientific consensus he can find on the biggest subjects out there simply by reading mountains of popular science, summarising it for students and sticking it on a giant 13.7 billion-year timeline. The result, in 2011, was a Ted Talk delivered in California in which he offered a history of the Universe in less than 18 minutes based on eight great developmental hinges that he calls “thresholds”.
The Big Bang is threshold No 1. No 2 is the emergence of stars from a homogenous soup of hydrogen and helium atoms over the course of the next 200 million years. The death throes of the first stars create the chemical complexity needed for the first planets (Christian clicks his fingers quietly and rather dramatically), and these are threshold No 3.
Fast-forward to four and a half billion years ago and the birth of not just any planet, but ours — rocky, watery, close, but not too close, to the Sun and with “a sort of chemical complexity unthinkable in the early Universe”: threshold No 4. Then early life, human life, agriculture and the Industrial Revolution are five, six, seven and eight respectively. Yes, they come thick and fast as you get closer to the present. Yes, he’s given us humans an importance out of all proportion to our physical presence in the Universe. He says we can take this either as a storyteller’s statement or a scientific one, but his own hunch is that as the only species we know of to have harnessed the extraordinary amount of energy stored up in fossil fuels laid down over 300 million years, we really do deserve a threshold of our own.
Big History as written by Christian is now taught formally in 300 schools in America, 100 in Australia, 5 in Scotland and 1 in England (Wellington College). Informally, thousands more teenagers and university students are getting a taste of it from the web. Students and teachers alike are encouraged to think critically and give feedback (“Gates is very keen on hard-nosed feedback on your product”), which is a good thing because Christian is quite relaxed about presenting hotly debated theory as settled consensus, if not fact. This goes for his explanation for the extinction of the dinosaurs (asteroid strike on Yucatan); for the Big Bang itself; and for extraterrestrial life (“probably fairly common”, he says, at least in bacterial form).
Creationists who believe that we’re alone in the Universe naturally beg to differ. After all, they have a universal story of their own. But that doesn’t mean they can’t try merging the two or even swap theirs for his and Christian likes to think that some may have begun to do just that.
Now 68, he is the son of a British colonial servant, formed by grammar school in Guildford but long since based in Sydney and not minded to move. He has a wife, two children and a grandson whose future he often talks about out of concern that we may be heading for a serious catastrophe triggered by man-made climate change.
Without Gates’s blessing his version of Big History would probably have grown in popularity, but slowly. With it, it is growing fast and he’s not coy about its political implications. In a world of unchecked fossil fuel use, he says, expect a Pearl Harbor-style event that suddenly persuades “a critical mass of governments to take [climate change] seriously”. In a world of widening income inequality and “whole generations of young men who can’t find a job, expect jihadists”.
In the meantime, expect Big History, coming soon to a school near you.
This article is provided by Mark Karnes.