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 Editor in chief: 
Abdus Sattar Ghazali

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Why big history: Its educational implications

Prof. Arthur Kane Scott  

“Big History” at Dominican University owes much to the pioneering work of David Christian and Cynthia Stokes Brown. David Christian is a leading pioneer in “Big History” who in the eighties recognized the need for a larger historical account within a larger perspective for a global world verging on inter-galactic expansion. He began teaching “Big History” in Australia/ United States and in 2005 published Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History which earned him the World History Association Book Prize. His work likewise is available on tape through the Teaching Company‘s Great Courses. Cynthia Brown, who teaches at Dominican in history/education, has been a prime mover in transforming the General Educational curriculum and launching Big History Program for all entering freshman starting in fall 2010. She too has written Big History: from the Big Bang to the Present for which she won American Book Award for and which will be incorporated as a text along with David Christian’s study.

What is it?

Big History is essentially a story which investigates all of existence or life from the “Big Bang” of 13.7 billion years ago to post-modern Information Age of Homo Sapiens in the twenty-first century. It will conclude with a peak into the future regarding man’s impact on planet Mother Earth, and on the larger solar system. Methodologically it draws across disciplines from science/humanities to astronomy/geology, to biology/physics. “Big History” grounds itself in scientific approach of empirical evidence founded on observations, experimentation and verification as it wrestles with the larger cosmological questions of how the universe came into being, role of stars, galaxies in formation of solar systems and life on planet earth culminating with emergence of plants, animals, primates and homo sapiens.

 The Key to understanding of Big History is not only its range but also the fact that Big History examines the universe creation story by discerning patterns and distinguishing thresholds of complexity that function as pivotal points in time. David Christian speaks of "eight thresholds” of History where each threshold is associated with an emerging new form of complexity.

    • 1) Big Bang: The emergence of the Universe
    • 2) The emergence of the Stars
    • 3) The emergence of Chemical Elements
    • 4) The emergence of Earth and the Solar System
    • 5) The emergence of Life
    • 6) The appearance of Human beings
    • 7) The emergence of Agriculture
    • 8) The age of Modernity

In establishing this pattern of emergence of thresholds of complexity--which as you will note accelerate or intensify over time--, Big History begs the question whether we are now at the 9th threshold with the emergence of the technological age and our effect on our environment. These thresholds also provide the framework and pivotal points for the second semester courses which will look at existence from the lens of art, political science, anthropology, cultural studies and economics reaching as far back as possible.

 KEY THEMES:                                 

    • Interconnectedness; yes we are comprised of “ Star Dust” emanating from the Big Bang of 13.7 billion years ago, for from it came Stars/Galaxies /Chemicals that lay the basis for our solar system including earth, single cells and ultimately humanity itself couched within the mysteries of an Expanding Universe and Dark Matter. This theme was eloquently captured by Sufi Ali ibn Abi Talib when he said:” You think you small but within you is the entire universe”;
    • Oneness/wholeness; not only is there an underlying interconnectedness between physical/biological and human world but the biological explanations of how this all unfolded comes through an overarching Darwinian theory/lens of “Natural Selection” which simultaneously explains change/adaptability giving to the story a powerful coherence/unity;
    • Complementary is another quality of “Big History” as it juxtaposes simplicity /complexity or predictability /uncertainty as two sides of existence from which change/complexity emerges and life /human societies unfold into increasing complex social systems. We are all familiar with the metaphor in quantum mechanics of how the wings of a Butterfly in Japan could cause a tsunami in Peru recognizing that the Butterfly and tsunami are not only inextricably connected to each other but create in their synergy a greater whole;
    • “Dissipative” structures another important theme arises from what Ilya Prigogine, noted Belgium chemist, who received Nobel Prize in 1970’s, called “perturbations” by which societies are transformed synergistically by combination of inner/external forces leading to greater complexity. A good example is the shift in social organization that homo sapiens made as it transformed itself from  an Agrarian society  into a modern petro-chemical society with advent of industrialization in 1700’s;
    • Immensity of space and its scales that forces us to look at the cosmos and self in a different way. “Time” as used in Big History is macro in its sweep going back 13.7 billion light years which is mind bogging. How do you wrap your mind around a number that has 9 O’s or looks like this 1 000000000. As one travels back in time, in the “space odyssey” of “Big history” perspectives dramatically shift, as new possibilities/interpretations about truth, beauty, existence and one’s place in the cosmos emerge. These paradigm shifts in consciousness were/are beautifully captured by astronauts who no longer see “planet earth” simply in terms of geographic boundaries or nation states or even continents but as  beautiful blue sphere hanging eloquently in space called “home” or  as  a remarkable, fragile, global village transcending cultural differences;
    • Time too is radically altered. There are many different forms of time in the collective experience including imaginary, space, psychic, biological, natural, business and multiple ways of expressing time : mythic, metaphorical, cyclical and linear. Magnitudes of space time become mind boggling, - for instance, it takes 13-15 hours to fly from San Francisco to London, 18 days to reach the moon, but 82 years to reach Jupiter and 750 years Pluto. For most people eight- two years represents a lifetime and when discussing flight to Pluto it requires a shocking 10 lifetimes! This raises a very interesting challenge about inter-galactic travel and how it will be accomplished in the future?
    • Other crucial themes explaining the explosion of Homo sapiens on Planet Earth are the importance of language /collective learning. They represent two distinctive features which has given our species a leg up in accumulating resources, spending energy, adapting to change and acquiring technology so that today in the modern/post-modern era we find ourselves in a state of “permanent revolution”. In combination these two qualities explain the speed in which our ancestors migrated from Africa to the other continents, creating more complex societies: agrarian, industrial, informational through a learning strategy of diffusion, imitation, borrowing, and innovation. As space /time dimensions collapse the world in twenty-first century has becomes a “global village” by which through a sophisticated network of technology/collaboration the global village knows pretty  instantaneously what other parts of the world are undergoing ecologically or economically as British Petroleum (BP) spill in Gulf of Mexico illustrates. As Biologist Rupert Sheldrake put it in the metaphor of the” Hundred Monkey” the ecological crisis /climate change of carbon/oil may be ushering in  a profound shift in consciousness that could lead to an era of ecological cooperation, oneness and sustainability.

 “Journey to big history”   

My journey to Big History was influenced by time and place I was born and by exposure to very reflective thinkers who were way ahead of their time and saw things that others never dreamt possible.

My “big bang” was 1938 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, birthplace of American Nation. This date makes me part of what is called the “Silent Generation”(1926-44) as described by William Strauss and Neil Howe in their provocative study on historical causality entitled Fourth Turning. This generation though smallest of all generations had a keen sense of social justice whether it was racial, sexual or economical and played a significant role in social movements of 60’/70’s both in American and emerging world.

Philadelphia was a large urban metropolis with a diverse population giving it a cosmopolitan flavor made even more inclusive by being located mid-point between New York, world’s financial center, and Washington, D. C.,  world’s political capital. Philadelphia too had a deep liberal humanitarian tradition tied to its Quaker legacy, global in scope, that I was heir to even though most of my family was raised Catholic. Later as historian /anthropologist I realized that my Irish/Catholic background played an immense role in fostering in me a penchant for asking Big Questions, listening/telling stories.  Catholicism, on the other hand, provided me with a medieval lens to view life intertwined with a Greek /Aristotelian philosophy which led to wonderful discussions over “meaning” and countless glasses of beer with my college /university colleagues at the local bar.

As a historian I found myself caught up in the “Cold War” frenzy and pursued an emphasis in Russia/East Asia/Europe. This focal point created larger geopolitical, international, diplomatic, and cultural scales. I began struggling with larger paradoxes of war/peace brought home by Cuban Missile Crisis of how our species could be so creative but at the same time capable of creating such a destructive technology? Why couldn’t American/Russia get along, what were the historical/cultural factors that lay groundwork for Cold War? National histories were just too limiting and overlooked emerging global forces such as United Nations which was creating new regional configurations and alignments which were pointing to a different world order than the one I had been born into in 1938. I found myself moving imperceptibly into an interdisciplinary approach to find answers to these questions in which science /humanities played complementary roles in understanding the cosmic/human story. Besides my renew interest in Native American studies brought me back to my Irish roots: storytelling, Creation tales, mythic time, nature, ecological sustainability.

This intellectual shift to a “Big History”, multi-discipline approach was facilitated by several incredible teachers: Thomas Kuhn, Joseph Campbell, Krishnamurti and Seyed Ali Kianfar, a Sufi Master. In 1962, Thomas Kuhn authored his famous work Structure of Scientific Thought in which he discusses the importance of paradigms/paradigm shifts to understanding scientific change using the Copernican revolution of the sixteenth century as the great example of profound intellectual turning point that radically altered the content and methodology of western thought. Kuhn showed how significant underlying beliefs were to defining an historical era and how important “paradigm shifts” were to creating a new gestalt or world view.  Campbell in his Power of Myth discussed the universality of Myth as a tale type embodying existential themes of Origins, Journey, death/resurrection, sacrifice, love, healing and eternal return. In Campbell’s five tape series  Mythos: the Shaping of Our Mythic Tradition he discussed the new emerging modern myth story and its scientific dimensions with an emphasis similar to Einstein of discovering a unify theory that would unite mythic universality with its cultural uncertainty. Krishnamurti, who many consider to be a world teacher, wrote extensively on the dance of the mind and explore the larger question of what one can know with eminent physicist David Bohme in the work The Limits of Though.  For him “Truth is pathless land” which resonated with David Bohme’s dialogue with Krishnamurti on “implicated order” by which Bohme argued that everything in the universe actually was essentially holistic and interconnected. Man’s mind breaks things down, reduces, fragments and complicates. Reductionism can be reverse in part by observing how the mind works; content and processes. Both were advocates of a new holistic paradigm of thought emphasizing oneness, interconnectedness, and complementarily which was presented in a 1970‘s tape series entitled Transformation of Mind. Sufism, too, emphasizes the cosmological theme of Unity going back to Big Bang as expressed by the Quran in “The Light Verse” and insists that its teachings on “energy”, the movement of mind/thought are both scientific and practical and not philosophical! It argues that science of today dovetails with its ancient teachings as revealed in Brian Greene’s 1999 work entitled: Elegant Universe in which he explores “string theory” as an answer to difficulty in reconciling universality of gravity with uncertainty of quantum mechanics. According to String theorist everything in the universe is ultimately a vibration of sound traceable to the “Big Bang”. String also points to possibility of multi-universes which one finds in Sufi thought and is echoed in the Quran in the opening Sureh, Al- Fatiha.

Currently because of intense research in disciplines of archeology, anthropology, biology, physics and genetics, our understanding of the world is rapidly changing as the evidence changes. In science there are no “absolutes” but at best “working hypotheses” which provide a temporary landscape until new evidence is uncovered providing hopefully even greater clarity. For instance, in 2010, archeologists, by using gnome techniques, uncovered that non-African Homo sapiens carry small quantities of Neanderthal DNA indicating that there must have been limited mingling of the two in eastern Europe. Dating has historically been problematic but a significant breakthrough in dating of evidence occurred in the 1950’s with radiometric dating, which dates radioactivity, developed at the University of Chicago and California Institute of Technology. It allows scientists to measure how old the universe/solar system is with great accuracy as well as to determine how old a fossil is. Similar progress has been made in a study of the Earth through plate tectonics/ divergent margins. Though not perfect, these techniques make contemporary dating finer so that scientist can draw better inferences and comparisons.

“Big History” has enormous educational potential as it widens perspective, making us aware of both the fragility of life as well as its magical qualities. It simultaneously humbles and uplifts, hopefully raising ecological sensitivity of Homo sapiens regarding our dependence on “Planet Earth” and larger Milky Way for survival. “Big History” inspires man to explore and seek knowledge of new worlds by taking tentative steps into the ocean of space. But most of all “Big History” psychologically brings the inner and outer worlds of consciousness into sharper relief as representing two sides of existence from which life flows.  Vision and action are inextricably linked and from them man can become cognizant of participating in a deeper underlying “Spiritual Reality” that is beyond words and only can be grasped metaphorically in the poetics of a Hafiz or Rumi. Growing recognition of this “Unseen Force” or “Dark Matter” can perhaps end the artifices of geographic/cultural boundaries that have divide humanity thereby transforming planet earth into a vibrant Global Village.

[Prof. Arthur Kane Scott, along with a Dominican University colleague gave this presentation at Fifth Conference  on Interdisciplinary Social Sciences at Fifth Conference on Interdisciplinary Social Sciences held at Cambridge University, Cambridge, UK, on August 5.  Indisciplinary Social Sciences Conference is  a global organization dedicated to improving educational delivery through promoting inter disciplinary pedagogy within social sciences.] 

Arthur Kane Scott is Professor of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the Dominican University of California
and Fellow of American Institute of International Studies