Springtime for Big History: Part One

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By Owen Griffiths

This is the first part of a four part series, running quarterly, on Big History.

In 1989, on the eve of the Berlin Wall’s collapse, Soviet tanks retreating across the Friendship Bridge, and Chinese tanks facing off against students in Tiananmen Square, I received my first exposure to world history through a seminar course and a conference on the same theme organized by Ralph Crozier at the University of Victoria. With those world historical events prominent in the foreground, the course and conference introduced me to a new approach to history as well as to the many debates surrounding the efficacy of world history as a legitimate research field and pedagogy. “Too big,” its critics cried. “No one is qualified to teach the world.” “World history is like a stone skimming on the surface of the water,” still others opined. Fortunately, these voices, while still extant, have been stilled.

Today, world history programs from undergraduate to Ph.D. are taught at dozens of universities in North America and elsewhere. World history has its own international organization (founded in 1982) and journal (founded in 1990). Feeding all this are dramatic changes in North American high school curricula, which offer world history courses in various forms at most schools. Through these efforts, world history has become a legitimate and respected area of scholarship and teaching.

In that same year of 1989, worlds away from Berlin, Afghanistan, Beijing, and Victoria, David Christian of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia began teaching his first course on big history, collaborating with colleagues from the sciences and the social sciences. Trained in Russian social history, Christian was also interested in origins and so structured his course to begin with the most widely accepted origin story for which we have testable evidence: the big bang 13.8 billion years ago. As far as we know, all human societies have stories about where they came from and how the world came to be. These may be the oldest stories we have and their existence reminds us of what humans share in common at the most fundamental level. Big history follows this tradition, locating all celestial and terrestrial activity in the context of the big bang.

In this four-part series, I want to introduce readers to what big history is and what it attempts to achieve. In the process, I want to demonstrate that thinking big historically can complement and enhance our understanding of history and of the human experience. My own introduction to big history comes from the many discussions I had with David Christian while we were colleagues at San Diego State University and, subsequently, from teaching big history at Mount Allison University for the last nine years. These experiences have reinforced my understanding of the importance of context and perspective in thinking historically. They have also taught me more profoundly the value of humility when examining the human story. Finally, big history and its essential focus on interdisciplinarity has provided me new tools and language with which to articulate the human experience through research and teaching.

History has only emerged as a modern discipline in the last 150 years, grounded in the textual evidence of elite males, focused on the nation-state, and bounded for the most part by notions of western civilization. The post-WWII years saw the discipline gradually outgrow these narrow confines with the rise of social and cultural histories that drew attention to labour, women, gender, and ethnicity. At the same time history was infused with new tools from economics and new techniques from anthropology, sociology, and literary theory.

World history was a natural outgrowth of these changes. Just as post-WWII scholars began to understand that the human past was so much more than the actions and records of elite males, late-20th century scholars began to see the world as an interconnected whole that was far greater than the sum of western actions. At the same time, 25 years of post-structural influence led some scholars to question the authority of master narratives and to reevaluate assumptions about human agency. Taken together, these changes have radically transformed and expanded what we understand history to be and how we write it.

Yet, for all that, historical training remains primarily centered on the nation and grounded in textual evidence. The divide between history and pre-history has remained firm for the most part: no documents, no history.

This is where big history enters the picture. It seeks to understand not just the world or the time before written records but the story of the universe from the beginning of time itself. As the discipline of history has grown and fragmented, often running to ever-smaller units of detail, big history runs in the opposite direction, striving to reveal patterns of interconnectedness on a cosmic scale. As such, big history complements existing historical research, reminding us there is always a larger context in which our stories must be located. Increasingly, we have begun to place our stories of peoples, communities, societies, and empires in the context of global or world history. Big history takes this a step further and locates our world in the temporal and spatial context of universal history.

This makes big history inherently interdisciplinary because it must draw from all academic disciplines to tell its stories. In doing so, big history helps to break down some of the walls that have been erected between the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. As many scientists reach across the divide to connect with non-scientific audiences, big history reaches right back, drawing on that expertise and understanding to tell stories in which Earth and its teeming life are but one small interrelated and remarkable part. To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, we are all stardust.

This relationship between the earth and the universe will be the subject of part two. There I will draw out further the theme of interconnectedness and will also discuss the validity of understanding history as a dynamic interaction between simplicity and complexity.

Owen Griffiths is an associate professor of history at Mount Allison University.

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