David Christian had little idea what was in store when he stepped on the set of The Colbert Report in November 2013. Having lived in Australia for years, Christian wasn’t familiar with the show and its special brand of political satire. And yet, sitting across the table from Stephen Colbert — a perfectly placed Colbert Nation mug between them — Christian smiled at the host’s prodding.
“[You] attempt to connect wildly diverse things throughout history and really let us get to know the entire history of the universe from the Big Bang until now,” says Colbert. “Why not something more ambitious?”
Christian laughs heartily. And then cuts through the moment to posit his idea.
“What the course does is teach you the whole history of time. It gives you a map of time and space,” says Christian, gesturing with his hands. “If you can place yourself in that map, it gives you a sense of meaning — of where you are and how you came to be.”
The idea will sound familiar to anyone who has seen Christian’s must-watch talk from TED2011, in which he gives a history of the world in 18 minutes. In this fast-moving talk, Christian pivots through 13.7 billion years of history, telling a story of how the world — against all odds — became a place of 7 billion humans interconnected in highly complex ways. Christian calls his approach “Big History.” And, at the time, he wanted to bring it to high school students.
In the years since his talk, Christian has done just that and more. Big History is now taught in almost 150 schools around the globe — in Australia, the United States, Korea, China, the Netherlands, Scotland and many other countries. In August 2013, McGraw-Hill released the textbook Big History: Between Nothing and Everything, co-written by Christian, Cynthia Stokes Brown and Craig Benjamin. Just last month, a public version of the Big History Project launched online, offering a shorter, free version of the classroom syllabus to anyone who is interested. At the same time, the History Channel’s H2 started airing a television show called Big History that uses Christian’s long-view format to look at a range of phenomena, from water to weaponry. Perhaps because of this confluence of Big History news, Christian was invited on The Colbert Report. (Watch the clip of his appearance at the end of this post.)
For Christian, Big History now forms a large part of his personal history. The idea began in 1989, when he was a young Russian history professor at Macquarie University in Australia.
“I had this feeling that, somehow, we ought to be teaching not just the history of particular nations or particular regions, but the history of humanity,” Christian tells TED. “I started thinking: how would you teach the history of humanity? I thought, ‘Well, you’re going to have to go back to pre-history, to the moment when humans first appear. And to do that properly … it means you need to start talking about biology. And to do that properly, you need to really get interested in … the evolution of life, and that takes you back to the beginnings of the planet. And to understand that, you need to talk about geology. These questions pushed me back and back and back, until eventually I started thinking, ‘Oh my god, to teach the history of humanity, it turns out I have to teach the history of the universe.’ Which sounded completely crazy.”
The crazy concept became a semester-long course for first-year students at Macquarie, bringing together lecturers from many different departments of the university. It was an instant hit with students. Over the next 10 years, Christian refined the course, with the arc of its story coming into clearer focus with each teaching. It remained a popular course at Macquarie until 2000, when Christian took a position at San Diego State University and began teaching it there. (Watch the video “What is Big History Project?” below.)
In 2008, Christian connected with an avid champion of Big History: Bill Gates, who’d found the course while looking for online classes to take with his kids. The two decided to work together on developing a Big History course for high school students. In 2010, they hired project manager Michael Dix to launch the idea. The next year, Gates invited Christian to speak at TED during a session he guest-curated.
Christian was intimidated by the thought of boiling down a semester-long course to 18 minutes. But he knew it was possible — in fact, his wife, a professional storyteller, had begun telling a 25-minute version of Big History to groups of young students. Plus, Christian says, “Once you’ve reduced 13 billion years to a 13-week semester, reducing it to 18 minutes is hard … but can be done.”
Christian’s talk was a true group effort — it was co-written Dix and Gates, and featured gorgeous imagery created by Ian Sands. It got a standing ovation. And as he stepped off the TED stage, Christian was excited to see Twitter afire with people referencing his talk.
The momentum of the TED Talk helped Big History take off from there. Within a year, six high schools in the United States started teaching the class, which used short, 7-8 minute videos to tell the story of time and space. Two schools in Australia followed suit.
“Bill Gates, from the very start, said, ‘Look, the way to do this is to go through particular schools — don’t try to go through the education bureaucracy. Get particular schools to try this, and get feedback from them,’” says Christian. “What a courageous thing to do — for the school, for the teachers. But they did a superb job, and I think almost all of them have loved teaching it. … The feedback we got from them was very positive, but very specific as well. There were things we put up on the initial website that just weren’t working. The basic structure of the website has changed, the design has changed. It’s been a sort of to-and-fro … The version that’s available now has been road-tested pretty well.” (Below, watch a report on how Big History works in schools, from Australia’s Lateline.)
It is perhaps a rarity for a professor to stick with one course for 20+ years, and to bring it to high schools. But Christian senses a unique need for Big History.
“Every kid goes to school full of questions about meaning. You know, ‘What’s my place in the universe? What does it mean to be a human being? What are human beings?’ Existing courses cannot help you answer those questions. They can’t even help you ask them,” Christian tells TED. “This is why I’ve kept teaching it for so long … It gives [students] a feeling that knowledge is not endless bits and pieces that go on forever.”
While Christian is not involved in the H2 television series, he is still very much a part of the Big History project and is excited about the publicity that the television series is generating for the larger concept.
“Our goal is to see Big History become a normal part of high school curricula,” says Christian. “I’d love to see it being taught in lots of languages. A global course.”
And while he thinks it’s great that Big History has reached 150 high schools, he knows it’s a long road until it becomes a part of everyone’s education.
Of his young grandson Daniel, Christian says, “I would love to think that by the time he’s in high school, courses like this will be familiar enough that he will do one. I would really like to see that.”
Note: Despite what Stephen Colbert says, David Christian is not actually the host of H2’s show, Big History. He does appear as a talking head in the series, though, and is also the originator of the idea.