Bill Gates was on the treadmill one day, watched a video about history that he liked, and invited the professor to meet with him to talk about growing his approach into something that everyone could see. Now as this story in the New York Times explains, Bill Gates’ favorite way of teaching world history has been turned into a course that is being marketed to high schools across the country.
“As Gates was working his way through the series, he stumbled upon a set of DVDs titled “Big History” — an unusual college course taught by a jovial, gesticulating professor from Australia named David Christian. Unlike the previous DVDs, “Big History” did not confine itself to any particular topic, or even to a single academic discipline. Instead, it put forward a synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields, which Christian wove together into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth. Standing inside a small “Mr. Rogers”-style set, flanked by an imitation ivy-covered brick wall, Christian explained to the camera that he was influenced by the Annales School, a group of early-20th-century French historians who insisted that history be explored on multiple scales of time and space. Christian had subsequently divided the history of the world into eight separate “thresholds,” beginning with the Big Bang, 13 billion years ago (Threshold 1), moving through to the origin of Homo sapiens (Threshold 6), the appearance of agriculture (Threshold 7) and, finally, the forces that gave birth to our modern world (Threshold 8).”
This is my favorite line in the article: “As Gates sweated away on his treadmill, he found himself marveling at the class’s ability to connect complex concepts. “I just loved it,” he said. “It was very clarifying for me. I thought, God, everybody should watch this thing!”
Yes, if Gates loved it, why shouldn’t everybody “watch this thing!”
Now, let me say up front that the course may indeed be wonderful, engaging, provocative, and informative. I have not seen “Big History” and cannot judge its quality.
But there is something unseemly about a history course sponsored by the richest man in America. This is akin to research on cigarettes and cancer sponsored by tobacco company.
I am quoted in the article asking whether the course will discuss or even mention the robber barons or the problem of income inequality. How will it treat the rise–and decline–of labor unions? I can think of many topics that would make the sponsor uncomfortable.
Please read the comments, especially the readers’ picks. Many share my concerns.
On this point, read Mercedes Schneider’s latest post, wherein she reports that the Gates Foundation funds mainstream media outlets and Gates himself regularly meets with representatives of the media he gives money to. I don’t know, it doesn’t sound right to me. If he is giving millions to major news outlets, won’t that affect their coverage of the Gates Foundation and Gates himself. Will they dare criticize their sponsor? This has a bad smell.