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Bringing Big History Down to Classroom Size: Concepts and Resources

John Maunu


     David Christian asks "What is the scale on which history should be studied?" His own answer, couched in geographical and geological terms, is that the scale may be the whole of the world.1  Advanced Placement United States and European history are moving to that scale in their 2011course revision. Advanced Placement World history has long employed a macro-historical focus.  But Christian and others argue that history should be studied, written, and taught over the entire span of planetary history whose time frame stretches between 10 and 20 billion years!  

     This article seeks to assist teachers to meet that challenge in several ways. It will provide an example of a Big History curriculum proposed by an early proponent of "Big History, John A. Mears.2 It will then offer a cutting edge definition of Big History developed by a California State San Marcos graduate student, Alexander Moddejonge, whose work has been praised by David Christian.3  It will close with links which further define and explain Big History and/or feature Big History lesson plans that can, like the Mears Approach and Moddejonge's definition, be used in university and Advanced Placement World History level classrooms..

The Mears Approach

     In the 1980s, John A. Mears of Southern Methodist University was searching for a means to achieve philosophical and structural coherence in basic undergraduate requirements in the 1980's.  He noted that Theodore D. Lockwood, president of Trinity College, saw in increased specialization an "eclectic muddle" of requirements with "no integral relationship among the parts."  Mears proposed Big History as an answer to the undergraduate "muddle."  He did not call it "Big History" but referred to his integrated academic structure as "evolutionary process.4

     His 12 credit program would begin "with a course taught in collaborative fashion by physicists, astronomers, and geologists" who would use current data to teach views on the origins and structure of the physical universe, for example, ideas about the birth of our sun and development of the solar system.  From that beginning, eighteen to twenty billion years ago, the instructors would discuss the "emergence of the earth, interactions of matter and energy that shaped our cosmos, including formation and development of the earth's interior structure and surface features, all showing students how forces operating in the earth's interior are connected with those affecting its surface to around 2.5 billion years ago. AP World history teachers should see the change over time theme dominating the discussion.

     The second course would be taught by chemists and biologists covering 4 billion years to 500 million years ago.  Chemists would focus on "sequence of chemical events leading up to the first living cells" and then biologists would take over discussing views on organic evolution.  After students have worked with physicists, astronomers, geologists, chemists, and biologists, the third course, Mears explained, would be taught by anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians who would concentrate "upon the two major transmutations in the development of the human community."  One, physical and cultural development of Homo sapiens sapiens and secondly the Agricultural and Urban Revolutions.  This course would cover time several million years ago to about 3000 BCE.

     Mears wraps up his core curriculum with a fourth and final course taught by "historians and social scientists charged with presenting humanity's experience within civilized societies."  Dr. Mears claims that this framework, which David Christian would call Big History, would provide students with "a sense of the seminal phases in the development of the universe, the earth, and the human community, as currently understood through scholarly investigation."5 John A. Mears' proposed Big History curriculum, one also championed by Fred Spier, Alfred Crosby, Jared Diamond, Fernand Braudel, David Christian, Cynthia Stokes-Brown, Craig Benjamin, and others, leans toward a university curriculum, but AP World History courses are to serve as the equivalent of a freshman university course. How can AP World History teachers incorporate Big History into their courses?  Hopefully, the definitions and websites below will offer some ideas and techniques.

Big History: A Definition by Alexander Moddejonge

     I asked Alexander Moddejonge, California State University, San Marcos, already noted for his micro-historical study of skateboarding in California,6 to provide a definition of Big History. His reply follows:7

     "Summarizing that very simple question is pretty complex because big history has so many sides. At the surface big history is a coherent study of the whole of the past at the largest possible scale: the scale of the universe. It is a narrative of time (now thought to be 13.7 billion years) told chronologically using the most up-to-date array of interdisciplinary tools, from cosmology, geology, and biology to anthropology, sociology, economics, political science, and traditional historical studies. Gravity is used as big history's principle explanation for its chief mode of organization: emergent properties of complexity. Complexity is defined as something new in the timeline of the universe that is inherently more rare, more fragile, and controls more energy flows than anything that has come before (stars were more rare than the vacuum of space, humans are more fragile than stars, etc.). And these complex structures emerge through the force of gravity pulling together different elements to create the new formation (gravity pulls together hydrogen and helium to create the first stars, social gravity pulls together people to create the first cities, etc.). Every time a new layer of complexity is reached a new layer of the story is revealed and the scales of big history are tightened. They descend from the base scale of the universe—the scale from which every other scale is compared—and star formation (the solar system); to the planetary scale: the formation of Earth, complex chemical reactions, the emergence of life, the emergence of multi-cellular organisms; to human history: the evolution of humans, the emergence of "collective learning, the emergence of domestication (of fire, plants, and animals), and the settlement of all the continents (except Antarctica); to world history: the emergence of states; and finally global history: the continuing "modern revolution. What's complicated here is confusing scales with new thresholds, and the best way of thinking about them is probably David Christian's analogy of the Russian Matryoshka dolls that fit into each other, with the largest representing both the scale of the universe and the threshold of the Big Bang, and the smallest representing the comparatively tiny scale of the "modern revolution (effectively the last two or three centuries) in both time and space. Fred Spier uses the term regime as a way to describe these relationships. Also important is showing how the scales interact. How does star formation impact life? How does collective learning impact the modern revolution? This is one of the continuing challenges facing big history's attempt at coherence. Another way of thinking about big history is that it's a historical theory of everything that works from the top-down (as opposed to a historical façade of microhistories from the bottom-up). It is the view that reality can be best understood by consulting a world map to better understand a regional or street map. Big history does not aim to displace traditional histories; rather it seeks to encompass of them (again, like the Matryoshka dolls). In this way, big history is a modern form of the universal histories. Those histories have their origins in the writings of historians of the era of ancient agrarian empires, such as Augustine and Sima Quan, through medieval authors like Ibn Kaldun and the Venerable Bede, to Voltaire, Hegel, Marx, and lastly H.G. Wells' Outline of History (note the similarly titled Maps of Time). What all these authors had in common with big history was a linear view of the progression of time that was always progressing toward something higher: the unfolding of God's will, the spirit of man, the historical dialectic, etc. Big history does away with value judgments about progress and inserts the idea of complexity in their place. This is a view of history that is in stark contrast to the cyclical model of time found in many traditional societies, and in the work of more recent world historians, notably Oswald Spenlger and Arnold Toynbee. Or if you like, it's like the difference between Big Bang cosmology and the Steady State Theory. Big history could not exist without the beginning (and likely end) of the universe provided by the Big Bang. If Big Bang cosmology is correct then time really is as straight as an arrow.

     "This leads to the question of why big history emerged in the last twenty years. It's emergence from world history and environmental history is obvious—and both William McNeill and Alfred Crosby have gone as far as declaring big history the future of their respective areas. Then there are the scientific breakthroughs of the twentieth century which underpin it. The Chronometric Revolution has (since radiocarbon dating in the 1950s) created a means for putting date to objects beyond traditional documents; discovering DNA allowed biologist to understand the story of life; the theory of plate tectonics allowed geologists to understand the history of the earth; and, once again, Big Bang cosmology provided a theory for the evolution of the universe. These breakthroughs amount to the discovery of time, and were written about as early as the 1970s with the appearance of Preston Cloud's Cosmos, Earth, and Man (1978). At this point physicists, geologists, paleontologists, and biologists were writing this story of "pre-history (deep history). Big historians believe an overhauled historical discipline—with historians educated in modern scientific knowledge—will be best equipped to confront this deep history. Structural breakthroughs like specialization, free exchanges of information, and the development of rapid communications technology (notably the internet) provides a data pool making it possible for individuals to synthesize these diverse and complicated materials.

     "Then there are the some of the trends of the post-Cold War-era, such as globalization/cosmopolitanism, environmentalism, and secularism. The first is very similar to what world history does, going beyond the "artificial constraints of the national narrative and turning history into a kind of window to the past showing a global whole. The second puts human history in the context of environmental history. In other words, the human interaction with the biosphere is, on the human and planetary scale, the most important aspect of the human role in the big history story. Human impact on the environment has been one of increasing control over energy flows at the expense of all other species and indeed other chemical processes. The resulting mass extinctions and ecological transformations associated with this phenomenon make human history important on a planetary scale because of the resulting distinctive changes in the biosphere. The environmental aspect is also the most explicitly political characteristic of big history, leading to an implicit call for collective, international cooperation to create a modern human regime that is sustainable in conjunction with the biosphere.

     "Secularism dovetails into the use of big history as a "modern creation myth or "scientific creation story to either supplement or supplant traditional creation stories. This is designed to fulfill a pragmatic psychological need just as transnational cosmopolitanism fulfills a post-national political desire for community.

     "Finally, it is the accelerated change of the twentieth century which has allowed people to see radical change before their very eyes. As one example, my 93 year-old grandmother lived the first thirty-five years of her life on a farm in Wyoming with no electricity, no running water, and no telephone. Today she lives in a retirement community with all those things, plus air conditioning and a computer (not to mention all the medical breakthroughs that prolonged her life). This visible accelerated change, within one human life, makes the conceptual challenges that underlie the scales of big history comprehensible.

On-Line Big History Articles and related Websites:
David Christian's "Case for Big History."
Fred Spier Big History site.  Thanks to graduate student Alex Moddejonge, California
State University, San Marcos.
David Christian's 2005 Lecture at Lincoln, Nebraska with power point
slides on Big History.
2002 NY Times article on Christian's Big History and other "Big History thinkers"
and writers like Alfred Crosby (Ecological Imperialism:  The Biological Expansion of
Europe 900-1900), Jared Diamond, France's Fernand Braudel (geology and climate).
University of Amsterdam Big History on research and links pages
on left of Home Page......;col1
Nicholas Doumanis, "History writ large," Australian Journal of Politics and History,
March 2005 is a long article on the power of Big History and it's historians.
Thinking Meat Blog offers thoughts on David Christian's Big History and offers a link
to astrophysicist Erik Chaisson's webpage.
A twelve page pdf on Big History
Advertisement and other material on David Christian's Maps of Time.
Advertisement and other material on Cynthia Stokes Brown's, "Big History:  From the Big Bang to the Present."
EH-NET review of Maps of Time
Big History defined.

Big History on Facebook with Big History syllabus

Practitioners of Big History with biographies

*          *          *

Big History videos and lesson plans:
File Format: Microsoft Powerpoint - View as HTML

     These sites offer Slideshare and Power Point on Industrial Revolution and Big History and a comparative look at how historians view the Industrial Revolution with a special
look at David Christian's Big History point of view, viz., This Fleeting World (2008): How does the David Christian "represent the Industrial Revolution? . . .of our sessions before; who is currently teaching the content expectations, etc . . .for blocking out lessons, using and finding resources . . .
Teaching Company video, audio tapes on David Christian's "Big History."
Two movie clips on Cosmic Evolution and Big History from
Berkshire Publishing 2 Lesson plans on "This Fleeting World," (2008) and Big History.  First is by Tim Mulvehill, Robert A. Millikan High, Long Beach Calif. and the second lesson is by Michael Hill, San Diego State University. Thanks to Karen Christianson at Berkshire Publishing.
Wm. McNeill Video clip on "Big History."  Thanks to Karen Christianson at Berkshire Publishing.
World History For Us All great site (San Diego State University) Lesson unit on Geography and Time referencing David Christian's Maps of Time.
"Origins" or Big History teaching curriculum ideas for US and Australian schools by David Christian.  (9 pp. pdf)
How to make your "local History" Global—World History Connected

How to teach Big Ideas in World History class by David Chadwell of

South Carolina.
New York Unit of Big Ideas in Teaching World/Global History and Geography.

Bigthink website....short video clips on all types of topics.

Flow of History website by Chris Butler, University High School in Urbana, Illinois.

John Maunu is an Advanced Placement and College Board World History consultant and currently teaches AP World and AP European history at Grosse Ile High School in Michigan. He can be contacted at



1See David Christian's "Case for Big History" at Accessed September 1, 2009.

2 John A. Mears, "Evolutionary Process:  An Organizing Principle for General Education, in JGE:  The Journal of General Education, Vol. 37, No. 4 (1986), pp. 314-320.

3 The author wishes to extend his thanks to Jerry Bentley, David Christian, Craig Benjamin, Alex Moddejonge, and Marc Gilbert for guidance and support for this article.

4 Mears, "Evolutionary Process, p. 314.

5 Mears, "Evolutionary Process, p. 319-320).

6 See "The Past Catches Up with Skateboarding, The Los Angeles Times May 27, 2008 at Accessed on September 1, 2009.

7 The following appears by the permission of the author.



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