Frank Furedi

Sociologist, commentator and author of Culture of Fear, Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?, Paranoid Parenting, Therapy Culture, and On Tolerance: In Defence of Moral Independence.

Moral of ‘big history’ is that environment trumps people
One of the ways that nations express their uncertainties and inner conflicts is through offering competing versions of their past.

As recent arguments over the status of Australia’s history in the school curriculum indicate, there are significant differences in the way that the nation’s cultural legacy and past are viewed in public life. Former prime minister John Howard highlighted these tensions when he condemned the Gillard government’s history curriculum as “unbalanced” for purging it of “our Western heritage”. He in turn was criticised for adopting a narrow nationalist and conservative interpretation of Australia’s past.

The debate between Howard and his critics raises important questions about how Australia perceives its cultural legacy and understands itself as a nation. Whatever one thinks about the arguments advanced by Howard and the promoters of the new curriculum, at least both present a view of the past where history assigns a central role to humanity.

That is far more than can be said about the recently invented “big history” syllabus, which claims to offer a universal perspective of the past. The promoters of this syllabus insist the study of the past should not be promoted through the prism of national cultures and that what matters is the story of the planet rather than that of humanity. So big history is hostile not only to a national interpretation of the past but also to a human-centric one.

Although only two Australian schools are involved in the piloting of big history, the syllabus is backed by an influential movement supported by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates.

The syllabus is very much of the moment. It resonates with the present misanthropic zeitgeist that is obsessed with the natural environment and regards the human-created one with deep suspicion. Its ambition is to convert schools throughout the world to its approach to the past.

No doubt the authors of this syllabus are motivated by the impulse of reforming the way children think about their past. However, whatever the aim of this syllabus, its effect will be to revolutionise the way schoolchildren think about the past through distancing them from their cultural legacy.

The author of this syllabus, David Christian, contends that what it offers is a story that transcends the nation-state and covers humanity as whole. He says in his course “you encounter humans not as Americans or Germans or Russians or Nigerians but as members of a single, genetically homogeneous, species, Homo sapiens”. However, his reduction of humanity to a biological species speaks to an imagination that has become estranged from civilisation, culture and community.

That is why human beings have a limited and undistinguished status in this syllabus. As Christian argues, humans are “only part of the picture” in his vision of history.

It is necessary to note that Christian’s project is not about universal history. A truly universal history would have as its focus the significant human accomplishments that bind together people of different cultures. Rather than focusing on the biological and chemical make-up of a species, a universal history would look at the way different civilisations evolved, interacted and developed, and dealt with the shared challenges confronting mankind.

The authors of this project claim to offer a shared global discipline. But what is shared are not historical but natural inheritances. This is a synthesis of what was once called natural history with environmentalist ideology.

Not surprisingly, its emphasis is on environmental factors, particularly the influence of geology and climate. From this perspective history is made by occurrences such as the big bang and climate change, and human beings are reduced to a minor, rather undistinguished role in the making of their world.

The lengthy timescale of big history - 13.7 billion years from the big bang - speaks to an imagination that relegates human accomplishment to a minor footnote. That is why in this syllabus, the human species does not make an appearance until well into the course. The assignment of a marginal role to humans in the making of their world is at the centre of environmentalist ideology. The timescale around which this story is constructed is an integral part of this ideology because the further you go back in time, - the more insignificant is the role of human beings relative to that of nature.

These accounts continually conclude on the same point, which is that although the Earth has existed for about 4.5 billion years, Homo sapiens have been on this planet for barely a couple of hundred thousand years. The moral of this story is that human beings should be more aware of their own insignificance as a species. In a history that allegedly spans billions of years, people do not create or cause anything of great significance. In such a story humans are reduced to the passive role of watching the climate change and hearing earthquakes erupt. Instead of serving as history’s subject, people are transformed into its objects.

Indoctrinating children with such a passive version of human destiny is unlikely to encourage the opening up of young minds.

It makes perfect sense in teaching geography to move back in time when volcanoes and asteroids changed and ruled the world. Physics pupils need to know about theories to do with the big bang, and those studying biology require a knowledge of the evolution of the human species. What they also need is what big history devalues, which is an understanding of human history.

There is no doubt that history can and should be taught in a variety of ways. But whatever the strategy pursued, young people need to know about the experience of their community and nation. Australian children must be able understand the influences from the past that shape their life today. They also have to be exposed to the cultural legacy of their ancestors and the best that humanity offers. It is that which will give them the foundation for going forward in the future.

First published by The Australian, 8 November 2012