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Vol. 41, No. 3, July 2012
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Recent Developments in Big History

by Craig Benjamin (Grand Valley State University)

The field of Big History has been around for close to twenty years, and is currently being practiced as a coherent form of research and teaching by hundreds of historians, physicists, geologists, biologists, and anthropologists at institutions around the world. Over the past few years Big History has been increasing its academic profile through a variety of new media programs and publications, innovations in pedagogy, and through the establishment of the International Big History Association. This article offers a brief overview of some of these developments, including the organization of the first ever Big History conference, to be held at Grand Valley State University later this year.

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Developments in Media, Technology and Publishing—Media and technology organizations have been at the forefront of many of these recent developments in the field. David Christian (one of the pioneers of the field and the coiner of the name 'Big History') recorded a Big History course for The Teaching Company in 2008, which proved to be one of the best sellers in that company's Great Courses series. This course is the medium through which Bill Gates discovered Big History. Christian was subsequently featured in a 2011 TED talk where he was introduced by Gates personally; and was an invited delegate to the February 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos. Both Christian and Fred Spier presented papers at a 2011 international symposium convened by Al Gore in 2011 titled "Drivers of Global Change." All members of the Board of the International Big History Association were featured guests at the 2012 Global Futures 2045 Conference held in Moscow in March 2012. The History Channel has also developed an interest in Big History, and recently aired a program titled "A History of the World in Two Hours," which featured several well-known Big Historians.

Microsoft Research has also demonstrated a commitment to Big History through their development of the ChronoZoom interactive timeline tool. The ChronoZoom developers have worked closely with the Big History community to develop a tool to aid student comprehension of time relationships between events, trends and themes; and also a well-organized database of relevant digital information to facilitate Big History research. After ChronoZoom has been fully developed, Microsoft intends to make the technology freely available worldwide.

Publishers have also been showing an increasing interest in Big History. Recent books include Berkshire's This Fleeting World by David Christian; Wiley-Blackwell's Big History and the Future of Humanity by Fred Spier; and McGraw-Hill's forthcoming publication of the first ever text book in the field, Big History: From Nothing to Everything authored by David Christian, Cynthia Brown, and Craig Benjamin.

Developments in Pedagogy—Big History continues to expand as a coherent undergraduate course at universities around the world. One recent development at the university level has been the establishment of Big History as a mandatory general education course for all incoming first-year students at the Dominican University of California. Not only is this the first institution anywhere in the world to make Big History a required course, but Dominican's program is also the first to be offered as a cohesive two-semester sequence rather than a single-semester course. As Director of General Education and the First Year Experience program Mojgan Behmand puts it, "We have expanded on the Big History concept in order to develop a course sequence that emphasizes the students' critical and creative thinking and helps students think about the future of humanity as a species on our planet." (Mojgan Behmand, Dominican University of California First Year Big History Experience: http://www.dominican.edu/dominicannews/first-year-experience-focuses-on-big-history.)

Big History is also emerging as a viable course of instruction in secondary schools, through the development of the Bill Gates-supported Big History Project. The Seattle-based Big History Project team has designed a course for 9th or 10th grade students that uses a web-based instructional model to ensure that content will always remain up-to-date, to relieve schools of the need for expensive textbooks, and to help teachers engage students with media-rich materials that can be used in different ways. During the 2011–12 school year the course has been piloted at a number of high schools in Australia and the USA. In 2012–13 the pilot will be expanded to some 40 schools; and by 2013–14 the course will be made freely available to schools worldwide.

Establishment of the International Big History Association—The last and perhaps most important recent development in terms of the long-term sustainability of the field is the establishment of the International Big History Association (IBHA). This grew out of an August 2010 meeting at the Geological Observatory at Coldigioco in Italy. The Big Historians who met at Coldigioco were David Christian of Macquarie University in Sydney (Australia), Fred Spier of the University of Amsterdam (Netherlands), Walter Alvarez of the University of California at Berkeley (USA), Craig Benjamin of Grand Valley State University in Michigan (USA), Cynthia Brown of Dominican University in California (USA), Lowell Gustafson of Villanova University in Pennsylvania (USA), and Barry Rodrigue of the University of Southern Maine (USA). Also in attendance were Pamela Benjamin, Gina Giandomenico and Penelope Markle who constituted an advisory committee; representatives of the Big History Project and the Microsoft ChronoZoom Project; and graduate geology students from the University of California, Berkeley.

The Big Historians in attendance formally constituted themselves as a provisional executive committee and voted to establish the International Big History Association, and to hold the first ever international Big History conference in 2012 (later decided to be held at Grand Valley University, Michigan, USA). The embryonic IBHA was fortunate to receive a start-up grant from Microsoft External Research, which facilitated the convening of the first formal meeting of the IBHA Board at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in January 2011. At this meeting the By-Laws and Articles of Association were constituted and accepted; and an offer from the administration of GVSU to provide an office and assistance for the IBHA to be based at GVSU was accepted. Subsequent meetings of the IBHA Board were held in Beijing (in conjunction with the World History Association Annual Conference which featured a significant Big History component, July 2011); and Moscow (in conjunction with the Global Futures 2045 Conference, which also featured significant Big History input, February 2012). The IBHA has published a formal mission statement: "The International Big History Association (IBHA) exists to promote the unified and interdisciplinary study and teaching of the history of Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity."

At the time of this writing, the Board of the IBHA consists of David Christian (President); Fred Spier (Vice-President); Lowell Gustafson (Secretary); Craig Benjamin (Treasurer); Barry Rodrigue (International Coordinator); and Board Members Walter Alvarez, Cynthia Brown, Eric Chaisson, Kathy Schick, Esther Quaedackers and Joseph Voros. In August 2011 the Global Institute for Big History was established within the Brooks College for Interdisciplinary Studies at Grand Valley State University. The GIBH now functions as the head office for the IBHA, and employs an office administrator to manage IBHA affairs. Membership of the IBHA has grown to around 260 (with members coming from a wide range of disciplines and interests); and the first International Big History Association Conference will be held at GVSU between 2 and 5 August 2012.

Conclusion—This brief overview suggests that Big History is poised for continued expansion as a research and teaching field, and has the potential to make a significant contribution to education and public discourse at all levels. Those of us deeply committed to the field are hopeful of the eventual widespread introduction of Big History into high school and university programs around the world. We are convinced of the genuine pedagogical and societal gains to be made by making Big History the cornerstone of general education programs. The evidence collected over the past two decades has shown that by exposing the leaders of the future to Big History, students learn to use the tools of interdisciplinarity and critical thinking on a macro scale to conceptualize and think about real solutions to the great problems of our times. The future of humanity might well depend on facilitating the acquisition of these skills through widespread Big History education and research.

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