Take Big History: A Free Short Course on 13.8 Billion Years of History, Funded by Bill Gates

Last month, The New York Times Mag­a­zine pub­lished a long piece called “So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a His­to­ry Class …”, which begins with these very words:

In 2008, short­ly after Bill Gates stepped down from his exec­u­tive role at Microsoft, he often awoke in his 66,000-square-foot home on the east­ern bank of Lake Wash­ing­ton and walked down­stairs to his pri­vate gym in a bag­gy T‑shirt, shorts, sneak­ers and black socks yanked up to the mid­calf. Then, dur­ing an hour on the tread­mill, Gates, a self-described nerd, would pass the time by watch­ing DVDs from the Teach­ing Company’s “Great Cours­es” series. On some morn­ings, he would learn about geol­o­gy or mete­o­rol­o­gy; on oth­ers, it would be oceanog­ra­phy or U.S. his­to­ry.

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.

Cap­ti­vat­ed by Dr. Chris­tian’s abil­i­ty to con­nect big and com­plex ideas, Gates thought to him­self, “God, every­body should watch this thing!” And, soon enough, the phil­an­thropist con­tact­ed the pro­fes­sor and sug­gest­ed mak­ing “Big His­to­ry” avail­able as a course in high schools across the US (with Bill foot­ing the bill.)

In 2011 the Big His­to­ry Project, a course with a sig­nif­i­cant dig­i­tal com­po­nent, was pilot­ed in five high schools. Now, a few years lat­er, it’s being made freely avail­able, says the Times, “to more than 15,000 stu­dents in some 1,200 schools, from the Brook­lyn School for Col­lab­o­ra­tive Stud­ies in New York to Green­hills School in Ann Arbor, Mich., to Gates’s alma mater, Lake­side Upper School in Seat­tle. And if all goes well, the Big His­to­ry Project will be intro­duced in hun­dreds of more class­rooms by next year and hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, more the year after that, scal­ing along toward the vision Gates first expe­ri­enced on that tread­mill.”

Why do I tell you this? Part­ly because the Big His­to­ry Project is open to you as well. On the Big His­to­ry web­site, you will find a pub­lic course, offer­ing a four-to-six hour tour of Big His­to­ry. It’s an abbre­vi­at­ed intro­duc­tion to 13.8 bil­lion years of his­to­ry. I could think of less effi­cient ways to spend an after­noon.

After you’re done, if you want to fill in a few gaps, don’t miss our col­lec­tion: 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties. It cov­ers his­to­ry, biol­o­gy, physics and all of the rest.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The His­to­ry of the World in 46 Lec­tures From Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty

Free Down­load of The His­to­ry Man­i­festo: His­to­ri­ans New Call for Big-Pic­ture Think­ing

Down­load 78 Free Online His­to­ry Cours­es: From Ancient Greece to The Mod­ern World

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