If you don’t understand big history, you’ll never understand small history. That idea hasn’t yet attained aphorism status, but maybe we can get it there. Last month, we featured a free, Bill Gates-funded short course on 13.8 billion years of “Big History”. Back in 2012, we featured well-known online educator (and now even better-known young adult novelist) John Green’s Crash Course on World History. Now these worlds, or rather these histories of the world, have collided in the form of Crash Course Big History, a web series “in which John Green, Hank Green, and Emily Graslie teach you about, well, everything.” In true fashion of the biggest possible history, the Crash Course crew begins at the beginning — the real beginning, the Big Bang, which the first fifteen-minute episode gets into above.
“Mr. Green! Mr. Green!” exclaims Green at himself, momentarily taking on his signature secondary pushy-student persona. “That’s not history, that’s science.” Returning to his cool-professor persona, Green lays it out for himself: “Academics often describe history as, like, all stuff that’s happened since we started writing things down, but they only start there because that’s where we have the best information. The advent of writing was a huge deal, obviously, but as a start date for history, it’s totally arbitrary. It’s just a line we drew in the sand and said, ‘Okay, history begins now!'” In order to push that line as far back as possible, history must fuse with science, allowing the study of the past to best incorporate and contextualize all it can about (and students of Green had to know he would quote Douglas Adams on this) “Life, the Universe, and Everything.”
Seven episodes in and underway right now, Crash Course Big History has gone on to cover not just the universe, but the sun and the Earth, the emergence of life, the epic of evolution, and how that process produced humans. Having arrived at the appearance of Homo sapiens, Green and company cover, in the freshly released seventh episode, the process of “humanity conquering the Earth. Or at least moving from Africa into the rest of the Earth,” going on to reach “a critical mass of innovators” and develop “collective learning.” And amid the grand sweep of planetary movement, evolution, and mass migration, we continue to find new ways to collectively learn all the time — of which the Crash Courses represent only one particularly entertaining variety.
You can watch future Crash Course Big History videos by following this playlist on Youtube. It’s also worth mentioning that Bill Gates has helped fund these Crash Course videos, just as he has helped fund the larger Big History Project mentioned in our previous post.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.