Cynthia Stokes Brown, a professor and popular author, explains how she came to write about Big History in this episode of Berkshire Bookworld. Big History is the study of how we all got here, from the Big Bang to the present day, and Cynthia has written and coauthored three books on the subject, including a textbook she wrote with David Christian and Craig Benjamin.
In this podcast, you’ll find out why her new book, Big History, Small World: From the Big Bang to You, published by Berkshire, is different, and why Cynthia has devoted herself to teaching this biggest of all histories. Big History, Small World is designed for those completely new to the subject, not only high school students but any reader who wants to know more about how we got here and what we know about the challenges that face all of us, across the globe, in the twenty-first century. We’ll be back with Cynthia next week to discuss how to bring big history into the classroom.
Length: 21 minutes.
Cynthia Stokes Brown has taught world history in high-school and trained high-school teachers at Dominican University of California, where she piloted big history courses and helped initiate the big history program now required for all freshmen. She is the author of the general-interest book on big history, Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present (New York: New Press, 2nd ed. 2012) and also wrote a university-level textbook with David Christian and Craig Benjamin, Big History: Between Nothing and Everything (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2014). She is a founding member of the International Big History Association and associate editor of its publication, Origins.
Karen Christensen is the chief executive officer and founder of Berkshire Publishing Group and a writer specializing in sustainability and community with a focus on China. One of her recent projects was coediting Women and Leadership: History, Concepts, and Case Studies (A Berkshire Essential) with George R. Goethals and Crystal L. Hoyt of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond.
Transcript: An Introduction to Big History
This text has been lightly edited for clarity and ease of use.
Host: Karen Christensen
Interviewee: Cynthia Stokes Brown
KAREN: Cynthia, thanks so much for agreeing to talk to us about Big History and, in particular, about your new book Big History, Small World. You got into Big History long before it became popular. Can you explain why it so grabbed you?
CYNTHIA: Well, of course, I would have to tell you my whole life story to answer your question.
KAREN: Oh, do. Do. [laughs]
CYNTHIA: But I’ll try to do it in a nutshell. My mother was a high school biology teacher and she understood and believed in evolution. We lived in a small western Kentucky town and probably she was the only person in town who really believed in evolution.
KAREN: Oh! That’s quite a story.
CYNTHIA: Well, I maybe exaggerated but I certainly didn’t know anybody else who did. So I’d installed that whole perspective and that framework for my thinking. So in high school, I thought I would be a scientist, following my mother. But when I got to college, I discovered that I was really good in history. I won the freshman prize in history, to my great surprise. So I majored in history and I realized that it included everything, including the history of science. And I have always wanted to be a generalist. I didn’t want to give up on any discipline. So I got a credential in teaching and I taught world history for a couple of years in high school until I got my PhD in History of Education. And I had a twenty-year career as a trainer of high school teachers. The program was small, so I taught a curriculum course to all the student teachers across all the disciplines. And I supervised everybody across all the disciplines. I watched how disconnected the teachers presented the knowledge
KAREN: That’s what I wanted to know. What does that mean? What were you doing? So you were watching teachers and helping them work together? Or was it by discipline?
CYNTHIA: It was by discipline because that’s how the curriculum is organized. [inaudible-00:04:02] So I would watch my student teacher. I would be the supervisor and then I would give him or her feedback on how they were doing. And, say, that was a biology class and then the next teacher might be a music teacher or a history teacher.
KAREN: I see.
CYNTHIA: And none of the classes connected with each other. The students couldn’t connect to that and the teachers couldn’t either. And that just made me aware of how it wouldn’t make the sense to students because they could be taking a biology course and learning about human reproduction and not even realize what it was.
CYNTHIA: Or they could be learning about evolution and the teacher might not use the word because it is such a controversial word. And so they could come up, you know—it just didn’t make any sense. On the big scale, all we were getting were little facts that didn’t fit in to any big framework. So I was aware of [inaudible-00:05:10]. And then twenty-five years ago, in 1991, I read in The Journal of World History an article by a professor down in Sydney, Australia who was teaching a course called Big History. He was starting with the Big Bang and coming up to the present, and he was inviting a specialist from each of the fields to come in and give a lecture since he didn’t feel he could do the whole thing itself yet. When I put that article down, I knew that my life had changed, that that’s what I wanted to do too.
KAREN: Just reading that article, that’s where it began? Alright.
CYNTHIA: Because I was so aware of the problem.
KAREN: Yes. So just the things—it clicked immediately.
CYNTHIA: And later, you know, a few years later—I think it was 1998, E. O. Wilson wrote that book, Consilience.
CYNTHIA: And he urged that that there should be some synthesis of science and humanity. And the whole book was urging us to do that. I got a little annoyed. I said: “Aside from telling us to do this, why doesn’t he just do it?” [laughs]
CYNTHIA: And of course the next part was, well, why don’t I just do it? [crosstalk]
KAREN: And you decided to just do everything? Because the thing I’ve been thinking about lately is Big History really is all about everything.
CYNTHIA: It is.
KAREN: Which is probably how I’m going to start explaining to people why it is called Big History—because it is all about everything.
CYNTHIA: I think people get scared because they think it is about every single detail that they ever had to memorize.
CYNTHIA: And for me, it is not that. Because I’m not very good at details. I’d like to leave the details out and save the bigger picture. But that’s what Big History is for me. You can use a few details to [inaudible-00:07:09] illustrate a point, but [inaudible-00:07:10] that detail is not that important.
KAREN: Yeah. Well, I am thrilled to say that you have just written a book that Berkshire will be publishing very soon. It is your third book on Big History, in fact. Can you tell us please about the other two and then what drew you back to the subject? Why did you write it? Why are we publishing Big History, Small World?
CYNTHIA: Well, that’s a good question. It is peculiar to have written three books about the same topic, but since it is such a big topic [inaudible-00:07:45]. My first book I wrote after I began teaching a Big History course, and I didn’t have a textbook to use.
KAREN: So you started teaching it before you wrote the book.
CYNTHIA: Yes, I did.
KAREN: I see.
CYNTHIA: [inaudible-00:08:06] I was inspired by the course in Sydney, Australia. And I don’t think I have mentioned that it was David Christian who was that professor doing that down in Australia. Two years later, I managed to start teaching a course at Dominican University of California where I was a professor. It was a world history course, and I didn’t tell anybody about what I was doing. I just added some of the Big Bang to humans at the beginning of the course, and the students loved it. I didn’t have a textbook. David Christian was writing his, but it hadn’t come out yet. So I began writing in order to provide a textbook for myself, really, basically that was it. I published it as a general book rather than textbook. I did make sure that it had thirteen chapters so for anybody who wanted to use it as textbook, it would fit into one semester. [laughs]
CYNTHIA: But I wanted to tell the story in an engaging way so that people would just read it, you know, and keep turning the pages. So that was the first book, and it did very well. Then more people began teaching Big History at the college level, and there was a need for a college level textbook, a real textbook. So David Christian, Craig Benjamin, and I wrote that together. So that was my second book. And that, of course, was really exciting to get to work with two other people.
KAREN: Yeah. Two wonderful, wonderful people.
CYNTHIA: Wonderful teachers, wonderful people. That was the lifetime high for sure. So what drew me back for another book after that? I had a chance to write some essays for a high school Big History curriculum and that’s a whole long story but I’ll try to tell it quickly. David Christian made Teaching Company tapes about Big History, and Bill Gates watched them while he was exercising on his exercycle, and he got all excited about Big History. He asked David to make a proposal for teaching it the ninth grade level because Bill Gates felt that was the level—well, he wished he could have found it. It would have given him a framework for all of his studies. And so that actually has happened; it is called the Big History Project. It is an online curriculum for the ninth or tenth graders. I think it is the best curriculum that’s ever been developed, and they asked me to write quite a few essays for it. I had such a wonderful time writing that it was as if my tenth-grade teaching voice came back, and it was easy to do. I love talking with tenth graders. I knew that the Big History Project didn’t really want a book. They felt that the online curriculum is much better because they are technology people. That is one reason I think so. But also, they thought it was much easier to keep up-to-date, which is certainly true. But I wanted to write a book, and I thought, well, maybe there are few people out there who might need to have a book just to go along with the online curriculum. So that’s where the project originated.
KAREN: So it was the fact that you can really visualize that ninth- or tenth-grade reader. You know them. So writing for that age group is something that is comfortable for you. So how do you approach the story of Big History in this new telling? And in fact, the question I have, because I think it is a question that any listener will have, is: What is Big History? Why is it called that? I mean apart from the fact that we’ve said it is about everything, but what does it mean?
CYNTHIA: Well, it is the story of everything that we know about, and it is told on the biggest scales. It is not all the little details but it is looking at—it is like going up on a mountain and looking down on what you can see below. In this case it is more like going into a space station and looking down on the planet and seeing it in the context of the solar system and the cosmos. So it is telling the stories from the Big Bang, not only up to the present but actually projecting into the future because the biggest trends can be presented in a way that the details can’t. The story is based on empirical evidence, so it is basically a scientific story based on scientific evidence and scholarly method. People have always tried to do it. It used to be called Universal History when Toynbee and Spengler were trying to do it. You know that every culture has origin stories, trying to tell about the whole world and how we fit into it. So the problem was that scientific knowledge wasn’t really there to be able to do it until the ’70s. There were no reliable data about to the age of primates or the age of the cosmos.
KAREN: I see. So we can tell it with more accuracy and confidence.
KAREN: Now, one of the things that you and I had discussed a great deal was what the subtitle of the book should be. So we came up with Big History, Small World quite quickly and struggled with the subtitle. And we now are calling it From The Big Bang To You. You really wanted to have “You” in the title, didn’t you? But why “You”?
CYNTHIA: Because in this new book, one of the things I wanted to do was to bring it directly into the students’ lives and help them understand how Big History is relevant to them and how understanding it helps them understand themselves in a major way.
KAREN: Can you give me an example of that?
CYNTHIA: Well, in each chapter, at the end of the chapter, I bring the contents of that chapter down to where they are. I’m not sure—I’m terrible at remembering details but, for instance, in a chapter about elements, you know, how the elements are created from the stars, and I discussed what percentage of each element is present in a human body.
KAREN: Yes. So…
CYNTHIA: And so that the actual composition of their bodies was created in explosions of stars.
KAREN: [laughs] It’s one of the things that environmentalists, people working on environmental sustainability, talk about, how to help people understand that they are part of the natural world, to feel they are in connection with it. It seems like you are trying to make us—students, the readers, and the general readers like me who will enjoy the book—understand that we’re connected in part of the universe, which is a new perspective.
CYNTHIA: Well, the universe is the natural world, isn’t it? Of course, we are the natural world.
KAREN: Yeah. You did bring up the fact that Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, has become a considerable proponent of Big History and founded the Big History Project with David Christian. And Big History, this concept, seems to be quite popular with the tech community. Can you explain the appeal?
CYNTHIA: Well, probably not very well because I’m not part of the tech community but one reason is that the technology helps us envision all this knowledge. It is just so exciting to put it into visual terms technologically. You know there’s a program called ChronoZoom that can make timelines of cosmic history for 13 billion years and can zoom in and out very easily.
KAREN: Yes. I saw that when I visited Berkeley actually.
CYNTHIA: Yeah. It is just so much easier to visualize history on a larger scale by using technology. But then I think the other reason is that young people and they are [inaudible-00:17:26]. They need to understand the world that we’re in and the challenges that we’re facing, and Big History helps them understand that.
KAREN: I think that that’s one of the really important points we want to make as we talk to people about this topic and in particular about your book Big History, Small World because it is relevant to our concerns today. It is history, but it is history that really touches on all kinds of things that are affecting our lives and our futures. So my last question is: what matters to you most right now that you’re doing in bringing this book out and talking to people about Big History? What’s on your mind?
CYNTHIA: Well, thanks for asking that question. You know I care about a lot of things on different scales but on the global scale, I think I care most about everyone on the planet having an option to learn the story. It’s almost like it is a human birthright to have access to all the knowledge that humanity has [inaudible-00:18:40] and access in a simple form that can be understood by everybody, whatever their level of education or not. So I want this story to be accessible from pre-nursery all the way through senior centers so that everybody can learn it. I just think it is so helpful in understanding where we are and what we need to do. So I guess my ultimate sharing is that we, humans, behave heroically and cooperatively as we face the challenges ahead and not degenerate into some of the things we can imagine might happen.
KAREN: Again, things that we can learn from history.
CYNTHIA: Exactly. And I think the Big History story really is helpful in helping us to do that.
KAREN: Terrific. Well, thank you very much indeed, Cynthia, for talking to us about Big History, Small World and about your most fascinating career. I’m really glad to know where you came from too. So thanks very much for that.
[00:19:57 – End of Interview]