Friday, May 1, 2009

Big History: The Teaching Company

by Michael Dowd
Recently, after I delivered a Sunday program at a church in Savannah, GA, one of the attendees asked, "When is this perspective going to be available as a college course?" I excitedly told him, "It already is. Get David Christian's Big History course from The Teaching Company website. There's no better articulation of the arrow of cosmic complexity in existence. It's the best of the best!"

For a decade and a half, The Teaching Company has made available to the public (via DVD, CD, and audiotape) college-level courses taught by some of the best professors in the world. Connie and I have watched or listened to quite a few of these courses over the years, and we have loved them all. But none more so than the program we are listening to now: Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity, taught by David Christian, author of Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. The book is very good, and I recommend it. But the course is an absolute must!

One of my favorite quotes from Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams' excellent book, The View From the Center of the Universe, is this:

Without a meaningful, believable story that explains the world we actually live in, people have no idea how to think about the big picture. And without a big picture, we are very small people.
IMHO, no one paints the big picture—the grand epic of cosmic, Earth, biological, and human history—more elegantly than David Christian.

Here's what The Teaching Company's top contributor (the highest ranked reviewer on their site) had to say:

Christian was a pioneer of big history, and is still a leader in the field, if not THE leader. TTC and its customers are therefore incredibly fortunate to have gotten Christian to develop this course. The scope of the course is sweeping and comprehensive. Christian literally presents a history of the universe, both natural and human, from the big bang right up to present, and even ends with potential scenarios for the future. In the process, the student is exposed not only to history on the grandest possible scale (which is the scale at which everyone should first be exposed to history), but he also imparts basic knowledge in areas such as cosmology, physics, chemistry, biology, human evolution and anthropology, technology, etc. As a lecturer, suffice it say that Christian is superb, and 48 lectures (each 30 minutes long) is perhaps a perfect length for this subject -- long enough to synthesize a vast amount of material, but well short of overload.It would be a gross understatement to say that I highly recommend this course.

I wholeheartedly agree with this reviewer. If you only do one thing for yourself in 2009, watch or listen to this course!

Since I know David Christian personally (he was a participant in the first Evolutionary Salon that I organized a few years ago, on Evolutionary Directionality), I sent him an email this morning to tell him how much Connie and I are enjoying listening to his artful teaching. Here's part of his response:

Michael, I’m so glad you liked The Teaching Company course. It’s been much more successful than I expected. Bill Gates contacted me to say he loved it!

The Great Story/Big History: "To Educate the Human Potential"

Last night Connie and I finished listening to David Christian's masterful 48 lecture (30 minutes each) Teaching Company course: Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity. As I enthusiastically shared above, no one paints the big picture of cosmic, Earth, biological, and human history ("the Great Story") in all its scientific splendor more beautifully and powerfully than Professor Christian does in this course. (If you only do one thing for yourself educationally this year, I recommend this course above anything else!) Upon completion, I immediately thought of Maria Montessori's 1948 book, To Educate the Human Potential, which Thomas Berry turned me on to twenty years ago. In my opinion, Montessori's greatest gift to humanity (expressed wonderfully in this book) is this vital understanding:

When the Great Story—the epic of evolution, or universe story—is the foundation of education, students can excitedly learn who they are, where they came from, where things are headed, and how all scientific and educational disciplines fit into a coherent whole. More, their imaginations are sparked and they begin to wonder what role they themselves will play in the ongoing story—that is, what their own 'cosmic task' will be and thus how they too will leave their mark upon the world. What could possibly be more important? In Maria's own words...

Since it has been seen to be necessary to give so much to the child, let us give him a vision of the whole universe... If the idea of the universe be presented to the child in the right way, it will do more for him than just arouse his interest, for it will create in him admiration and wonder, a feeling loftier than any interest and more satisfying. The child's mind then will no longer wander, but becomes fixed and can work. The knowledge he then acquires is organized and systematic; his intelligence becomes whole and complete because of the vision of the whole that has been presented to him, and his interest spreads to all, for all are linked and have their place in the universe on which his mind is centred. The stars, earth, stones, life of all kinds form a whole in relation with each other, and so close is this relation that we cannot understand a stone without some understanding of the great sun! No matter what we touch, an atom, or a cell, we cannot explain it without knowledge of the wide universe. What better answer can be given to those seekers for knowledge? It becomes doubtful whether even the universe will suffice. How did it come into being, and how will it end? A greater curiosity arises, which can never be satiated; so will last through a lifetime. The laws governing the universe can be made interesting and wonderful to the child, more interesting even than things in themselves, and he begins to ask: What am I? What is the task of man in this wonderful universe? Do we merely live here for ourselves, or is there something more for us to do?

Beautiful Stonehenge photo by Adrian J Warren

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