(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘education

“What is the use trying to describe the flowing of a river at any one moment, and then at the next moment, and then at the next, and the next, and the next? You wear out. You say ‘There is a great river and it flows through this land, and we have named it History’.”*…

Ian Hesketh on “Big History”– its attractions… and, he suggests, its dangers…

Big History burst on to the scene 30 years ago, promising to reinvigorate a stale and overspecialised academic discipline by situating the human past within a holistic account at a cosmic scale. The goal was to produce a story of life that could be discerned by synthesising cosmology, geology, evolutionary biology, archaeology and anthropology. This universal story, in turn, would provide students with a basic framework for their subsequent studies – and for life itself. Big History also promised to fill the existential void left by the ostensible erosion of religious beliefs. Three decades later, it’s time to take a look at how Big History has fared.

David Christian first made the case for what he called ‘Big History’ in an article in the Journal of World History in 1991. He based it on an interdisciplinary course that he had been teaching at Macquarie University in Sydney that brought together faculty members from the sciences and the humanities. The idea for the course was to situate human history within a grand historical narrative that stretched backwards in time to the origins of the cosmos in the Big Bang and forwards to include the present and future development of the human species. The course promised to transform the way students were taught history by focusing on the big picture and what united all humans rather than what divided them.

At the time, Christian was reacting to a trend in academic life towards increasing specialisation. This trend played a role in further dividing the ‘two cultures’ of knowledge represented by the arts and sciences, but also led to divisions within those two cultures as well. Christian’s discipline of history, for instance, had grown fragmented into geographic and temporal specialisations, while narrow studies of archival sources were preferred to large-scale narratives that were more common earlier in the century. At a time when, in Jean-François Lyotard’s memorable phrase from 1979, an ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ represented the era’s postmodern condition, Christian headed in the opposite direction…

Three decades later, much of Christian’s vision has been fulfilled. Big History has become well established. It is now entrenched in Australia where it is taught at several universities, and there’s a Big History Institute at Macquarie. It is taught at universities around the world such as at Newcastle University in the UK, Dominican University in California, and the University of Amsterdam, to name just a few. There is an International Big History Association (IBHA) that was founded in 2010, which has organised five conferences since then. And in 2017, the IBHA launched the Journal of Big History, now published three times per year. Several monographs and textbooks have also appeared since the mid-1990s, notably Christian’s book Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (2004) and Fred Spier’s book Big History and the Future of Humanity (2010).

Big History was in fact at the forefront of a broader shift to large-scale, scientific history. A very different attempt to establish large-scale history on a scientific footing was proposed by Peter Turchin, the Russian American evolutionary anthropologist. In Historical Dynamics (2003), Turchin sought to apply the kind of mathematical modelling associated with evolutionary biology to social processes, such as the rise and fall of complex societies. Closer to the Big History formula is the recent work of the medieval historian-turned-public intellectual Yuval Noah Harari. His bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011) reconstructs the story of humanity, beginning with the Big Bang and ending with a lament about how humans have become God-like. A subsequent bestselling work, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015), speculated about what the future holds, based on the scientific story of life that was presented in Sapiens. The popularity of Harari’s works indicates that there is a public appetite for the large-scale, scientific approach to history.

Thirty years on, it is becoming clear that the issues that confront Big History are not unlike that of earlier attempts to utilise the cultural authority of science to write a history of everything. We’ve already seen that Big History relies on the same mythopoeic rhetoric that was central to E O Wilson’s works of popular science that yearned to project the same sense of wonder and meaning on to science that has traditionally been found only in religious metanarratives. This desire has a deeper history, however, that stretches to the 16th century, and has produced genres of scientific history that resemble Big History. This includes sacred histories that sought to elaborate and narrativise the historical events of the Old Testament as well as universal histories that sought to uncover the overarching stages of human history from Providential and secular perspectives.

There are similarities with more recent forms of large-scale history as well, such as the positivist histories of the 19th century, which sought to explain the development of civilised society as the product of a progressive scientism, or the evolutionary epics of the 19th and 20th centuries, which sought to tell the story of life from an overarching evolutionary perspective. What these forms of history all share with Big History is the desire to synthesise contemporary science to tell a story of humanity and to reduce its development to a set of laws or stages leading to the present and future.

…thanks in part to Big History, large-scale accounts of the past have moved from the periphery to the centre of historical thinking and writing. What Big History has done well is challenge the long-held assumption that has limited the discipline of history to the era of written records. As it is clear that we live at a moment when, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued, the previously relatively separate processes of human and geological timescales are now colliding, so we need new ways to think historically in order to grasp what is happening and how to respond. Big History provides one possible answer to this problem by producing a holistic, singular and universal story that seeks ultimate knowledge in the overarching laws of science.

But, much like the Judeo-Christian conception of history from which it derives, Big History reduces the vicissitudes of human history to processes that are ultimately beyond human control. What this means is that Big History necessarily privileges the cosmic at the expense of the human, the natural at the expense of the political. This is, unfortunately, a necessity that follows from Big History’s goal of uniting the human species under the framework of a story that is supposedly for everyone. It may make for a popular just-so story that appeals to billionaires looking to empty history of politics and divisions, but it offers little for those hoping to understand how we go about thinking through the problems and possibilities of writing history in the age of the Anthropocene…

Sweeping the human story into a cosmic tale is a thrill but we should be wary about what is overlooked in the grandeur: “What Big History misses,” from @IanHesketh in @aeonmag. Eminently worth reading in full.

See also: “On the wisdom of the historians,” by @Noahpinion, and this thread from @JoshuaRHall3.

* Ursula K. Le Guin


As we contend with context, we might recall that it was on this date in 1972 that Spire released the first Christian comic books, a version of Brother Andrew’s God’s Smuggler and David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade. They were primarily written and drawn by Al Hartley, who was working for Archie Comics at the time; the following year, he got permission to use those characters at Spire, and added an Archie series. Then, in 1974, the company added Bible stories and a series dedicated to younger readers including the Barney Bear series.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 1, 2022 at 1:00 am

“A great sound is given forth from the empty vessel”*…

Pakistan’s economy appears to be in pretty bad shape. Riffing on a provocative thread from Atif Mian, the redoubtable Noah Smith compares the economic condition of Indian’s nuclear-armed antagonist with its island neighbor (and current basket case) Sri Lanka…

Many of the particular root causes of Pakistan’s situation are different than in Sri Lanka — they didn’t ban synthetic fertilizer or engage in sweeping tax cuts. The political situations of the two countries, though both dysfunctional, are also different (here is a primer on Pakistan’s troubles). But there are enough similarities at the macroeconomic level that I think it’s worth comparing and contrasting the two.

In my post about Sri Lanka, I made a checklist of eight features that made that country’s crisis so “textbook”:

• An import-dependent country

• A persistent trade deficit

• A pegged exchange rate

• Lots of foreign-currency borrowing

• Capital flight

• An exchange rate crash (balance-of-payments crisis)

• A sovereign default

• Accelerating inflation

[He then examines each as it pertains to Pakistan]

… Pakistan shares a lot in common with Sri Lanka. It doesn’t have a pegged exchange rate, it’s not as dependent on imported food, and it doesn’t have quite as much foreign-currency debt. But the basic ingredients for a slightly more drawn-out version of the classic emerging-markets crisis are there, and there are some indications that the crisis has already begun.

Because Pakistan didn’t peg its exchange rate and didn’t borrow quite as much in foreign currencies as Sri Lanka, it made fewer macroeconomic mistakes than its island counterpart. But in terms of long-term economic mismanagement, it has done much worse than Sri Lanka. No, it didn’t ban synthetic fertilizers — that was an especially bizarre and boneheaded move. But one glance at the income levels of Sri Lanka and Pakistan clearly shows how much the development of the latter has lagged:

Pakistan went from 3/4 as rich as Sri Lanka in 1990 to only about 1/3 as rich today. That’s an incredibly bad performance on Pakistan’s part…

Another emerging-market crisis looms: “Pakistan is in big trouble,” from @Noahpinion.

Oh, and the weather’s not helping either.

For a consideration of the interesting (that’s to say, challenging) questions that Pakistan’s predicament (and the travails of other debtor nations) pose for China, which is an increasingly large lender across the developing world, see the first set of items here.

* Pakistani proverb


As we batten the hatches, we might spare a thought for Fazlur Rahman Malik; he died on this date in 1988. A scholar and philosopher, he was a prominent reformer in Pakistan, who devoted himself to educational reform and the revival of independent reasoning (ijtihad). While his work was widely-respected by other reformers, it drew strong criticism from conservative forces– who eventually forced him into exile. He left Pakistan in 1968 for the United States where he taught at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Chicago.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 26, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”*…

The number of American university students selecting history as their chosen four year degree has been on the decline since the 1970s…

Tanner Greer (@Scholars_Stage) considers four possible reasons– and what they portend: “The Fall of History as a Major–and as a Part of the Humanities.”

(Image at top: source)

* George Santayana, The Life of Reason, 1905


As we ponder the practicality of the past, we might we might celebrate a major contribution to the study of history; it was on this date in 1799 (or close; scholars agree that it was “mid-July” but disagree on the precise day) that a French soldier in Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign discovered a black basalt slab inscribed with ancient writing near the town of Rosetta, about 35 miles north of Alexandria.

The stone contained fragments of passages written in three different scripts inscribed by priests of Ptolemy V in the second century B.C.– Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Egyptian demotic.  The Greek passage proclaimed that the three scripts were all of identical meaning– so allowed French Egyptologist Jean Francois Champollion to decipher the hieroglyphics… and opened the language of ancient Egypt, a written language that had been “dead” for nearly two millennia.

Rosetta Stone (the most-visited exhibit that the British Museum)


“Well, I was born in a small town”*…

… which is, new federal designations now dictate, definitely not an urban area…

Hundreds of urban areas in the U.S. are becoming rural, but it’s not because people are leaving.

It’s just that the U.S. Census Bureau is changing the definition of an urban area. Under the new criteria, more than 1,300 small cities, towns and villages designated urban a decade ago would be considered rural.

That matters because urban and rural areas qualify for different types of federal funding. Some communities worry the change could affect health clinics in rural areas as well as transportation and education funding from federal programs…

Groups like the American Hospital Association say the changes, which are the biggest being made to the definitions in decades, could cause problems for people who need medical care in rural areas…

Different federal programs use different definitions of urban and rural, and some communities qualify for rural funding for some programs and not others. But any changes “will have significant implications for many groups and communities,” said Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire who studies rural issues.

“Another likely concern for many rural communities is that if many existing urban areas are redefined as rural, competition for the limited rural funds will increase,” Johnson said…

The difference a designation can make: “100s of US urban areas will become rural with new criteria,” from @AP.

[image above: source]

* John Mellencamp, “Small Town”


As we contemplate categories and their consequences, we might recall that it was on this date in 1965, at Magoo’s Pizza in (the then small town of) Menlo Park, CA, that Phil Lesh attended a performance of a band then known as The Warlocks. High on acid, he enjoyed it so much that he danced by himself in front of the bandstand. The Warlock’s leader, Jerry Garcia, cornered him and announced, “Hey, man-you’re going to be the bass player in this band”… and so the fundamental line-up of what became The Grateful Dead was set.


“Damn everything but the circus!”*…

Acro-balancing in Circus and Philosophy at the University of Kentucky, fall 2017

Meg Wallace, of the University of Kentucky, teaches the philosophy course that I wish I’d taken…

The circus is ridiculous. Or: most people think it’s ridiculous. We even express our disdain for disorganized, poorly run groups by claiming, disparagingly, that such entities are “run like a circus.” (This isn’t true, of course. The amount of organization, discipline, and hard work that it takes to run a circus is mind-blowingly impressive.) But this is one reason why I teach Circus and Philosophy. I want to show students a new way into philosophy – through doing ridiculous things.

 It seems strange that philosophers often teach philosophy of art, philosophy of sport, philosophy of the performing arts, and so on, without having the students at least minimally participate in the activities or artforms that are being philosophized about. This lack of first-person engagement is especially unfortunate when the topic at hand crucially involves the perspective of the participant– the painter, the dancer, the actor, the aerialist, the clown. Circus and Philosophy is an attempt to explore this participation/theorizing gap. (Another aim is just to magic-trick undergrads into loving philosophy.)

[The circus is] rich with potential for deep discussions about an array of philosophical topics in aesthetics, ethics, social and political philosophy, personal identity, mind, metaphysics, epistemology, and so on. It is also intrinsically interdisciplinary, so students with interests and majors outside of philosophy can easily find a way in…

Finding the profound in the profane: “Circus and Philosophy: Teaching Aristotle through Juggling.”

* e e cummings


As we benefit from the big top, we might recall that it was on this date in 1987 that another instructive family of entertainers, The Simpsons, made their debut on television in “Good Night,” the first of 48 shorts that aired on The Tracey Ullman Show before the characters were given their own eponymously-titled show– now the longest-running scripted series in U.S. television history.

Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 19, 2022 at 1:00 am

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