‘What we learn is preserved after death in the collective memory’

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For a long time, much of his career, David Christian was a conventional academic — a professor of Russian history who wrote a number of books in his specialised field. Unsatisfied by the confines of traditional academic departments, Christian developed a course that would tackle human history as a whole. Macquarie University in Sydney provided a congenial home for this ‘big history’. Enthused by a set of lectures Christian had recorded, Bill Gates put his vast resources behind a project to build a free online ‘big history’ syllabus to be used by schools around the world. The website will become accessible to all next year. Christian’s quixotic idea, to show us where we come from, to create an origin-story for the modern, secular, rational world, is on the verge of fruition.

David Christian
David Christian, 66, Historian
Photo: Sarang Sena

EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW

Can you pinpoint a particular idea or figure that set you down the path to ‘Big History’?
I think it was probably the few people I came across when I was a kid who seemed to be trying to take a universal vision, but doing it within science. Carl Sagan was an example, and Jacob Bronowski did a wonderful series, though the content is now very dated, called something like ‘The Rise of Science’ (it was The Ascent of Man) and I loved those.

Please explain your concept of ‘collective learning’.
In teaching big history, you move from the sciences to the humanities and the strategic point where you cross that divide is when humans appear and you have to face the question, ‘So, what makes us different?’ We are so close to chimps, genetically they are very intelligent, their emotional world is very rich, we’re very close to them and yet our trajectories are utterly different. There is clearly one very small thing that distinguishes us and I think that the phrase ‘collective learning’ is a simple way of capturing that difference.

And what is that difference?
Learning is a very general concept, DNA can be said to ‘learn’, as DNA evolves and accumulates more and more genetic tricks, but it’s very, very slow and it takes millions of years. A second type of learning is individual learning: species with brains, in their lifetime, can acquire more information about their environment. But when they die, all that information is lost. With humans, because of human language, you have a species in which individuals can share what they have learned with others, so that what I learn is preserved after I die in the collective memory. And this is utterly new. That’s the story of human history, a slow accelerating process of technological change which has ended up with us dominating our planet and not really sure if we’re in control of these colossal powers. And that’s the dangerous thing.

How will the ‘Big History Project’ impact the future?
I can imagine, maybe in 15 or 20 years, an entire generation of children, all of whom understand the relationship between the ‘Big Bang’ and the creation of elements and the creation of the earth and the creation of life. They are not scared of crossing disciplines, they’re not scared of multiple timescales, and that will empower them deeply.

In an increasingly complex world, thinking strategically, thinking carefully will require an ability to exploit ideas, information, concepts and paradigms from many, many different fields. An entire generation of people will have that skill in a way that people today don’t have because their education is fragmented. For some kids, it’s like an epiphany. We’re giving them the largest possible context for understanding their own world and where it’s going.

Shougat Dasgupta is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka. 
shougat@tehelka.com

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