In 2008, shortly after Bill Gates stepped down from his executive role at Microsoft, he often awoke in his 66,000-square-foot home on the eastern bank of Lake Washington and walked downstairs to his private gym in a baggy T-shirt, shorts, sneakers and black socks yanked up to the midcalf. Then, during an hour on the treadmill, Gates, a self-described nerd, would pass the time by watching DVDs from the Teaching Company’s “Great Courses” series. On some mornings, he would learn about geology or meteorology; on others, it would be oceanography or U.S. history.
As Gates was working his way through the series, he stumbled upon a set of DVDs titled “Big History” — an unusual college course taught by a jovial, gesticulating professor from Australia named David Christian. Unlike the previous DVDs, “Big History” did not confine itself to any particular topic, or even to a single academic discipline. Instead, it put forward a synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields, which Christian wove together into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth. Standing inside a small “Mr. Rogers"-style set, flanked by an imitation ivy-covered brick wall, Christian explained to the camera that he was influenced by the Annales School, a group of early-20th-century French historians who insisted that history be explored on multiple scales of time and space. Christian had subsequently divided the history of the world into eight separate “thresholds,” beginning with the Big Bang, 13 billion years ago (Threshold 1), moving through to the origin of Homo sapiens (Threshold 6), the appearance of agriculture (Threshold 7) and, finally, the forces that gave birth to our modern world (Threshold 8).
BIG HISTORY PROJECT
Christian’s aim was not to offer discrete accounts of each period so much as to integrate them all into vertiginous conceptual narratives, sweeping through billions of years in the span of a single semester. A lecture on the Big Bang, for instance, offered a complete history of cosmology, starting with the ancient God-centered view of the universe and proceeding through Ptolemy’s Earth-based model, through the heliocentric versions advanced by thinkers from Copernicus to Galileo and eventually arriving at Hubble’s idea of an expanding universe. In the worldview of “Big History,” a discussion about the formation of stars cannot help including Einstein and the hydrogen bomb; a lesson on the rise of life will find its way to Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. “I hope by the end of this course, you will also have a much better sense of the underlying unity of modern knowledge,” Christian said at the close of the first lecture. “There is a unified account.”
As Gates sweated away on his treadmill, he found himself marveling at the class’s ability to connect complex concepts. “I just loved it,” he said. “It was very clarifying for me. I thought, God, everybody should watch this thing!” At the time, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had donated hundreds of millions of dollars to educational initiatives, but many of these were high-level policy projects, like the Common Core Standards Initiative, which the foundation was instrumental in pushing through. And Gates, who had recently decided to become a full-time philanthropist, seemed to pine for a project that was a little more tangible. He was frustrated with the state of interactive coursework and classroom technology since before he dropped out of Harvard in the mid-1970s; he yearned to experiment with entirely new approaches. “I wanted to explore how you did digital things,” he told me. “That was a big issue for me in terms of where education was going — taking my previous skills and applying them to education.” Soon after getting off the treadmill, he asked an assistant to set a meeting with Christian.
A few days later, the professor, who was lecturing at San Diego State University, found himself in the lobby of a hotel, waiting to meet with the billionaire. “I was scared,” Christian recalled. “Someone took me along the corridor, knocks on a door, Bill opens it, invites me in. All I remember is that within five minutes, he had so put me at my ease. I thought, I’m a nerd, he’s a nerd and this is fun!” After a bit of small talk, Gates got down to business. He told Christian that he wanted to introduce “Big History” as a course in high schools all across America. He was prepared to fund the project personally, outside his foundation, and he wanted to be personally involved. “He actually gave me his email address and said, ‘Just think about it,’ ” Christian continued. " ‘Email me if you think this is a good idea.’ ”
Christian emailed to say that he thought it was a pretty good idea. The two men began tinkering, adapting Christian’s college course into a high-school curriculum, with modules flexible enough to teach to freshmen and seniors alike. Gates, who insisted that the course include a strong digital component, hired a team of engineers and designers to develop a website that would serve as an electronic textbook, brimming with interactive graphics and videos. Gates was particularly insistent on the idea of digital timelines, which may have been vestige of an earlier passion project, Microsoft Encarta, the electronic encyclopedia that was eventually overtaken by the growth of Wikipedia. Now he wanted to offer a multifaceted historical account of any given subject through a friendly user interface. The site, which is open to the public, would also feature a password-protected forum for teachers to trade notes and update and, in some cases, rewrite lesson plans based on their experiences in the classroom.
Gates, who had already learned about the limitations of large bureaucracies through his foundation, insisted that the course be pitched to individual schools, rather than to entire districts; that way, he reasoned, it could grow organically and improve as it did so, just like a start-up company. In 2011, the Big History Project debuted in five high schools, but in the three years since, Gates and Christian — along with a team of educational consultants, executives and teachers, mostly based in Seattle — have quietly accelerated its growth. This fall, the project will be offered free to more than 15,000 students in some 1,200 schools, from the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies in New York to Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, Mich., to Gates’s alma mater, Lakeside Upper School in Seattle. And if all goes well, the Big History Project will be introduced in hundreds of more classrooms by next year and hundreds, if not thousands, more the year after that, scaling along toward the vision Gates first experienced on that treadmill. Last month, the University of California system announced that a version of the Big History Project course could be counted in place of a more traditional World History class, paving the way for the state’s 1,300 high schools to offer it.
“We didn’t know when the last time was that somebody introduced a new course into high school,” Gates told me. “How does one go about it? What did the guy who liked biology — who did he call and say, ‘Hey, we should have biology in high school?’ It was pretty uncharted territory. But it was pretty cool.”
The American high school experience, at least as we now know it, is a relatively recent invention. Attendance did not start to become mandatory until the 1850s, and the notion of a nationwide standardized curriculum didn’t emerge until the turn of the century. But by the early 1900s, most children were taking the same list of classes that remains recognizable to this day: English, math, science and some form of history. For much of the 20th century, this last requirement would usually take the form of Western Civilization, a survey course that focused on European countries from around the rise of Rome through modernity.
But by the early ‘70s, as the Vietnam War heightened interest in nations outside Europe, Western Civ was on the decline. In pedagogical circles, a book called “The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community,” by William Hardy McNeill, a historian at the University of Chicago, persuasively argued that Western Civ was not merely biased against other cultures but also failed to account for the enormous influence that cultures had on one another over the millenniums. In 1976, McNeill told a roomful of teachers at an American Historical Association meeting, “I find the apathy truly amazing; suicidal; absurd.”
In the wake of McNeill’s rebuke, Western Civ was slowly replaced by World History, a more comparative class that stressed broad themes across cultures and disciplines. Over the past 30 years, World History has produced its own formidable academic institutions and journals; these days, three-quarters of all American students take World History. The course was just beginning its ascent as David Christian, then a young professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, was incubating his own form of cross-disciplinary scholarship. Christian, who was teaching a course on Russian history, liked to examine his subjects from a number of unconventional angles. In the 19th century, “on average, 40 percent of Russia’s revenues came from vodka sales, so what I realized is that if Russians stopped drinking vodka, you can’t pay for the army, and the superpower collapses,” he told me. “So I thought, Here’s a modern government building its power by selling a mind-altering substance. I was looking at it at the fiscal level, at the treasury level — but also in the village and also in the tavern.”
Christian began wondering if he could apply this everything-is-connected idea to a larger scale: “I began thinking, Could I teach a course not of Russia but of humanity?” He soon became infatuated with the concept. “I remember the chain of thought,” he said. “I had to do prehistory, so I have to do some archaeology. But to do it seriously, I’m going to talk about how humans evolved, so, yikes, I’m in biology now. I thought: To do it seriously, I have to talk about how mammals evolved, how primates evolved. I have to go back to multicelled organisms, I have to go back to primeval slime. And then I thought: I have to talk about how life was created, how life appeared on earth! I have to talk geology, the history of the planet. And so you can see, this is pushing me back and back and back, until I realized there’s a stopping point — which is the Big Bang.” He paused. “I thought, Boy, would that be exciting to teach a course like this!”
His interest in transcending borders perhaps derived from his own peripatetic childhood. Born in Brooklyn to an American mother and a British father, Christian spent the first seven years of his life in Nigeria and then was shipped off to an English boarding school. (To this day, his accent — a bewildering mix of Colonial English, Eton and Jackie Gleason — reflects this unusual provenance.) Sitting along a wooden table in a Midtown Manhattan hotel, Christian delighted in recounting the first year he taught his history-of-everything course, in 1989, at Macquarie. Perhaps unwisely, he had committed to teaching it to incoming freshmen, some 300 students. “We didn’t know what we were doing, but the really magical thing, and I think it’s what still drives me today, was the reaction of the students,” he said. “What this course can do, however it’s taught, is validate big questions” — How did we get here? for instance, or Where are we going? — “that are impossible to even ask within a more silo-ized education.”
The Macquarie course quickly became oversubscribed, and within a few years, Christian was receiving calls from other universities, asking for advice on how they might offer something similar. In 2005, he received an invitation to speak at a conference in Boothbay Harbor, Me., where he was spotted by a scout for the Teaching Company, who asked him to tape the class in their studios just outside Washington. The 48-lecture DVD set was released in early 2008. Gates was one of his first viewers.
Christian, who is 67, now travels the world as something of an evangelist for the spread of the Big History Project. (His TED Talk, “The History of Our World in 18 Minutes,” has been viewed more than four million times online.) Since introducing the course to high-school students, he and Gates realized that they needed to make a few adjustments to help it catch on. They have monitored teacher feedback closely and decreased the course in size, from 20 units to 10. True to Christian’s original style, however, the high-school course links insights across subjects into wildly ambitious narratives. The units begin with the Big Bang and shift to lesson plans on the solar system, trade and communications, globalization and, finally, the future. A class on the emergence of life might start with photosynthesis before moving on to eukaryotes and multicellular organisms and the genius of Charles Darwin and James Watson. A lecture on the slave trade might include the history of coffee beans in Ethiopia.
“Most kids experience school as one damn course after another; there’s nothing to build connections between the courses that they take,” says Bob Bain, a professor of history and education at the University of Michigan and an adviser to the Big History Project, who has helped devise much of the curriculum. “The average kid has no way to make sense between what happens with their first-period World History class and their second-period algebra class, third-period gym class, fourth-period literature — it’s all disconnected. It’s like if I were to give you a jigsaw puzzle and throw 500 pieces on the table and say, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m not going to show you the box top as to how they fit together.’ ”
One muggy and overcast afternoon last fall, I met with Gates and Christian in a conference room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. Gates, who operates a bit like an unofficial head of state, is managed down to the precise minute by an innumerable team of handlers and schedulers and assistants. The table before him was filled with strewn papers and gadgets, a handful of folders with old-fashioned Brother P-Touch labels and two Microsoft Surface tablet computers. A plainclothes security detail stood watch in the hallway.
Gates, who is 58, was wearing a rumpled blue monogrammed shirt. He is slim and speaks in a sort of nasal staccato, often adding exclamation to sentences that might not seem to require them. But his curiosity about education is innate and at times obsessive. Without prompting, he recounted getting a bad grade in an eighth-grade geography course (“They paired me up with a moron, and I realized these people thought I was stupid, and it really pissed me off!”) and the only C-plus he ever received, in organic chemistry, at Harvard (“I’m pretty sure. I’d have to double-check my transcript. I think I never ever got a B ever at Harvard. I got a C-plus, and I got A’s!”).
Since starting his foundation in 2000, Gates has donated about $30 billion to organizations focusing largely on global health and development. The Gates Foundation has spent more than half a billion on educational causes, which provides some context for the comparatively modest $10 million that he has personally invested in the Big History Project. Nevertheless, Gates has insisted on tracking this venture as he would any Microsoft product or foundation project. The Big History Project produces reams of data — students and teachers are regularly surveyed, and teachers submit the results from classes, all of which allows his team to track what’s working and what isn’t as the course grows. “Our priority,” he told me from across the table, “was to get it into a form where ambitious teachers could latch onto it.”
In our conversation, Gates was forthright about the challenges the project has faced, particularly early on. Few schools had teachers who were willing or able to instruct a hybrid course; some schools wound up requiring that two teachers lead the class together. Gates, who had hoped to avoid bureaucracy, found himself mired in it. “You’ve got to get a teacher in the history department and the science department — they have to be very serious about it, and they have to get their administrative staff to agree. And then you have to get it on the course schedule so kids can sign up,” he said. “So they have to decide, kind of in the spring or earlier, and those teachers have to spend a lot of that summer getting themselves ready for the thing.” He sighed.
Perhaps the largest challenge facing the Big History Project, however, is Gates himself, or at least the specter of him. To his bafflement and frustration, he has become a remarkably polarizing figure in the education world. This owes largely to the fact that Gates, through his foundation, has spent more than $200 million to advocate for the Common Core, something of a third rail in education circles. He has financed an army of policy groups, think tanks and teachers’ unions to marshal support for the new rules and performance measurements that have been adopted by 44 states. Many education experts, while generally supportive of the new goals for reading and math skills, have been critical of the seemingly unilateral way in which the policy appeared to be rolled out. The standards have engendered public anger on both the right and left, and some states, including Indiana and Oklahoma, have decided to repeal the Common Core altogether.
In March, the American Federation of Teachers announced that it would no longer accept grants from the Gates Foundation for its innovation fund, which had already received more than $5 million from the organization. As Randi Weingarten, the A.F.T. president, told Politico, “I got convinced by the level of distrust I was seeing — not simply on Twitter, but in listening to members and local leaders — that it was important to find a way to replace Gates’s funding.” When I spoke with Weingarten last month, she elaborated on her union members’ problem with Gates. “Instead of actually working with teachers and listening to what teachers needed to make public eduction better,” she said, Gates’s team “would work around teachers, and that created tremendous distrust.”
Teachers, she continued, feared that his foundation was merely going to reduce them to test scores. While Weingarten said that she tried to work with Gates to “pierce” the animosity, she ultimately chose to part ways because “our members perceived that we were doing things in our support of Common Core because of the Gates Foundation, as opposed to because it was the right thing to do.” It was a difficult decision, Weingarten said. “Bill Gates has more money than God. People just don’t do what we did.”
Beginning with the Carnegies and the Rockefellers, billionaires have long seen the nation’s education as a willing cause for their philanthropy — and, with it, their own ideas about how students should learn. The latest crop of billionaires, however, has tended to take the line that fixing our broken educational system is the key to unlocking our stagnant economy. Whether it’s hedge-fund managers like Paul Tudor Jones (who has given tens of millions to support charter schools) or industrialists like Eli Broad (who has backed “blended learning” programs that feature enhanced technology), these philanthropists have generally espoused the idea that education should operate more like a business. (The Walton Foundation, backed by the family that founded Walmart, has taken this idea to new heights: It has spent more than $1 billion supporting various charter schools and voucher programs that seek to establish alternatives to the current public-school system.) Often these patrons want to restructure the system to make it more efficient, utilizing the latest technology and management philosophies to turn out a new generation of employable students.
For many teachers, Weingarten explained, this outside influence has become off-putting, if not downright scary. “We have a really polarized environment in terms of education, which we didn’t have 10 years ago,” she said. “Public education was a bipartisan or multipartisan enterprise — it didn’t matter if you were a Republican or Democrat or elite or not elite. People viewed public education as an anchor of democracy and a propeller of the economy in the country.” Now, she said, “there are people that have been far away from classrooms who have an outsize influence on what happens inside classrooms. Beforehand, the philanthropies were viewed as one of many voices in education. Now they are viewed — and the market reformers and the tech folks — as the dominant forces, and as dissonant to those who work in schools every day. She took a deep breath and softened her tone: “In some ways, I give Bill Gates huge credit. Bill Gates took a risk to get engaged. The fact that he was willing to step up and say, ‘Public education is important,’ is very different than foundations like the Walton Foundation, who basically try to undermine public education at every opportunity.”
Gates appears to have been chastened by his experience with the A.F.T. When he speaks about his broader educational initiatives, he is careful to mention that the change he supports comes from the teachers, too. “When Melinda and I go on the road and talk to teachers, it’s just so clear there is a real hunger for this,” he said. “If you can take a teacher and give him or her the help to become a great teacher, everyone benefits: the kids, the teacher, the community, the unions. Everyone.”
Gates resists any suggestion that Big History is some sort of curio or vanity project. But some of this earlier antipathy has raised skepticism about his support of the Big History Project. “I just finished reading William Easterly’s ‘The Tyranny of Experts,’ ” says Scott L. Thomas, dean of the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California. “It’s about philanthropists and their effect on the poor globally. It’s this exact idea that here you have this ‘expert’ in the middle” — that is, Gates — “enabling the pursuit of this project. And frankly, in the eyes of the critics, he’s really not an expert. He just happens to be a guy that watched a DVD and thought it was a good idea and had a bunch of money to fund it.”
Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University who has been a vocal critic of Gates, put even it more starkly: “When I think about history, I think about different perspectives, clashing points of view. I wonder how Bill Gates would treat the robber barons. I wonder how Bill Gates would deal with issues of extremes of wealth and poverty.” (The Big History Project doesn’t mention robber barons, but it does briefly address unequal distribution of resources.) Ravitch continued: “It begins to be a question of: Is this Bill Gates’s history? And should it be labeled ‘Bill Gates’s History’? Because Bill Gates’s history would be very different from somebody else’s who wasn’t worth $50-60 billion.” (Gates’s estimated net worth is approximately $80 billion.)
On some level, Gates’s experience in pushing through the Common Core seems to be a large part of what so excites him about the Big History Project: This small initiative, largely unburdened by bureaucracy, relies on technology and teachers who are willingly submitting to all matter of data analytics. He is pleased, he said, that the course has more than doubled in each of its first three years, and he expects that growth to follow in the future. One day, perhaps, Big History might even become a successor to Western Civ and World History. “The current thought is that in another three years, the quality of the material, the tools that let people add in new chapters and things, the broad awareness will be such that the community takes it over, and it achieves whatever natural level it’s going to get to,” he said. But he also noted that Big History — which is already being offered in South Korea, the Netherlands and, of course, Australia — had significant global potential. “It would be nice to find both educators and philanthropists[in foreign countries] that want to carry the torch — which actually, in some countries, I can think of people who would do it.”
One morning, I entered a second-floor classroom at the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, a public school in Carroll Gardens not far from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Brooklyn Collaborative Studies adopted the Big History Project as a pilot two years ago after Scott Henstrand, a longtime science teacher, watched Christian’s TED Talk. He pitched the idea to the school’s principal, Alyce Barr, and won her over.
As class came to order and 30 or so teenagers scurried to drop their bags and take their seats, Henstrand introduced the day’s topic: “extinction events,” or why and how various life-forms have died out. He asked his students to contemplate their own extinction event — a somewhat heady question for the teenage mind. As they pondered their eventual nonbeing, Henstrand put on a short video lecture by Christian and took a seat among the students, whom he had clustered in groups of four. Afterward, they were handed iPads with which to generate facts to support their various arguments about human extinction, based on how other species had expired. “I felt that it was great to be able to have your own opinions and then share it with everyone and take in other people’s opinions and use everything that you compile to create new theories and new ideas, and in a way create your own sense of your own belief system,” said Benjamin Campbell, a senior. One of his classmates, a junior, overheard him and chimed in: “At first I hated it, because I was like, ‘I hate science.’ But it actually just opened my perspective that I never knew about. I wasn’t looking forward to it at all, and then I grew to love the class.”
Not all educators are so enthusiastic. Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford, told me that although he sees Big History as “an important intellectual movement,” he did not consider the class to be a suitable replacement for an actual history course. “At certain points, it becomes less history and more of a kind of evolutionary biology or quantum physics. It loses the compelling aspect that is at the heart of the word ‘history.’ ”
Wineburg’s deepest concern about the approach was its failure to impart a methodology to students. “What is most pressing for American high-school students right now, in the history-social-studies curriculum, is: How do we read a text? How do we connect our ability to sharpen our intellectual capabilities when we’re evaluating sources and trying to understand human motivation?” he asked. “When we think about history, what are the primary sources of Big History? The original scientific reports of the Big Bang?” Wineburg, who also has developed an electronic history curriculum, scoffed.
Barr, the principal in Brooklyn, however, came to feel that Gates’s course was better than the existing alternative. “If you were to interview many, many progressive social-studies teachers, they would tell you that World History is a completely flawed course. It’s spotty. It’s like fact soup. Kids don’t come out of it really having a sense of global history,” she told me. “So I said, ‘Why are we doing this?’ ” Last year, Barr allowed the Big History Project to replace World History, which is known as Global Studies in New York, as a required course.
At the end of class, after Henstrand announced the homework assignment, he chatted for a few minutes about the future of the course. He was cautiously optimistic that it would catch on, but he also seemed to recognize how hard it is to innovate in the educational system. “I think many are driven by it, but there are also some that are like: ‘Oh, God, how do we fit this into the requirements of the day? How do we fit this and that?’ ” he said. “This course is a fundamental shift in how you deliver something. But there’s so many factors in American education that work against it.”
In many ways, education is a lousy business. Teachers are not normal economic actors; almost all of them work for less money than they might fetch in some other industry, given their skills and advanced degrees. Students are even weirder economic animals: Most of them would rather do something else with their time than sit in a room and learn algebra, even though the investment is well documented to pay off. By the same token, attempts to paint Bill Gates as a self-interested actor in his education projects don’t make much sense. Joel Klein, the former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, who charged Microsoft with being a monopoly while a lawyer at the Justice Department, laughed off the idea that Gates had an ulterior fiscal motive. “The notion that he has an agenda other than trying to improve education is just embarrassing,” said Klein, describing how Gates continued to contribute — and even increased his contributions — to New York City public schools during Klein’s tenure. “I can’t think there is a malevolent bone in his body.”
As I walked to the subway, I thought back to my conversations with Gates. Big History may one day become an heir to Western Civ or World History, but that didn’t seem to be Gates’s goal; it was more personal. Really, Big History just seems like a class that he wished he could have taken in high school. But he wasn’t a billionaire then. Now, a flash of inspiration on the treadmill might just lead to something very big.