What on Earth Happened to Big History?

Chris Lloyd, whose What on Earth Happened? has just been published, remembers how he had the idea for a book which tells the physical and human story of our planet and why history should be about ‘The Big Picture’.

HOW OLD is the universe? When did life on Earth begin? Is Homo Sapiens the only species of humans ever to have existed?

These three questions come from a five-minute, 15-question multiple-choice quiz that I posted on the web in late July. I wanted to sample what basic information we do and do not know about history. Within four weeks, several hundred people had taken part. Right from the start it was clear that most of them were extremely unsure about the answers they gave, even though they didn’t perceive the questions as being especially difficult. The exercise confirmed what I had suspected all along. History, as it is taught, and has been taught for decades, is basically bunk.

History is a vast subject that interconnects with EVERYTHING else – religion, art, biology, chemistry, geography, geology, philosophy, literature – even physics and maths. Yet most of what is taught up to GCSE is still concerned with kings and queens, parliaments, national heroes and wars. A few snippets about so-called ancient civilisations creep into the primary curriculum – Romans, Vikings, Greeks. But anything outside the scope of human civilisations, and for us that mostly means western civilisations, is strictly off-piste. History at school is about people, generally western people, and particularly white western people.

What about the history of animals, plants and trees? Or, for that matter, the air we breathe, the minerals we consume and the water we drink? What about the 99% of all species ever to have existed that are now extinct – what’s happened to their stories? Why aren’t professional historians as passionate about the impact of honey bees on pollination as they are about the victories of Horatio Nelson? Ask yourself which has more impact on the planet, life and people in the past, present and future….

A big part of the problem is that students are never given a useful introduction to the subject at school. By this, I mean history with the broadest possible sweep that tells an interconnected story all the way from the Big Bang to the present day. Such a course in schools is completely unknown.

Big history like this means organising disparate information into an intelligible, chronological framework joined together by cause and effect. It’s like giving students a mental wardrobe with hangers, drawers and shelves on which to hang ideas and facts about events, places, non-human life and people. Without such a foundation, students get loaded up with disjointed facts which, because they are mostly learned out of context, become essentially meaningless. Try finding an outfit that looks good from within a pile of clothes jumbled up into a giant, haphazard heap. History without a proper mental infrastructure suffers the same ignominy, usually resulting in confusion, frustration and disinterest.

Children at school have a far greater chance of developing a lifelong passion for the past if they have an understanding of big history in their minds – that means equipping them with a narrative chest full of meaningful milestones reaching right back to the dawn of life 3.5 billion years ago; the creation of the atmosphere and oceans; the effect of the moon and tides; the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates, and the evolution of life on earth.

Perhaps in the context of all Earth history seen on the scale of a 24 hour clock, children can then place the arrival of man, just 20 seconds before midnight, in its proper context. The birth of human civilisations, which happens in just the final 10th of a second before midnight, also takes its place. Visits to places like botanical gardens and zoos, castle or museums can then have meaning and context as can holidays to mountains or even a coral reef.

Building such mental infrastructure is, to my mind, the only point of formal education. Its job is not to cram facts, drill and kill with relentless testing, but to nurture a life long interest and curiosity about the world. I have seen the process of learning for life’s sake in action myself, having had the good fortune to help home educate our two daughters. Forget the curriculum, which is designed around adult requirements such as timetables and the pressure to prove ‘results’ to parents and politicians. Instead, help children build a wardrobe for their minds and then let them go and explore, discover and learn wherever and whenever their curiosity leads….

When our two children were 8 and 10 years old, we went on a four-month trip around Europe in our campervan believing it better to visit places, if possible, rather than simply to read about them in books or ‘experience’ them on TV. One of my jobs was to do the washing up. At a campsite near Rome, whilst drying the dishes, I remember asking myself: what is the history book I would most like to read and like my children to read? What precipitated in my mind was an accessible, well illustrated, single-volume narrative history that led all the way, step by step, from the beginning of time to the present day. This story would not just be about the fate of humanity, but would be an interconnected big history encompassing the whole - planet, life and people.

I was amazed to discover that no-one seemed to have written this book! Histories of the natural world were two-a-penny; histories of human civilisations even more common. But try to find a book that connects planet, life and people into one meaningful whole and – zilch.

At the same time, I began to realise how little I really knew myself. Where do mountains came from? How old is the earth? When did life begin? Here was I, a history graduate trying to educate my own two children, yet about these fundamental big picture issues, I really didn’t have a clue! So, I determined to make it my job to find out. After two years researching, writing and refining I am about to have my attempt at writing big history published in What on Earth Happened? The Complete Story of Planet, Life and People from the Big Bang to the Present Day.

The exercise has transformed the way I see the world. It has also helped me see more clearly that there are major issues with the way history is taught in schools today.

The first problem concerns the role of man. According to the UK Department of Education’s Educational Standards website, the first unit of historical study for all children in Year 7 (aged 11-12) is to “Remind pupils that history is about people….”

This is wrong. History that is focussed just on people reinforces historic notions of the supremacy of man. This perspective accounts for why recent human civilisations have pursued a policy of relentless exploitation of the earth’s capital resources, regardless of current costs or future consequences. So much of what matters in history happened, or evolved, aeons before Homo Sapiens built its first suburbia some 6,000 years ago.

The second problem is to do with chronology. A recent report from the UK Qualifications and Curriculum Authority agrees that history teaching for pupils aged between 11 – 16 should be reformed because “a lot of students emerge from their study of history without a sufficiently confident overview of the past; they are quite good at knowing certain topics in great depth, but not how all the bits fit together, making the programme of study feel disjointed.”

This is right. Learning topics in depth is useless unless students are sufficiently clear in their minds about the big themes of history, from a multi-disciplinary perspective - one that includes world religions, cultures, economics, philosophy and art as well as mankind’s historic relationship with the nature.

The third problem concerns cultural prejudice. Although topics presented in UK schools for pupils aged 11 – 16 show some regard for contemporary multi-culturalism, the really difficult stuff is conspicuously absent. Who learns about the Opium Wars (1840s – 60s) when the UK fought China because it refused to legalise the British smuggling of opium? Or the nineteenth century Scramble for Africa where Western nations systematically stole the mineral and agricultural wealth of Africa and ruthlessly persecuted its people? Is the West’s role in today’s poppy fields in Bengal or the origins of third world poverty somehow irrelevant to the study of history in British schools?

Writing What on Earth Happened? has shown me that if humans are to have the slightest chance of collaborating to combat the combined challenges of population growth, globalisation and climate change, they need a fresh approach to history. At its heart should be the big picture in which the modern history of human civilisations is properly reconnected with the more ancient but no less important saga of planet, life and people.

Christopher Lloyd’s “What on Earth Happened? The Complete Story of Planet, Life and People from the Big Bang to the Present Day” will be published by Bloomsbury on October 6th, 2008.

Test out your own knowledge of big history with the 5-minute What on Earth Happened? quiz at www.whatonearthhappened.com

Find out What on Earth Happened? (click here) for just £15 - the complete story of planet, life and people from the Big Bang to the present day all in a single book!

About article author

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Christopher Lloyd

Christopher Lloyd has had a broad and comprehensive career both as a journalist and as a general manager in the education business. After graduating with a double first class degree in history from Peterhouse, Cambridge in 1991, he helped research the personal memoirs of the ex Sunday Telegraph E...More about Christopher Lloyd