". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Bill Gates Discovers Big History

Bill Gates discovered Big History via dvds he watched while on the treadmill in his private gym.  He's decided to put Big History courses into all the country's high schools.

There are questions anyone should ask about Bill Gates dictating a nation's high curriculum.  He's responsible for the Common Core and other initiatives such as

Microsoft Encarta* that don't seem to have worked any better than anything else in creating an authentically educated population. By now these Big History courses are being taught all over the U.S. and Gates plans to get his plans added to thousands more schools within the next year or so.  However, anecdotally, the students in the university courses that we teach now and again, when asked, can't point to a map and show where a place is, whether in the U.S. or anywhere else, never heard of the Emancipation Proclamation or any of the Presidents, the Mexican War, the War of 1812, etc.

In other words, reading about these courses, students aren't learning actual history: there is no methodology for evaluation of historical actualities.  It's an undisciplined hodgepodge of unproven, if exciting, theories without supporting, discriminating documentation -- rather the way within genres, so much so-called alternate history is written.

Myself, am quite fond of Big History. It's a constant feedback loop, delving into the history of any where, any time and any place -- the local feeding into the larger picture and the larger world's affect upon the ever smaller and more local.  For instance, if one wants to understand the history of cotton's drive of the global economy and how it got to be a part -- and such a huge part -- of the global economy in the nineteenth century, a study of the history of a single Mississippi plantation is where to begin.  This moves one on to transport back and forth between Mississippi and Europe, European capital instruments, and how they flow to Mississippi and so on.  But without looking at both the larger and the smaller, the historian will have a process and a system that's incomplete.

In any case,  el V's books, and now our The American Slave Coast, are Big Histories of their subjects, because that's how I've always rolled -- the interconnections and influences among subjects and events within various time frames. Thus The American Slave Coast begins with Europe's first conscious voyages into what they called the New World.  Africans were on all those voyages, in a spectrum of positions from skilled seamen to those whose condition was that of being enslaved, from the time of Colombo's very first sail.

It is fun reading the description of Bill Gates discovery of Our Favorites: the Annales School of historians.

It's also fun to read how his advisor in these matters, Australian David Christian, began realizing his concepts.

He went through the same process I witnessed el V go through, in his first

attempts to write what became Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, which became that book that people are still reading and teaching, precisely because it is a Big History.  It begins with the Phoenicians, and, indeed, that first section remains the most popular part of the book with those who aren't reading for the music only.

Back then El V didn't know what Big History was. He was so frustrated in his attempts to find his way into writing the book.  He kept going further and further back in time. (Though he'd done a great deal of very high quality, professional writing, until then he hadn't written book.)  I gave him a bunch of books from my shelves that he'd never looked at, including Braudel.  That was his eureka time -- a subject's story could be told from before the subject, i.e. Cuban music, existed -- it could and, for full understanding, should be told from the existence of the forces that made the crucible which brought the subject into being.  Fortunately with his Spanish language skills, he was able to dig into Spanish resources that most music writers don't have, and brought those early days of Phoenician traders in Iberia, and the era of the Peninsula's Roman dominance, into -- appropriately for the subject -- throbbing life.

The NY Times Magazine article about Gates and his new philanthropic education mission here.

*  Link here to description of Microsoft Encarta at Wiki, which supposedly destroyed Microsoft Encarta. I never found it useful -- too clumsy, and too difficult to extract any useful scope of information.  The same reason e-books are not useful for me: too much time wallowing around swiping, ticking, clicking, going from one place to another, rather than absorbing information, much less knowledge.


Foxessa said...

My personal feelings about this Gates's initiative coincides with those of Diane Ravitch, as quoted in the article:

[ " 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.) " ]

T. said...

I haven't read the entire article yet, but isn't this more about the larger picture of how history is taught, rather than Gates' decision as to content? Not to defend him; I have no reason to.

Foxessa said...

My take on this article is Gates's current and expected future influence on how history is taught, which cannot be divorced from content.

The Great Big Picture of teaching U.S. history in the eras between 1900 and the Civil Rights era managed to leave slavery out of it entirely, including out of the Civil War. Slavery in the U.S. was for decades, even during the 1960's Centennial observances and books of the Civil War insisted that at best, slavery was a mere "side bar" to the internecine struggle. One incredible example of this is reading Edmund Wilson's Introduction to his Civil War literature anthology and study -- Patriotic Gore. In his Introduction he shrilled venom at anyone who even wanted to talk about slavery -- in the decades before the Civil War. It was the fault of the VERY FEW AND INSANE ABOLITIONISTS that slavery was talked of at all.

Big Picture study without methodology -- and Gates has no methodology -- links are not methodology -- is pretty useless. It's an accumulation of self-selected maybe-facts, out of which, as Gates adores, one can spin speculative theories forever. But that's not information out of which knowledge is achieved, and then, via information and knowledge, perhaps there is a truth out there to be achieved.


Love, C.