Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Higher Education"
This is a wonderful essay about modern universities and the role they could play in the Great Transition. Having spent my entire career in universities, I found it clarified many inchoate ideas I already had about the role of universities and about how they need to change to better serve humanity in a time of rapid and potentially transformative change.
Escrigas argues that universities could and should be powerful drivers of the Great Transition. But not in their current form. Partly, this is because they are still built around ideas about knowledge that look increasingly outdated. For example, they accept an unbalanced understanding of expertise as specialization, overlooking the equally important need to integrate knowledge from different fields. Reduced funding means that they are driven, increasingly, by the needs of the market, and the questions that dominate modern markets are, above all, questions about growth rather than sustainability. For the same reasons, big questions about the future, about the nature of a good society, and about ethics, have been pushed to the margins within university curricula. All too often, universities, researchers, and teachers have opted out of serious discussions about the future on the spurious grounds that intellectual objectivity means avoiding intervention. Of course, good research must be objective. We desperately need a clear understanding of what makes our world tick. But we also expect to use that understanding to serve human needs. The mission statement of the British Royal Society captures this balance between objectivity and intervention nicely: “The Society’s fundamental purpose, reflected in its founding Charters of the 1660s, is to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.”
I have just one critical comment on Escrigas’s essay. Teaching critical thinking is crucial in a world where knowledge comes from many different sources, is generated in many different ways, and is rapidly changing. But we cannot just teach critical thought. We also need to teach respect for the best knowledge available at a given moment in time. We seriously need the expertise of specialists in climate change, and it would be a mistake to focus so much on critical thinking that we unwittingly teach our students disrespect for good science. This means that the traditional role of teaching as the dissemination of good knowledge must not be ignored simply because that role has often been associated with dogmatism and resistance to criticism. Teachers will continue to teach, even as they invite their students to think seriously and hard about what they are being taught. Balancing respect for good knowledge with critique of outdated knowledge is, and always has been, one of the most delicate tasks facing educators.
With this qualification out of the way, I would like to add some suggestions that arise out of my own commitment to the teaching of “Big History.” My comments apply, above all, to the content of university teaching, to what we should teach if universities are to contribute to the Great Transition. I will argue that foundational courses in Big History can help universities achieve many of the goals that Escrigas describes in her essay.
Courses in Big History teach the history of the universe. They take the best modern knowledge from many different disciplines—from cosmology to biology, from history to international relations—and assemble them into the modern equivalent of an origin story. By doing so, they help students see the underlying unity of modern knowledge, to see that there are deep and important links between astronomy and biology (where did that carbon come from after all?), or between plate tectonics, industrialization, and global warming (where did all that carbon dioxide come from?). Big History can help students see the place of our species in a much larger story, so it can help them see both the unity of humanity and the extent to which our history is embedded within, and depends on, the history of the biosphere. Like all origin stories, the big story emerging within modern knowledge is empowering. It offers a cosmological map that can tell you where you are and where you have come from, according to the best knowledge available today. Like any good world map, it can also show you that knowledge is not an endless sea of detail, but has a larger shape that anyone can begin to see with a little intellectual effort. While specialization teaches that you can never really understand the world, origin stories can give you a glimpse of the whole story. And those glimpses are both empowering and intellectually energizing.
Introducing unified curricula like Big History into modern universities would achieve many things. First, it would help overcome hyperspecialization because the Big History story can help students see the many links between the natural sciences and the humanities. (This particular divide is perhaps more pronounced in the English-speaking world because the English language is unique in defining “science” not as rigorous knowledge, whatever its subject, but rather as rigorous knowledge of the natural world.) By embedding human history within the history of the biosphere, the Big History story can also help students understand the extent to which human societies depend on biospheric processes and are beginning to shape those very processes. Such an approach can undercut the narrow vision of modern economics, which envisages endless growth within a bounded biosphere. Big History can also encourage a sense of global, rather than just national citizenship because it shows the underlying unity of humanity. In a world with nuclear weapons, and global challenges that can no longer be solved nation by nation, it is surely time for university history departments to focus less on national histories and more on the history of humanity as a whole.
Teaching a modern, science-based origin story (using “science” in its broadest sense) can also help students achieve the right balance between critique of and respect for the best contemporary knowledge. Science evolves so fast that it is impossible to teach a Big History story without also showing how the details of that story are constantly being adjusted. And this can help students overcorrect for both extreme dogmatism and extreme cynicism about modern scientific knowledge.
Finally, a modern origin story, like all origin stories, will encourage students to think fruitfully about the future, by giving them a coherent understanding of the past at all possible scales. It can help them see their own generation as part of a larger story, in which each generation has contributed to (or undermined) the well-being of future generations. The holistic approach of a modern origin story can also help students appreciate the vast range of intellectual tools available to them as they think about what they will do when they take over management of our complex and rapidly changing world. Perhaps such courses will also encourage more universities to introduce more programs on future thinking and the challenges of the near future.
Students equipped with the holistic, interdisciplinary, and global vision of a modern, science-based origin story will, in their turn, make better researchers. They will appreciate the importance of using insights from many different disciplines to solve complex problems, they will appreciate the extent to which today’s problems require global rather than local solutions, and they will see themselves as part of a larger multigenerational community, within which they have some responsibility for the well-being of future generations. Finally, universities that teach Big History will have both the experience and the incentive needed to create research environments that encourage the profoundly interdisciplinary research that will be needed to solve the extraordinarily complex challenges of the Great Transition.
The good news is that introducing such courses should not be hard. They will not displace other courses, but sit alongside them and help students see more clearly the importance of expert knowledge. We will always need specialized knowledge, but we also need interdisciplinary courses that can help students see the underlying unity and coherence of the best forms of modern knowledge. There are also, now, plenty of resources to help those interested in teaching a modern origin story. Courses in Big History are being taught at several universities in several different countries, and also in hundreds of high schools, mostly in the USA and Australia. And they are supported by a growing number of resources, in print and on the internet. Interested readers might want to begin with three websites: the Macquarie University Big History Institute (bighistory.mq.edu.au/); the Big History Project (school.bighistoryproject.com/bhplive); and the International Big History Association (www.ibhanet.org/).
So here is a relatively simple step that will nudge modern universities in the right direction if they are to play an important role in the Great Transition: teach students the modern equivalent of a unified origin story that brings together the best of modern scientific knowledge of our world.