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David Christian

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The ‘Universal’ Historian

He’s invented a whole new field of study and it’s one that Bill Gates calls his “absolute favourite course of all time”.

Think history. Think physics. Think chemistry. Think evolution. Think galaxies and stars. Think dinosaurs. Think DNA.

Now imagine a field of knowledge that coherently mashes up all of these; a discipline that finally makes sense of all your individual pieces of learning – all we know about, as Douglas Adams put it, “life, the universe and everything” – and combines it into one mind-boggling, illuminating subject.

That’s Big History.

And it’s a passion with David Christian who has founded and runs The Big History Project aimed at teaching students – and adults willing to learn – something conventional education hasn’t: how to take a big picture view of the world and the 13.7 billion year journey that brought us here.

A historian of Russia and the Soviet Union by training, David takes everything we’ve known about, well, everything – and makes sense of it. He offers a natural progression from the Big Bang to the Internet via a multi-disciplinary journey through the universe. It’s like a colossal billion-year puzzle, and in a few short capsules, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, dinosaurs and DNA suddenly fit together.

His own history seems as diverse, and that may explain his fascination with putting pieces together – born in New York, he lived in Nigeria as a child, schooled and went to university in England, married his Serbian-American wife in Canada, did a PhD on Russian history at Oxford and has, since, spent 3 decades teaching in Australia, with an 8-year pit stop in San Diego enroute.

His research and professional interests are as varied – he teaches Big History at Macquarie University as well as Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul; has researched the eating and drinking habits of 19th century Russian peasantry (and the fiscal habits of the Russian government, 40% of whose revenues came from vodka taxes); and is parallely working on the history of Inner Eurasia, that will cover the history of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia from the days of the Mongol Empire to contemporary times.

He sits on the editorial boards of the Journal of Global History and the Cambridge History of the world, is founding president of the International Big History Association and a professor at large at Vermont University, and member of leading associations in the Humanities globally.

But it is The Big History Project that he’s working on with Bill Gates – and Gates called him, not the other way around – that excites him most. The duo are building an ambitious – and free! – online course for 9th or 10th graders with all course material, from lectures to home work and reference material available at zero cost; they’re also running a pilot program at over 50 schools worldwide where Big History is now being taught in classrooms, using the feedback to refine, tweak and improve the course structure so that the most effective learning program is available online. “By giving students tools to incite exploration and connect knowledge, we’re hoping to help them develop key critical thinking skills that will prove vital in any discipline they decide to follow,” says David.

Bill Gates put it even simpler. “David absolutely blew me away. I wish everyone could take this course.”

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