Tuesday, Jul 05, 2022

Big History And Pedagogy

A persuasion for infusing Big History perspective to the restricted and specialised way in which we study things.

Big History approaches are predicated on rigorous empirical science. Representational Image

A three-minute viral video, of 2012 Google copyright, telescopes a young lady ‘Louise’ from a close shot to a distance of 10 billion Light-years away up to the Uniform Universe. In the latter half of the video, the telescoping is replaced by micro-scoping in reverse, piercing through her pupil, wading across cells and chromosomes to offer dilated images in the smallest units of measurement. The Sahir Ludhianvi-penned background song, probably inserted for the Indian audience, philosophises the ‘smallness’ and transient nature of individual human existence in this vast Universe. The irreverent ease, with which it frames the farthest, fathoms the minutest and treats the human body as nothing more than everything and anything else, is quite a perspective-bending epiphany. It showcases the possibility of studying everything as an interconnected and unitary whole. It decentres the dominant anthropocentric academic gaze of modernity and also suggests a desired resetting of the mainstream studying mechanisms- compartmentalized silos of disciplines say, physics, chemistry, biology, history and philosophy!

This instructive perspective seeks to fruitfully align the ‘macro’ and the ‘micro’ dimensions of a subject matter in an integrated continuum that holds the promise of siring an integrated and universal theory of anything and everything around us. Now the question arises: is the search for this theory a new reckoning? Surprisingly, it is as old as the emergence of all major organized religions; it’s just that the emergence of modern sciences, with their emphasis on specialized disciplines and the concomitant emergence of the modern nation-states over the last three hundred years, had pressed a pause button on this search.

The quest for a master-frame that can accommodate and account for everything has been of eternal interest to mankind. Before modernity, this search was best exemplified in the various “Origin myths” contained in different major religions of the world. Vedas in Hinduism, Bible in Christianity and Koran in Islam have their specific propositions about how it all began, thereby tangentially hinting towards an original whole. These visualizations were cosmic, but all inclusive nevertheless -from real to imaginary. The onset of the Renaissance and Humanism in Europe around the sixteenth century redefined Man as the best creation of God. This shifted the hitherto prevailing knowledge-quest from man’s environment to his concerns, reducing the all-inclusive frame of reference to an anthropocentric one. Positively, the sixteenth century was followed by increasing secularization and empiricisation of knowledge creation, strengthened by accompanying scientific inventions like movable-type printing (1450 CE) and the resultant academic network of the New Age scientists and thinkers.

Negatively, however, the emergence of modern academic disciplines and the formation of nation-states across Europe and the Americas around the 18th-19th centuries resulted in disciplinary compartmentalization and fragmentation of the cosmic canvas into national. This created some kind of a chasm as Historians and the practitioners of the emerging social sciences like psychology, sociology and cultural anthropology tended to concentrate on human action, while the emerging sciences of geology and geography attended to the natural environment. Resultantly, “the study of human affairs became increasingly divorced from the biosphere, let alone the universe.” This represented a brief lull in terms of the crystallization of an all-inclusive framework of empirical inquiry- the Big History perspective.

 It was a brief lull as, even in the pre-modern science era, when human imagination lacked disciplinary and national encumberment, small steps edged towards “enlarging and improving cosmic world views.” Through several staggered yet continued attempts, the start of the sixteenth century saw Europeans navigating up to the Americas in the west and India in the east. An across-the-centuries comparison of the world maps drawn by Europeans till the 16th century would show a direct correlation between the increased familiarity of human beings with distant lands and the exactitude in map-making. This illustrates a linear historical relation between the frequency of direct human observations and the exactitude of map-making. Despite not being completely free of religion-specific notions and other inaccuracies, these so-called mappae mundi (world maps) imitate incipient big histories by attempting to combine myriad insights of the past like mythology with empirically validated places and stories about more recent periods. Contrarily, natural sciences continued to attempt consolidating some kind of a systematically interconnected cosmic history of the universe. Humboldt’s Kosmos, Darwin’s theory of natural selection, big bang cosmology and others are rightful precursors to the emerging concept of natural unity, increasingly promising its empirical validation in the light of growing realization in Physics of the possibility of unity among fundamental forces. Such a universal perspective is somewhat difficult to find in the second half of the nineteenth century, but by the 1950s, the chronometric revolution in geological studies and NASA-ordained Apollo moon missions giving mankind the first glimpses of Earth, significantly broadened the canvas for academic inquiry. The frontiers of sensory perception, commonsensical assumptions about causal relations, and several other shibboleths of the past were breached to reconfigure our knowledge-seeking even counterfactually. Eric Jantsch’s model for big history in The Self-Organizing Universe in the 1980s and David Christian’s big history approach in curricular pedagogy in the recent decades have sought to fuse human history with the new scientific account of everything with an interdisciplinary approach. The crucial difference between these universal studying approaches with their medieval-type counterparts of big histories is that instead of being premised on religious inspiration, Big History approaches are predicated on rigorous empirical science.

The University of Delhi in 2013, under its newly launched but unfortunately suspended Four-Year Undergraduate Programme, attempted to weave the ‘Little Big History’ approach in its pedagogy. A range of interdisciplinary Foundation Courses was made mandatory for all undergraduate students. A novel Vice Chancellor’s Fellowship programme for its faculty was launched to develop specimen of trans-disciplinary teaching modules on topics like the monsoon, railways and water. It held online and offline interactions with students drawn from different disciplines to induce them into thinking big and out-of-the-box on a topic of their choice, whose history they had to work out on their own by drawing on imagination and memory besides other available sources. In the conventional practice of a social scientist - historian in particular - focusing immediate details supersedes the broad and detached overview, which could be woven into the cause-effect schemata. This also illustrates that Big History is not antithetical to local or regional histories because such an exercise requires weaving together a plethora of local studies and disciplinary inputs from biology, geology, physics, chemistry and so on, into a novel and coherent perspective. Similar attempts at institutional levels are being made in the Netherlands, the term ‘Little Big Histories’ emerging from that experience. Big History requires that students be encouraged to explore cross-contextual and counter-factual connections, process-centric thinking and metaphorical comparisons to bring their visualizations to bear on the subject matter which can be understood in novel ways. Pre-modern knowledge-seeking relied wonderfully on such image transposition of interconnected processes to make sense of complex phenomena. Cooking imagery transposed to visualize digestion in Ayurveda and irrigation imagery utilised to explain earth, water, air and fire constituting human physiology are examples. Moreover, specialised treatises – be it on medicine or political economy – in early India, are typically characterised by interpenetration of disciplinary data. The internet is an infinite empirical information base that should be used to accommodate the Big History perspective in our academic curricula. The covid-19 challenge is a global disruption that is being dealt with using combat strategies drawing from medical sciences, epidemiological projections, social behaviour, chemicals to a desperate search for the virus’ origin – in the biological jump across the host species to the possibility of it being a geopolitical weapon! Can we leverage the moment as a springboard for a paradigm change in pedagogy that is empirically validated, all-inclusive, and holds the possible promise of accounting for everything by a universal theory? 



(Dr. Shankar Kumar is Associate Professor in History at Hindu College, University of Delhi. He has in the recent past been involved in developing innovative pedagogies as the Vice Chancellor’s Fellow. His EDUCAT online lectures on history can be accessed from CEC-UGC website and YouTube)