It’s Time to Get Rid of History, Biology, and Chemistry Classes

tags: science relevant to history

Eric Horowitz is a social science writer and researcher.

If you’ve survived a debate on the state of American education, you’re probably familiar with the phrases “21st century skills” and “learning how to think.” Both have become clichés that produce ill-conceived fantasies (everybody codes, a Dead Poets Society Robin Williams in every classroom, etc.), and yet both arise from a justified sense that we can do a better job preparing young minds to navigate the modern world.

Perhaps the simplest way to change how a mind works is to alter how it categorizes ideas and information. The most prominent example of how this can be done in education is Big History, a hybrid history/science course created by Australian professor David Christian, and the subject a New York Times Magazine feature about Bill Gates’ efforts to bring the course to American schools.

The course has collected many fans and critics for eschewing a structure that can be pigeonholed as either science or history. Rather, it aims to teach the history of the world—from the Big Bang to modern society—through the lens of complexity. Instead of establishing connections to a variety of disparate scientific and historical processes, everything in the course—the leaps from stars to planets and atoms to cells—aims to illuminate one central theme.

Supporters of Big History seem to see it as a one-off, a better way to teach the history of our world and nothing more. This view misses that the real innovation of the course is in grouping ideas to teach a key interdisciplinary concept that’s important for making sense of the world. This allows the course’s content to be more useful going forward. You don’t merely learn that the conditions inside a dying star allow new elements to form and pack together, ultimately leading to the creation of particles and then planets; you also have a working example of the causes and consequences of complexity to apply to situations you encounter going forward.

There are many different theories for how we generate and use knowledge, but one commonality is the importance of how information is linked. Among the simplest models is that of an associative network. When a concept is activated—a chair, for example—it then activates other concepts associated or linked with it (upholstery, relaxation, legs), with stronger associations more likely to come to mind and influence subsequent thoughts. ...

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