The best—or the worst—idea Bill Gates has come up with, depending on whether your school system is being funded by the Gates Foundation to pilot the “history” curriculum he recently developed that is being praised by the New York Times, is something called the Big History Project. An “integration” of astronomy, geology, and a tiny bit of history, it is described as an example of inter-disciplinary thinking with big ideas.
What are some of the big ideas? The last “threshold,” or big unit of study, is the “modern” age, that is, when pre-historic man first appears and later comes to dominate the world. It ends with the voice-over narrator warning viewers: “At present, we can see both dangerous trends, such as global warming and the continued existence of nuclear weapons, as well as positive trends, such as increased collaboration in dealing with climate change, a slowing in population growth, and an acceleration in our knowledge about the biosphere.”
It doesn’t take long to figure out who the bad guys are in this history of the world (available in 18-minute or two-hour versions). But it does take a lot longer to figure out if a range of historians, geologists, and space scientists were involved in the curriculum Gates has personally developed for it—or exactly what historians, geologists, and space scientists were. I haven’t lived that long, yet.
The Big History Project is apparently being adopted and used as a substitute for World History, American History (if it is still in the curriculum), and possibly science coursework. The audio-visual version is filled with rousing sound effects, digitalized time lines, and animation, so it may keep adolescents from dozing off in class. What isn’t clear from the New York Times article is whether local parents or school boards are being given an opportunity to review this curriculum (something still under their authority, we keep being told). Indeed, a Big Question the whole country should discuss is whether parents and teachers should have an opportunity to decide if they want both Gates’s history of the world as well as Gates’ national standards. So far, Gates hasn’t indicated that they should. He has 64 billion dollars to spend and seems to believe he knows what all children should learn and how.
The New York Times doesn’t, of course, suggest parents ought to have a role to play in the content of the K-12 curriculum their children experience. The message coming through is that the ideas deemed worthy of attention by our “mainstream” media are chiefly those of people like Gates, who can bankroll the curriculum they want in our “public” schools no matter how unsuitable their ideas might be.
No one seems to raise an increasingly important issue: Can K-12 history teachers (never mind parents and local school boards) judge the soundness of the curriculum materials they are being given to use? The question has become even more urgent to answer at a time when Gates’ standards have opened the floodgates into the school curriculum for anything called “Informational Text” and mandated the application of “literacy” standards for history classes. These standards don’t include the skills of contextualization, sourcing, and corroboration that people who think like historians prioritize (as indicated in a new Pioneer Institute report titled Imperiling the Republic: The Fate of U.S. History under Common Core).
Other recent curriculum materials that also seem to have by-passed the scrutiny of presumably well-trained history teachers are in a report dated September 4, 2014, by an organization titled Verity Educate. The report focuses on Middle East curriculum materials given to students in social studies and history classes in the two Newton, Massachusetts high schools. (A copy of the report can also be requested.) As noted on page 2, many of the materials have no citations or attributions, and when their original sources could be located, it turned out the materials had often been changed in ways that distorted and concealed original sources. It is not clear if teachers or students knew they were using academically dishonest materials and inappropriate websites for sources of curriculum materials. But if they are free, school administrators apparently don’t care.
Sandra Stotsky is professor emerita of education, University of Arkansas, and member of Common Core's Validation Committee (2009-2010). She was Senior Associate Commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education from 1999-2003.