Saturday, September 21, 2013

Big game hunting

New York is full of surprises. So it's pretty much par for the course that I encountered these two big taxidermized animals in the space of the last twenty-four hours, one in the window of a boutique on Madison Ave in the 80s, the other - a whole elephant's head!! - at the Harvard Club.
You'll have guessed it was the Met which brought me to Madison on a Friday night, but what was I doing at the Harvard Club? Truth to tell it was a kind of big game hunting. With three students (religious studies minors all) I attended a luncheon about something called Big History.

What is Big History? A movement, associated with the work of David Christian at Macquarie University in Sydney, to tell the 13.82 billion-year story from the Big Bang to us. Disciplines from sciences and humanities are threaded together like beads - cosmology, astronomy, chemistry, geology, biology, anthropology, archaeology, history - into a narrative that helps students think through the Big Questions: who are we, why are we here, how should we live?

In some ways a very old-fashioned project reminiscent of universal history (I'm reminded of Herder), it focuses on some very new ideas: complexity, "Goldilocks conditions," emergence, thresholds. Students learn to think not only globally but in integrative trans-disciplinary ways and across different scales and levels. And a shared "origin story" undermines ethnic chauvinisms and anthropocentrism and helps people feel "at home in the universe" (a phrase probably taken from complexity and emergence theorist Stuart Kauffman). All to the good, yes?

Our Lang group (I include this photo since it fits the big game hunting theme) had various questions. It needs to interrogate a naive scientism and in any case should be big histories. But the students were very excited by it all, and even started asking me how we might get a course like that of our own. Clearly at least religious studies minors are interested in big cosmic stories, or at least connected ones!

We'll be learning more about all of this as one the students, an Education Studies major, wants to write her senior work on the Big History Project. For my part, Big History is interesting as a phenomenon on the labile contemporary border between science and religion. And, need I add, as an approach possibly congenial to my next project in its sense that answers to human ethical and existential questions cannot be found in humanity alone.

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