The Problem with Bill Gates and ‘Big History’

When Bill Gates heads to the gym, he gets big ideas.

One day at the gym, Bill Gates was watching a DVD on Big History by Professor David Christian. “As Gates sweated away on his treadmill, he found himself marveling at the class’s ability to connect complex concepts,” according to The New York Times. “‘I just loved it,’ he said. ‘It was very clarifying for me. I thought, God, everybody should watch this thing!'”


Bill Gates, the billionaire founder and ex-CEO of Microsoft, has become one of the most influential educational reformers in the world. His Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has granted billions of dollars to charities, including an estimated $500 million to educational organizations.

The New York Times reports that: “during an hour on the treadmill, Gates, a self-described nerd, would pass the time by watching DVDs from the Teaching Company’s “Great Courses” series. On some mornings, he would learn about geology or meteorology; on others, it would be oceanography or U.S. history.”

The Teaching Company has been around for years, peddling certain professors’ courses on tape, CD, and now DVD. The selection of courses offered by the Teaching Company tends to focus on broad synthetic courses with recognizable or catchy titles.

Bill Gates and David Christian have now launched a Big History Project, involving digital timelines, graphics, and an e-textbook. Gates’s foundation has invested $10 million into the project, according to The New York Times.

Gates aims to get the Big History Project into high schools and colleges across the United States. According to The New York Times, “this fall, the project will be offered free to more than 15,000 students in some 1,200 schools.” The Big History Project has apparently already been approved for use in the University of California system. Big History courses are rapidly expanding in the United States and are already being offered in Australia, South Korea, and the Netherlands.

The New York Times report concludes that: “One day, perhaps, Big History might even become a successor to Western Civ and World History.”

This is education reform as entertainment. The Teaching Company videos and TED talks both seem to rely on the same sort of slick production and a simplistic video “hook” to keep the viewer entertained. Unsurprisingly, David Christian has also produced a TED talk entitled “The History of Our World in 18 Minutes.”

There is also a darker side to the Big History Project. Bill Gates, a computer magnate posing as an educational “philanthropist”, clearly aims to expand the market for his own educational software and operating systems to run them. Gates is claiming the power to choose the historian, historical subjects, readings, images, graphics, and textbooks that should be used in teaching history at the high school and college level—all based on what he personally finds intriguing.

This dangerous model of educational “reform” threatens to reduce education to a delivery device for corporate interests and whims, removing researchers and experts from curricular decision-making processes. This trend in educational policy seriously undermines academic freedom, curricular integrity, teaching innovation, and the pursuit of knowledge.

Enormous sums of money are currently being invested in digital education, but high-tech companies and their leaders increasingly seem to want to subvert researchers’ and teachers’ abilities to formulate curricular goals and educational programs.

Should Bill Gates really have the ability to transform curricula and education policies while sweating at the gym?

The New York Times reports on Bill Gates and the Big History Project.

See also my previous post entitled “The Gates’ Foundation’s Influence on Higher Ed” about the influence of major philanthropic foundations on higher education policy.



This entry was posted in Academic Freedom, Digital Humanities, Education Policy, Humanities Education, The Past Alive: Teaching History, Undergraduate Work in History. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Problem with Bill Gates and ‘Big History’

  1. Pingback: Bill Gates and “Big History” | The Winds of War

  2. Pingback: Bill Gates crea junto al profesor David Christian el proyecto 'Big History' - Descubrir la Historia

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