Big History: Latest Intellectual Fad or Toxic Neoliberalist Ideology?

Elizabeth Lorraine Savant


Recently, a new movement under the banner of “Big History” (BH)—a perspective that studies 13.8 billion years of the universe’s history—has built itself a home at several liberal arts colleges—not to mention garnering a sizeable investment on behalf of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This “transdisciplinary” field styles itself as managing to finally heal the rift between the humanities and the sciences famously noted by C. P. Snow in his 1959 The Two Cultures. Viewed through a postmodern lens,  BH does anything but, as it perpetuates a profoundly modernist (in Bruno Latour’s sense) conception of history that is at odds with the BH scholar-stakeholders’ focus and emphasis on ecological and environmental concerns spawned by the Anthropocene. One of BH’s strongest selling points is a “materialist” view of history—no longer is history just the march of “great ideas” or “abstract concepts”; history must talk about and incorporate the work of scientists and climatologists, all of whom can help tell the “total” story of the universe’s history. Unfortunately, the key textbook of this movement marketed to undergraduate students—Big History: Between Nothing and Everything—perpetuates a history of capitalism in its later chapters that has no recourse to this materialist perspective. Capitalism is covered in the most ideological of terms—it is not described, following numerous current historians, as the rapacious and unquenchable search for cheap nature, cheap labor, cheap money; instead, capitalism’s triumph is the march of a great idea. The argument becomes that this glaring lack of critique is self-serving; why critique a capitalist market system propping-up the techno-scientific apparatus that is so heavily prized far and above any of the disciplines within the humanities? Such agendas are squeezing liberal arts colleges to death—so why big historicize at all if the most hegemonic of forces gets a free pass?


Big History, Capitalism, Environmental Conservation

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