Open Communications: Its Power and Limits

People should not be treated like mushrooms. The “mushroom theory of management” is something I have seen practiced in many workplaces and close personal relationships. People in charge or those with important information treat other people like mushrooms by keeping them in the dark and feeding them (lets clean it up a bit) the fertilizer of unreliable or partial information. This amounts to using communication to enhance personal power by withholding significant information from others. Manipulating situations by revealing or withholding information is even more powerful when the uninformed have rights to the hidden information.

This problem is targeted by many procedures for opening communications between people or within groups. At work it may be called “team building;” it may be communication techniques or exercises used at retreats; or it may be a project requiring group decision-making. In court or at work, it may be mediation procedures for resolving disputes. In personal life, it may be pre-marital counseling, marriage counseling, or individual therapy.

In each of these situations, open communication is encouraged as essential. It can also be therapeutic in all of these situations so that, when over, it is seen as a “peak experience” that enhances interpersonal understanding and closeness. In fact, the therapeutic value of open communication can become the main objective that is sought.

The point I will make is that the therapeutic effects of communication are not effective as a goal to pursue. Open communication, and the therapeutic benefits it can bring, works best when communication is improved as a step to achieving some really important objective. The primary measure of success must be reaching that objective, not how people felt about the quality and depth of communication in the process.

Based on personal experience, I believe that accomplishing goals leads to therapeutic benefits beyond the value of communication itself. To show what I mean, let’s look at examples from work, mediation, and personal counseling.

For more than a decade, I was a facilitator or trainer directing “interventions” at retreats, training events, or as part of developing a project team. I was an Organization Development consultant working with top and upper middle managers of a large state agency. There was resistance to interventions by managers (including my own supervisors) and employees who heard about “touchy feely” exercises that would make them emotional in public. Many seemingly innocuous games could be used to get people talking as they followed some basic rules to keep them from blaming others as they expressed their own views.

Time and again, I saw people who feared emotionalism quickly become passionately involved in laying out hurts they had been carrying around for years and asking for more personal understanding from others than they had been receiving. Invariably there were many teary eyes before the end of the process and an immediate afterglow of positive affirmation in the entire group.

When feelings were shared without specific agreements being made on improvements, the situation usually returned to the previous condition within a few days or weeks. Managers sometimes wanted to do follow-up exercises to try to harness the good will that had been experienced, but resistance grew far too strong because of the short-lived success the first time. No one would say anything negative about what happened, but they summed up their feelings with “been there, done that.” It was not good enough to make them want to repeat it.

I soon learned to link communication exercises to negotiating rules to accommodate the most important concerns of work groups. Requiring decisions by consensus in these discussions eventually led to very open expression of concerns and requests for making changes. No one was allowed to dictate, although the supervisor always had veto rights when company policy or other expectations of higher management would be infringed. The result would be trade-offs so that no one got everything they wanted but everyone got enough to feel the situation had improved. The process would be successful as communications were open and therapeutic benefits were felt. But reaching agreements on needed changes and following up with evaluation to insure they were honored perpetuated the benefits of therapy and gained credibility for the process as durable change was experienced.

I began to have so much success with negotiation as part of improving work teams that I decided to become a certified mediator. Over a number of years I worked with courts in 5 counties near my residence and mediated disputes in several state agencies in addition to my own. The goal sought in mediation was to resolve a problem at work or that would bring someone before a judge for a final decision. In both cases, one of the parties to the mediation knew they stood to lose a lot from the higher authority if the mediation failed to resolve important issues. Yet the pressure was never one-sided, because both parties stood to lose something of value if the higher authority made a decision because it could not be handled amicably at a lower level.

Negotiated agreements required both parties to make trade-offs, giving up something of lower personal value to gain something considered more important. Each party had something to gain from the settlement and something important to lose if the agreement were not kept. The result was more amicable settlement of disputes, leading more and more employers and court systems to turn to mediation.

Mediators are trained in setting boundaries for the negotiation process so that open communication within limits is sought as a resolution to the dispute is hammered out through the leadership of a neutral discussion leader. There were sometimes therapeutic benefits that began to repair damages to relationships as children overcame disagreements in the probate process, or as divorcing parties worked out compromises that allowed them to put the interests of children foremost, or as employees came to see their supervisor was not viciously intent on forcing them out of their job.

One reason I stopped doing mediation was the development of a movement calling for going “beyond shallow problem-solving.” The real goal, it was said, was to emphasize depth of communication more than coming up with settlements. Whether a dispute was settled and the agreement was carried out were quantitative measures of success for mediation. The new approach wanted to emphasize the quality of what happened during the mediation process rather than the outcome which could possibly be a shallow agreement that avoided the deep-seated problems in the relationship of the people involved. In other words, the therapeutic value of open communication, which could only be measured by asking people how they “felt” when the process was over, became the goal rather than achieving a measureable goal that could be enforced afterward. I became unwilling to participate in programs that started down a path I felt was bound for disappointment.

You might expect the situation to be different for counseling related to marriage or very personal issues because open communication seems like an important goal. Freudian analysis involved getting people to talk so that they reached awareness of what was behind some problems and thus achieved improvement. There are other counseling methods that focus on having two parties really listen to each other as they communicate more and more freely yet following important rules for taking personal responsibility rather than blaming others. There is no doubt that many people feel their marriage was saved or their lives changed for the better through this kind of counseling.

I have also seen many cases in which there is an initial boost of good feeling that was not followed up with positive changes. In three long-term relationships, I experienced bonding with women who shared inner burdens from the past and responded enthusiastically to having someone listen and appreciate them. But that initial glow didn’t last because my partners did not make personal adjustments to get beyond their hurts. In one case, a father was despised for his treatment of the family and his behavior became projected onto me as the relationship lasted longer and longer. The same issues were hashed out in counseling for years, but she continued to insist on seeing, for example, my reading that was part of work as well as relaxation from work, as following in the steps of someone who would not keep a job but would only read pulp fiction all day. In two other situations, scars from emotional abuse in long marriages that had ended were described over and over. The initial sense of understanding from open communication did not last when the issue came down to what someone was willing to do to let go of old hurts and make positive choices about the future. Failure to achieve results indicating positive change undermined the therapeutic glow that brought us together.

Personal and marital counseling can also benefit from negotiating agreements. Parents who are blending families but who disagree over rules can benefit as the parents hammer out a set of rules they will agree on and continue to negotiate modifications if needed as the rules are put into place. In some cases having parents include children in the negotiation can be beneficial. These are times when all sides are encouraged to openly express feelings and concerns, yet they are also called on to moderate some of them as they make agreements on behaviors to improve troublesome situations. Returning to the negotiating table to express concerns and continue working positively toward improvements is also a positive outcome. No agreement is meant to last forever and events bring up surprises that must be accommodated. Using open communications to support a mutually respectful process for resolving personal and family issues is a true win-win situation for those involved.

Communication is a real blessing. It is wonderful when someone really listens to you and responds by opening up in turn. That wonderful feeling we get and a sense of internal healing is what we mean by the word therapeutic. But at work, in court, and at home, it is usually essential to go beyond that initial glow to realize the benefits of that wonderful experience. Words that are not followed by appropriate actions can lead to a sense of betrayal. Communication with other human beings can be wonderful and very therapeutic; but to have the longest lasting positive results it must be in service to some achievable goals for which communication is the means and not the end.

First Published April, 2015


Teamwork in Education

This article is the product of experience I did not expect to have when I began teaching history at the university level in 1969. My understanding of education then, like most of my peers, was very limited. I had been to graduate school and could talk before groups, so I was qualified to be a teacher. I had taken no education courses. Lecturing to communicate information on my academic subject was expected as I did research for publishing so that I could gain academic advancement. When I began to be concerned about the problems of students whose reading, writing, and study skills were lacking, I was told that spending class time and passing out materials on those subjects was not really appropriate. My job was to “teach history, just history.”

Being drafted during the Nixon years of the Vietnam War took me away from the career path I expected to follow. There was no re-employment right for veterans with universities as there were for many other employers and I was unable to complete my dissertation during military service. Therefore, I was unable to return to university teaching and ended up in a job with a large state agency. In the course of a thirty year career, I became an Organization Development consultant working with top managers and their supervisors. Developing teamwork became a specialty. I was an early advocate of quality circles which developed in Japan. As the American interest in Japanese techniques faded, the focus on teamwork remained as a legacy that has gained increased importance as downsizing and computing technology continue to revolutionize the American workplace.

Upon retirement, I returned to teaching history at two institutions of higher learning. The educational environment has changed radically since 1969. Today faculty are expected to be concerned about student engagement and retention as a measure of institutional success. Use of groups and teamwork is one strategy that is encouraged so that students become more involved and not just passive recipients of lectures.

The purpose of this article is to share how I apply my experience with teamwork in an educational setting and why I think using teams is important. One problem is that most academics lack the practical experience with teamwork gained in other work settings. This article outlines principles anyone can follow to begin using teams effectively and confidently without needing to dig into all the academic literature on the subject.

This article explains briefly: (1) why collaborative teams are needed in education; (2) why they are difficult to achieve; and (3) how to go about teaching collaboration.

Why Collaboration?

Education in the United States has been in crisis since about the 1950s when the purposes of education began to change. The philosophies and approaches we inherited from Europe focused on developing an elite, teaching them skills and values for leadership as well as literacy and information. With the spread of more democratic approaches and values, the purpose seemed to become basic literacy and informational content. Literacy came to mean ability to read, write, and calculate at designated grade levels. Literacy and information have come to be tested in uniform ways with increasing pressure being placed on test results. It should not have surprised anyone that education of the masses would then turn into tutoring to pass tests in narrow areas.

Literacy in an elite educational system was more than book knowledge. It involved skills and values needed to function appropriately in an aristocratic society. The same is true today. Literacy includes skills such as driving, using internet browsers, computer operating systems, word processing and spreadsheet programs, and other essential skills for the modern workplace. True literacy in aristocratic systems was being able to function as leaders in that society. True literacy today means being able to function as a professional in whatever field one chooses. Today people do not stay in the same job or even career for their adult lives, so they must be prepared to function as professionals in a wide range of fields.

My job these days is to teach survey history courses at two institutions of higher learning. The subject is history, but the standard of performance is professionalism. The purpose is to turn out students who are functionally literate not only in history but in the skills necessary to function as a professional in today’s world.

What does this have to do with collaboration? My contention is that collaborative teamwork is a skill as much in demand today as reading, writing, calculating, driving, and using computers. Furthermore, real collaboration engages students as they participate actively in their own learning and help or receive help from peers to perform at higher levels. Many educators are eager to see teams used because they should produce higher quality products as the bar is raised when peers challenge each other and raise questions some would not have considered.

But there is a danger if teamwork is not used correctly. Students often think only in terms of “group work,” which means splitting up a task so each does less work and then throwing together an uneven product indicating less quality than would have been submitted by many students individually. When better students hear of teamwork, they may think it means they do the work of the poorer students who then get a better grade. The poorer students also have that same idea and are looking for a free ride.

Most faculty members and students will say they know what collaboration and teamwork are, but they don’t really understand them. One problem is that faculty members themselves have not been taught the basics of collaboration even when they often work in committees and other work groups. They too need to learn this aspect of literacy for today’s world.

Why Does Collaboration Seem Difficult?

Teamwork seems easy. The concept isn’t difficult. It’s doing it that makes you aware that it is not as easy as you thought. Too often people start to require it and then back down when things don’t go as smoothly as hoped so that many end up saying collaboration is hard to achieve.

The first point to realize is that collaboration is a skill like walking, running, driving, riding a bicycle, or swimming. Everyone can and will learn it with practice. Walking, for example, is a difficult skill that babies master slowly. Bumps and bruises on the rear end happen as babies figure out the multiple adjustments needed to keep their balance. When learned, we all do very complicated movements all the time without thinking about them because a skill has been mastered. The same principles apply to running, swimming, driving, or riding a bicycle. Once learned, even when you don’t use those skills for a long time, you can come back to them and quickly do them without giving thought to the many small decisions that are constantly made in order to perform the operation.

The second point is that there is often tremendous resistance to learning collaboration. Good students and employees want to achieve personal success, not bring a group along with them. Individuals who feel competent and powerful share both competence and power in teamwork. The star athlete who gets the headlines is what many people want to be rather than one member of the team who gets to play but doesn’t stand out.

Learning the value of teamwork can be a very humbling experience for those who feel they are extremely smart and competent. Really important accomplishments in our world today are essentially collaborative – from making movies and most art forms to running big corporations. When real teamwork happens, competent people learn that the group was smarter than the solo work of any really smart member. Studies have shown that group results can outperform individual results.

The third point, then, is that there is some pain in the learning process – bumps and bruises, embarrassments, times when things seem to be getting out of control. Teachers who use teams must be clear in setting expectations and firm in enforcing the rules if they are to get students to overcome resistance and fear of pain so that they learn the skill by doing it. Once it is learned, the students will feel more comfortable and even enjoy it as a genuinely participative form of learning.

How to Teach Collaboration.

There is a lot of information that can be learned. Principles of adult education are important. Group dynamics and creative thinking techniques can be useful. There is also much information on stages of team formation to make people comfortable with the various forms of conflict that naturally occur in teams. Sometimes academic writings lay out step by step processes for negotiating contracts or constitutions and other procedures that sound like they are guaranteed to produce success. All of this is good information – but it tends to make something simple appear far more complicated than it is.

There are three basic requirements for successful collaborative teamwork: (1) a meaningful assignment or objective to accomplish; (2) rules ensuring full participation of each member in following the rules of the assignment to produce a team result; and (3) teachers sticking to their guns to insist that the rules are followed and enforced.

A meaningful assignment creates pressure on a group that leads to productivity. Most of us are aware of football games in which the teams perform better as time is running out and pressure mounts. That pressure seems to pull teams together so they step up several notches in the closing minutes, often overcoming a great deal of stumbling that happened earlier in the game.

Teams must have clear and specific goals and expectations. Assigning a group to study together doesn’t produce measureable outcomes. It is measureable outcomes that motivate. One method that can work is to have teams work on presentations so that the entire group is graded on the quality of the final product. This method can work in most academic disciplines.

Rules for full participation can become complicated, but I believe that three simple rules are the key. They are easy to explain; however making them happen takes consistent enforcement. The three rules are: (1) rotating leadership; (2) consensus decisions; and (3) final team review.

All too often some students will talk more than others. Sometimes that means the brighter ones end up doing most of the participating. It is a good idea for one or two people to take the lead at times in coordinating or developing something for group consideration. It is important to find a way that is directly connected to the assignment to force groups to rotate leaders so that everyone is forced to provide guidance and no one gets a free ride.

The most difficult team skill to learn is how to make consensus decisions. One way to make them happen is to outlaw voting as part of decision-making. Whenever votes are taken, there are those whose voices dominate and those who passively go along. Students need to understand that unanimity is not the objective but a decision to which everyone consents. In consensus decision-making, everyone has a veto. If anyone has a concern about a proposal, they must be listened to and the group must find a way to reach a resolution that everyone can live with and agree to accept responsibility for. Consensus requires open airing of concerns and discussion that seeks to find a way to satisfy the concerns of every member. Of course these decisions must be within the rules laid out for the assignment so that the group does not have authority to rewrite standards given by the teacher.

The third rule is to require each team to formally and thoroughly review the finished product to ensure group examination of every detail and consensus affirmation of the product before submitting it. There is no room for allowing someone to make quick changes at the finish and turn in something the group says didn’t really represent what they thought had been agreed on.

The bottom line for evaluating the effectiveness of teamwork is the final product. If it is lacking in quality in significant ways, you can be sure the three rules of collaboration were not followed. Students will complain and find all sorts of excuses for making exceptions to the three rules. The role of the teacher is to be clear on the boundaries of the assignment and enforce them. That kind of pressure is what is needed to get students to follow through in using the expected skills.


Use of collaborative teams is a necessary skill in today’s professional world. It can also raise the quality of student engagement and of educational outcomes. The difficulty is that teachers must learn the essentials of teamwork, build them into assignments, use simple and clear rules, and then enforce in spite of resistance. Our educational goals today should not be to turn out specialists in one discipline or another, but professionals equipped with the skills needed to succeed in a number of possible careers. Collaborative teamwork is one of those life skills today.

First published April, 2015

From “Just History” to Student-Centered Time Travel

Graduate work in history was all that was needed when I began teaching at a university in 1968. Education courses were not essential because standing in front of students and lecturing was what any successful graduate student could do, or so we thought.

My perspective changed as I taught about one hundred students the first term. Making a point of getting to know each student, I saw that many of them lacked writing and study skills needed to succeed in a history course. Colleagues noticed when I handed out reading and writing tips and then counseled struggling students. My office-mate expressed concern, saying my job was to teach history, not other subjects. When my radical behavior persisted, the head of the department said I was hired to “teach history, just history.”

Today, my students at Georgia Gwinnett College have tutoring and counseling services free of charge. Each fall semester, faculty must adjust to upgrades in classroom technology and to the learning management system. Through a Center for Teaching Excellence, we learn about new educational practices for improving student engagement and can seek help using classroom technology. While keeping up with scholarship in history, I am also expected to uphold institution-wide goals for engaging and retaining students who also must achieve high performance standards.

This college teaching environment, as I approach the end of a professional career, is the most invigorating and enjoyable of my life. The belief in teaching “just history” has yielded to revolutionary innovations in teaching and in the field of history itself – both of which are personally satisfying.

I share with colleagues of all disciplines many values based on the educational environment of our institution. However, my approach to teaching “more than history” takes a direction somewhat different from many of them by emphasizing skills expected of professionals today.  Among historians there are also varying opinions on the best approaches for studying history. I differ from some colleagues by viewing all history as both contemporary and world history; and arguing that science and history should be taught in combination by interdisciplinary teams to ground students in a more holistic view of life.

Professional Skills

Survey history courses that orient students to fundamental knowledge need to also develop essential skills for citizenship and the demands of most professions. Students today need to seek and interpret reliable evidence, a skill which the election of 2016 made even more imperative for those who get their news from social media. They also must learn basic habits and proficiencies required of professionals today.

Contrary to the expectation of many students, history is not just committing important dates, events, and people to memory. Learning the importance of evidence and how it should be interpreted is essential for building values and skills of citizenship. Understanding that historical accounts take many forms (books, newspapers, magazines, websites, and social media), and to look for documented evidence (valid primary and secondary sources) with accurate and responsible interpretations, is an increasingly important skill. Students today live in a world deluged with audio, video, graphic, and written content over the Internet, some of which comes from tainted sources such as terrorist groups or foreign powers wanting to destabilize our government. Using rational analysis to filter out unreliable information is becoming ever more difficult. The Internet is a great educational tool – but it is equally useful for radicalizing people vulnerable to emotion, propaganda, and misinformation.

For me, an enjoyable part of being a historian is recognizing the role played by interpretation. Specialists in a field differ on fine points of interpretation because of the evidence they select and how they arrange it. The same kind of debate occurs in political media.

When I was in college in the 1960s, televised news coverage shaped national opinions. The outlets were relatively few and news coverage rarely lasted more than three hours a day. Variations in opinion, such as those in the north and south over civil rights, were aired; yet the differences in interpretation between news outlets was less obvious than today.

Cable channels brought important changes to the way people gained news before social media arrived. Competing outlets segmented the public based on political leanings, making it possible to shop for a news provider that caters to specific points of view, consistently presenting interpretations along certain lines and being selective in the evidence and range of stories they show. Internet sites and social media have magnified the segmentation of interpretations to fit even smaller audiences. But size of the audience is not insignificant when a radicalized terror group uses the Internet to recruit worldwide.

My point is that accurate use of evidence and skeptical consideration of interpretations need to be taught in history courses as citizenship skills. This also makes discussion of current issues important, a point that will be discussed presently.

On the first day of class, as we review the syllabus, I emphasize the importance of professional behavior and skills as objectives of the course. The days when a student need only show up for exams and turn in a paper are gone. My courses now build in team-based activities counting 20% of the grade.

Rules of the course emphasize concentrating on the business of the class for the entire period. Temptations are many when students use laptops, tablets, and smart phones in class. They are not allowed to make or receive phone calls, check or send texts and email, surf the Internet, or work on anything except the class assignment – but students will always test to see how vigorously rules are enforced.

Students often resist the rules for team work. Many say they like group work because, in practice, good students often carry the load for weaker students to protect their own grade. Having been a team-building consultant, I insist they follow rules for full participation by making consensus decisions for which all members take responsibility. Assignments must undergo thorough team review so that the product, such as a presentation, looks as if it were prepared by a single person. The team grade on these assignments is also the grade for each team member. As in military basic training, failure of one person in team performance drags down the grade for everyone.

Although students will say they know how to work in teams or that my rules are not new, the skills I enforce can only be learned through practice under realistic pressures to work as a unit. Students usually discover they have not experienced real teamwork and that, like babies trying to walk, it is learned only by persisting after early failures.

Presentation skills are highlighted in my courses. Teams report the results of activities in class and undergo class discussion of their work. They also make a formal presentation on an assigned topic using presentation software. For this assignment, they are provided written guidance on making effective presentations and professional-looking slides. The outcome is expected to be a ten-minute presentation on a historical topic that demonstrates competent historical and presentation skills. Since this is also a team assignment, they must demonstrate their product followed the rules for teamwork.

Individual writing skills are also developed through two short essays and a paper. Class activities involve teams in preliminary work on writing assignments. When teams come together, weaker and stronger students can form peer mentoring relationships that boost performance of the weaker student on the individual assignments.

One of the rewards of teaching is the opportunity to write recommendations for jobs or admission to graduate programs. Thus far, even though teaching primarily freshmen, I have a high success rate for those who ask for recommendations. I believe the key to success, along with the overall grades of the student, is my ability to describe how they behaved as professionals, both individually and as team members.


Contemporary and World History

Two revolutionary changes to the study of history in my lifetime modified attitudes toward contemporary and world history. My high school (1950s) and college (early 1960s) history classes usually stopped before getting to recent history. Some writers made a distinction between history as stable knowledge of the past and current events for which long-term impacts were not yet known. The German philosopher of history Georg Hegel stated this view poetically in The Philosophy of Right: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” Wisdom about history, in other words, is only possible in retrospect. Hegel and the historian Leopold von Ranke also expressed the traditional view of world history, which saw it as European mastery extending over the globe.

History teachers are rightly cautious about too much political discussion in class. The dilemma becomes obvious when thinking about the campaign and early presidency of Donald Trump. Opinions for and against both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were voiced in my classes. Especially important to me were the almost weekly statements and actions disrupting normal rules of American elections. Trump’s behavior and agenda overthrew normal expectations in a way not experienced since Andrew Jackson. Recognizing the occurrence of one historical precedent after another made the Trump experience an unavoidable topic, yet teachers like me needed to avoid turning classes into outbursts of opposing political speeches.

The current effort to revive American nationalism, in my view, represents opposition to loss of international dominance. The University of Chicago historian William H. McNeill was the first to describe world history in terms of interactions (such as trade, communications, epidemics) of cultures east to west and west to east across North Africa and Eurasia. Worldwide cultural interactions, now referred to as globalization, began as Europeans arrived in the Americas and then the Pacific islands. European and American assumptions of superiority have been resisted by former colonies as the planet is increasingly united by air and space travel, nearly instant communications, international trade, and danger of epidemics.

Our understanding of the importance of Columbus illustrates the joining of current events and a global view of world history. In high school and college, I learned that Columbus “discovered America” – a marvelous achievement of European superior knowledge and technology. But textbooks today recognize there were native populations in all the lands explored by Europeans who had cultures of their own and felt no need to be discovered. In fact, interaction with European powers often brought epidemics that decimated peoples not previously exposed to diseases that had long circulated in North Africa and Eurasia.

The achievements of Columbus look quite different when seen as part of the ongoing theme of human migration on planet earth. Patterns of migration are a constant issue of world history, as seen in the Trump campaign and electoral issues in European countries in 2016-17.  Human beings were the first species to inhabit every continent. As they continue to move about, they disrupt old cultural patterns of religion, race, social relationships, and law.

What Columbus achieved was to inaugurate modern globalization as the Americas were brought into ongoing contact with cultures of North Africa and Eurasia. Innovative technologies keep intensifying the forces of transportation, economics, and communication that push cultures of European descent to treat other cultures equitably. These same forces are also intermixing populations as new migratory patterns keep emerging to challenge old cultural beliefs.

Even the remotest of historical events, like the first migration of humanity out of Africa or the arrival of humans in the Americas across land that is now under the Bering Strait, are still contemporary issues. There are political groupings in the United States today for whom the implications of human origin in Africa or rights of native groups in the Americas are urgent religious or constitutional issues.

Challenging students to pay attention to historical issues, no matter how ancient, as matters of ongoing importance to contemporary groups can encourage them to broaden their ideas of relevancy beyond the newest trends in their favorite technologies. Hopefully they will become better citizens as they connect present trends with the human past.


Science and History

Another revolutionary development in the study of history is narratives based on scientific evidence that probes into the deepest past and projects the most distant future.

Historians usually maintain that writing transformed pre-history into the proper study of human stories based on literary sources. This distinction is now rejected by many of us who affirm archaeological, geological, climatological, genetic, and chemical evidence – and even theories of physics – as sources for pushing histories to the origin of the universe, solar system, and life on earth.

Some historians espouse Deep History, which reverses time in explorations of human origins. Anthropology and archaeology, now with boosted power through genetic archaeology, have extended knowledge of the origin of our species, and of important attributes like speech, ever deeper into time. Many social sciences look at earliest cultural practices of hominines and their contemporaries. With their emphasis on pushing knowledge backward, these scholars sometimes attack cultural traditions such as the Judeo-Christian belief in forward progression of time from a primordial origin.

The trend that appeals most to me is called Big History. The narrative follows the traditional progression from a beginning (the Big Bang) known through scientific theory and data. Relying on physics and cosmological theories, the story traces the evolution of complexity from ultimate chaos to the current state of the universe – and uses the same theories to project likely developments billions of years from now. This scientific-historical narrative highlights the origin of our solar system, of life, and then evolution of humanity and its history.

As outlined in the first college textbook on the subject, Big History emphasizes eight points of major transition. The three most recent concern human history – origin of the species, adoption of agriculture, and arrival of the Industrial Revolution. Like other transitions in the narrative, these bring greater complexity that offer both dramatic new possibilities and greater dangers. The challenges now facing humanity include destruction of life on our planet and collapse of systems based on ever faster innovations that test the adaptability of human societies.

Students have been excited when I introduced aspects of Big History during world history courses. Those not interested in pursuing detailed understanding of sciences like mathematics, chemistry, or physics are stimulated by seeing the results of applying them to understanding evolution of order and life in the universe. I like the way students learn important scientific information in combination with an approach to human history that is sensitive to all cultural and religious traditions.

One of the first applications of Big History to education happened at Dominican University near San Francisco. Experiments with courses led to changing the mission of the institution and requiring all entering freshmen to take Big History under the guidance of an interdisciplinary team of instructors. Part of the idea was to use Big History to promote a unified approach to knowledge in the sciences, arts, and technologies while also building an educational environment in which faculty collaborated across disciplinary lines in ways that are student-centered. The experience at Dominican University led to summer institutes for a few years and then to publication of results in Teaching Big History.

Visualizing the timespans involved in scientific approaches to history has been a challenge. Time divisions of ancient, medieval, and modern apply to life since “civilizations” began. Archaeological divisions by types of tools (old stone, new stone, bronze, or iron) keep changing in spans of years. Starting with the Big Bang requires leaping billions and millions of years, then zooming in on thousands and hundreds as literary evidence begins.

A novel insight for many students is that history involves time travel. Not the science-fiction kind of travel so popular with young people, but non-fiction travel that speeds through billions of years backward and forward as well as centuries, decades, months, and days. The University of California at Berkeley has a website, featuring work of the geologist Walter Alvarez, called ChronoZoom which allows users to jump over time from the Big Bang until the present, zooming in closer and zooming out as students travel through time. The International Association of Big History website also has a link to the Cosmic Evolution Arrow of Time site by Harvard University for another way of scooting around in time.


After a career of “pushing the envelope” as a teacher, I now espouse the radical idea of teaching science in combination with the story of the universe, and in further combination with world history and current events to emphasize globalization in its broadest definition. This goes way past the bounds of history by having teachers of sciences, literature, arts, religion, philosophy, education, and history collaborating in a course that mirrors the scientific quest for a Grand Unification Theory.

Even in an environment as stimulating as the one at Georgia Gwinnett College, there are still bureaucratic walls. For members of a state university system, those walls are fortified by state laws and regulations that can stifle experiments like Big History.

Still, I remain optimistic. Considering the extent of change I have witnessed in a career spanning 49 years, the odds favor innovation.