Scott Henstrand, BHP Teacher
New York, USA

Note from BHP Team: This post is in response to Sarah Scoles’s piece Do You Know Where You Are in the Milky Way?. This piece discusses the scale of the Universe and how we’ve begun to understand both its makeup and our place within it, even if its size is almost incomprehensible.

As teachers, we’ve all heard variations of this question: “Why do I need to learn this?” I would say this goes for every subject! In Big History, students tend to be in awe of the expanse of the course. Even early on, the question of pertinence comes up. In Units 1 through 4,  we look at the extremes of scale, from the subatomic to the astronomical. Though fascinating to most students, the scale is daunting and abstract. How can we make the subject more relevant?

Let’s take an example. In studying stars and galaxies in Unit 3, you might look at where we are in our galaxy. Say you’re passionately discussing this, and a student asks: “Does it matter that we know where we are in the Milky Way?” The question is a challenge to all we do in school and it’s critical to answer it with something more than “Because it’s cool—and besides, you need to know it for the test.” (Though I hope you’re not giving many tests in your BH course!)

What’s important about this question is not the knowledge itself, but the existential implications of the knowledge. I have found this to be the key to engaging students. The class should struggle with this question in a discussion. A good way to open the discussion is to ask, “OK, does this really matter? Why might it matter?” Your role as facilitator and lead learner is to challenge students to rest on more than a  superficial answer and to grapple with the immensity of something humans cannot truly grasp.

So,why does this matter? There are several points I consider with students:

  • The modern scientific narrative, which includes where we are in the Milky Way, and the scientific method for gathering evidence toward this narrative,are the basis of our economic, scientific, and technological systems. The continuing development of this narrative is the context of our society and our psyches, and is fundamental to the decisions we make each day. Discussing the implications of being able to say that we know where we are in the galaxy and the Universe gives you an opening into the outcomes of collective learning and the systems of thought and governance that have come from this. Hopefully, the discussion can continue into thinking ahead to the future and other possibilities.
  • This modern understanding of where we are in space is our particular culture’s manifestation of the place of humans in the cosmos. This would be a great moment to bring out some other origin narratives (such as the Mayan and Efik) for comparison.What does each culture want from their origin narrative, based on what you read in their origin story? What is each culture striving to know? What would the members of the culture get from this narrative? How could individuals find their place in the culture through this narrative? These questions should also be applied to the modern, scientific narrative of Big History!
  • This pinpointing of place is an existential fact of our lives, what we are thrown into without choice. This is where insignificance may, and should, become part of the discussion. The notion of significance runs through all cultures. Our culture points out the fact of where we are in space and time, but does not offer any explanation for how to process this fact or its importance in understanding our relationship to the world. This is where literature, art, philosophy, and religion have stepped in. An example of this can be found in the philosophies of existentialism and Zen, which address this question similarly. The fact of your insignificance does not matter in the face of the continuing exploding into the world we each do at every moment—always something from nothing in a continual personal Big Bang—the radiating and spiraling of a galaxy of effects from the dense void of our own existence.

These large questions are really what drive the Big History class. Take as many opportunities as you can to run with them. You’ll find that your students will collectively create their own galaxy right there in the class.

About the author: Scott Henstrand has been teaching Big History at Brooklyn Collaborative Studies, a public school in New York, since 2011. His school offers the course as a two-year deployment that replaces global studies. In the first year, Unit 1 through Unit 6 are covered; in the second year, Unit 6 through Unit 10. Scott loves teaching the course because of the fundamental philosophical implications of the material.

Cover image: The Milky Way map, updated with a newly discovered branch of the Orion Spur and Perseus Transit. By R. Hurt derivative work: Roberto Segnali all’Indiano – Milky_Way_2005.jpg, Public Domain.

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