What do we consider to be a good general education? What knowledge, skills and abilities should a young person have after finishing secondary school, whether leading to university (German: Gymnasium) or leading to vocational training (German: Regelschule in Thuringia). Can Big History offer a contribution here?

Deanna Kuhn, Education for Thinking, begins her book of the same title with precisely this question: Why do we send our children to school?

In her research project she primarily investigates the development of thinking and learning skills as a goal of education. For at the end of the school and training period, a person should not only have general knowledge of the world and special expertise, but also the ability to cope with life. That in turn in a democratic state also means, responsible, i.e. informed and reflected citizens, who with their vote ultimately set the course for politics, which in turn determines how society as a whole wants to live, which in turn sets the framework for the individual development of the single person.

When dealing with the subject of education in Germany, one inevitably comes across the name Humboldt and the Humboldt educational ideal. (Humboldtian model of higher education)

The Wikipedia entry refers to P. Berglar (1970): Wilhelm von Humboldt, p. 87 and quotes Wilhelm von Humboldt's letter to the Prussian King:

„There are undeniably certain kinds of knowledge that must be of a general nature and, more importantly, a certain cultivation of the mind and character that nobody can afford to be without. People obviously cannot be good craftworkers, merchants, soldiers or businessmen unless, regardless of their occupation, they are good, upstanding and – according to their condition – well-informed human beings and citizens. If this basis is laid through schooling, vocational skills are easily acquired later on, and a person is always free to move from one occupation to another, as so often happens in life.“ Link

The conclusion from this is that for Humboldt not only training for a particular occupation was important, but also education in the sense of humanism. In a society based on the division of labour, before the specialist knowledge required for the work in question, there is also a need for a shared general knowledge, which contributes significantly to holding society together.

In my research on the subject of Humboldt's educational ideal, I came across a text by Juergen Hofmann on the occasion of the 225th event of the Humboldt Society in 2010 with the topic: „What significance does the Humboldt legacy have for our time?“ Hofmann notes that Humboldt's concept of education includes both "knowledge" and "the education of the heart". Both are necessary to be able to speak of an educated person, yet this is not enough: "One is not educated, one educates oneself". A little more specific, I would say that you are trained by others for a certain profession, but you actively work on your own education. The (general education) school lays the foundation for this.

(Although Wilhelm von Humboldt is primarily associated with this educational ideal, I would like to mention that he was predominantly occupied with the study of language).

We have already met Wilhelm's (2 years) younger brother Alexander von Humboldt in the making of Big History as a natural scientist who studied the interactions between things and wrote down his findings in the cosmos.

From theory to practice

So much for the theoretical considerations, let us now take a look at the practical side. Here I have taken a closer look at the situation in Thuringia, because I live here and have experienced the school system through my son. I myself went to school up to tenth grade in the former GDR and completed a three-year vocational training with Abitur (the school leaving certificate leading to university) in the early 1990s.

If you take a look at the current Thuringian school regulations for primary school (Appendix 1), grammar school (Gymnasium) (Appendix 4) and grammar school sixth form (gymnasiale Oberstufe) (Appendix 13), you will see the following picture, which I have summarised for myself in a table.

Table 1 Overview school subjects in Thuringia

In primary school, the subject of local history and geography (Local Studies) provides the foundations for later differentiation in the natural and social sciences.

In grades 5 and 6, the subject "Man Nature Technology" provides an introduction to the natural sciences of biology, chemistry and physics.

In addition to German and mathematics as core subjects, English as the 1st foreign language and history are taught up to grade 12.

Bilingual modules must be provided from grade 9 at the latest.

In grades 9 + 10, each school must offer 3 courses for the elective section, from which one is then mandatory.

In classes 11 + 12 there is the possibility for an interdisciplinary course.

In practice, much depends on the available teaching staff. At my son's school (grammar school/Gymnasium) there was the possibility to choose a third foreign language OR astrophysics (natural sciences) OR theatre (arts and music) as a compulsory subject. Theoretically, of course, an offer from the social sciences or an interdisciplinary offer according to the school's curriculum would have been possible. In practice, however, such courses could not be offered at this particular school.

Finally, the bilingual modules require teachers of other subjects, such as natural or social sciences, to have appropriate foreign language skills.

Link to Big History

Let us recall how Armando Viso illustrates with a comparison what big history is: „When biology is enlarged to encompass the links between living organisms of different species, ecology appears;  when history is stretched to incorporate the links to and within the natural world, big history appears. Just as ecology does not preclude but enlightens biology, big history does not rival but enriches history.“ The Routledge Companion to Big History (Routledge Companions) (S.175). Taylor and Francis. Kindle-Version. see overview (German)

Big History is uniquely interdisciplinary in that it combines the social sciences with the natural sciences and in that context trains the skills of critical and historical thinking. The aspect of big history as a modern origin story can be taken up in the subject ethics/religion (one of the two must be taken from primary school through to 12th grade) and also in the field of music and art.

Two very different examples of the latter are provided by:

Philip Day (for friends of Rap-music) with his Rap History of the World

Sam Guarnaccia (for friends of classical) composed the „Emergent Universe Oratorio“, which was performed and recorded by the Main Line Symphony Orchestra in the evening program of the conference of the International Big History Association 2018 on the campus of Villanova University (Philadelphia/USA). You can watch it on Youtube.

A few concluding thoughts on education

Since Big History as a perspective is still relatively new, it offers plenty of room for experimentation in the search for answers to the question of what is a good general education today in our time with its specific challenges. For one thing must not remain unmentioned: the amount of available and important specialist knowledge is constantly growing. However, people can only absorb a certain amount of it during their school years. More and more, it needs to be selected what can be realistically conveyed from the growing amount of material. All subjects (except for a dead language like Latin), become more and more extensive from year to year, because life is evolving. Big History illustrates this in a lively and interesting way, and it also shows how much we humans depend on each other and nature.

Thus the Humboldt Brothers' contributions to education and the indispensable critical thinking come together in Big History. On the next page, we look in more detail at big history in school education.