Sunday, September 7, 2014

So Katharine Beals Has This Idea for Language Arts Class...

I admit it; the title of this blog post is pretty obviously inspired by an article in this weekend's New York Times Magazine. It's entitled So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class..., and actually, I've been inspired by more than just the article's title. Consider this:

As Gates was working his way through the [Great Courses] series, he stumbled upon a set of DVDs titled “Big History” — an unusual college course taught by a jovial, gesticulating professor from Australia named David Christian. Unlike the previous DVDs, “Big History” did not confine itself to any particular topic, or even to a single academic discipline. Instead, it put forward a synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields, which Christian wove together into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth. Standing inside a small “Mr. Rogers"-style set, flanked by an imitation ivy-covered brick wall, Christian explained to the camera that he was influenced by the Annales School, a group of early-20th-century French historians who insisted that history be explored on multiple scales of time and space. Christian had subsequently divided the history of the world into eight separate “thresholds,” beginning with the Big Bang, 13 billion years ago (Threshold 1), moving through to the origin of Homo sapiens (Threshold 6), the appearance of agriculture (Threshold 7) and, finally, the forces that gave birth to our modern world (Threshold 8).
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As Gates sweated away on his treadmill, he found himself marveling at the class’s ability to connect complex concepts. “I just loved it,” he said. “It was very clarifying for me. I thought, God, everybody should watch this thing!”
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He told Christian that he wanted to introduce “Big History” as a course in high schools all across America. He was prepared to fund the project personally, outside his foundation, and he wanted to be personally involved.
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This fall, the project will be offered free to more than 15,000 students in some 1,200 schools, from the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies in New York to Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, Mich., to Gates’s alma mater, Lakeside Upper School in Seattle. And if all goes well, the Big History Project will be introduced in hundreds of more classrooms by next year and hundreds, if not thousands, more the year after that... Last month, the University of California system announced that a version of the Big History Project course could be counted in place of a more traditional World History class, paving the way for the state’s 1,300 high schools to offer it.
Wow. It never occurred to me to to use my billions of dollars to get millions Americans to take the course I personally found most enlightening. That would be "The Syntactic Phenomena of English," originally taught by the late Jim McCawley of the University of Chicago Linguistics Department. Now, you might think this course is somewhat narrower in focus than "Big History." But language is the basis of everything human, and syntax is the basis of language. Without language, there simply is no history, of any size--small, medium, or big.

Indeed, back when I first sat through Jim's course and read through his two-volume The Syntactic Phenomena of English, with its grand tour through the smallest constituents of grammar, through those Deep Structure to Surface Structure movement rules, through to such phenomena as quantifier score, patches, and syntactic mimicry, I thought to myself, "God, everybody should take this course!"

Inspired by Gates' history initiative, I am prepared to fund this project personally, offering it free to cash-strapped schools from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon as a replacement for their traditional language arts curricula. And I'm confident that, as this happens, and as everyone sees how great this course is, the proliferation of "The Syntactic Phenomena of English" around the entire United States of America will reflect what principals and teachers know is best for our school children, and what those school children and their parents most desire from our country's public schools.

Indeed, what the New York Times Article says in conclusion about Bill Gates could also be said of me:
[A]ttempts to paint Bill Gates as a self-interested actor in his education projects don’t make much sense. Joel Klein, the former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education,... laughed off the idea that Gates had an ulterior fiscal motive. “The notion that he has an agenda other than trying to improve education is just embarrassing,” said Klein, describing how Gates continued to contribute — and even increased his contributions — to New York City public schools during Klein’s tenure. “I can’t think there is a malevolent bone in his body.”
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Big History may one day become an heir to Western Civ or World History, but that didn’t seem to be Gates’s goal; it was more personal. Really, Big History just seems like a class that he wished he could have taken in high school. But he wasn’t a billionaire then. Now, a flash of inspiration on the treadmill might just lead to something very big.
There isn't a malevolent bone in my body, either, and I'm confident that the flash of inspiration I had when I first took "The Syntactic Phenomena of English" might just lead to something equally big.

3 comments:

Hainish said...

I find your course much more interesting than Big History! Sign me up!

LEX said...

I'm in!

Barry Garelick said...

Maybe we can make a video about traditional math and its effectiveness and sneak it in to Gates' workout room so he can view it while on his treadmill. That may be the next big thing that Gates wants to see implemented in the schools!