California college helps place humans in universe story

Gramajo is among 250 freshmen who are participating in a unique educational venture at Dominican University in San Rafael, Calif.

Big history has become the school’s First Year Experience for freshmen. It has brought together the social sciences, the arts, humanities and sciences to look at the place of human beings within the context of the universe story, explained Mojgan Behmand, English professor and program director.

According to Behmand, 50 big history classes are taught on campuses around the world. But Dominican, a secular school with Catholic roots, is the only university that currently requires all of its freshmen to take the classes, she said. They study the origins of the universe, and consider such topics as human cultures, political systems, visual arts, trade, sex and gender, philosophy, and religion through the lens of big history.

One of the chief shapers of the program is Cynthia Stokes Brown, a professor emeritus in history and education at Dominican. “Big history is everybody on the planet’s story,” she told NCR. “It doesn’t belong to any one religious tradition but puts human history in the context of the universe.”

Last August, in a Marin Independent Journal story, she elaborated: “It reinforces the idea of looking at something globally rather than regionally, reinforcing your sense of identity as a human being, rather than a part of the United States or even Western civilization.”

In 2007 Brown wrote a book about the topic titled Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present. She begins by telling about the universe when it was the size of an atom, and concludes with the situation of our planet today – a place inhabited by 6.1 billion people in an age of global warming. It views prehistoric geology, human evolution, the rise of agriculture, the Black Death, Columbus’ voyages, the industrial revolution, scientific advances and environmental degradation.