It’s Ancient History

Lately, I’ve been reconnecting with my past. I’ve been revisiting my training in Ancient History and connecting with former teachers, colleagues and old school friends.

And I’ve been asking the obvious question, “What does Ancient History have to do with us today?”. In common language usage, when we say, “Its ancient history”, we mean its old news and it doesn’t matter any more. In psychology, we might apply the phrase to mean someone should stop dwelling so much on past wounds and become more resilient. In business psychology, we might mean that we should be using initiative and innovation to develop new ideas and practices, rather than harking back to the way we’ve always done things.

Yet in schools  and universities across Australia, and especially in NSW, Ancient History is flourishing. Why do students like it so much, and what does it mean? What can it teach us about ourselves?

Ancient History is a subject that shows us that though we are different, we are essentially all the same, across time and place. It shows us that people care, and cared about, the same things. It gives us empathy and perspective. Ancient writers like Aristophanes show us that in 5th Century BC Athens, people were laughing at slapstick jokes, mocking their politicians, and accusing each other of drinking too much or taking themselves too seriously, just like we do.  In the ancient world, as today, people challenged themselves through sport and intellectual pursuit. Modern Western culture is founded on Greece and Rome, through language, institutions, and conventions. Our alphabets are from the ancient world, our systems of finance and money stretch back to ancient times, and our art is based on ancient art. We write stories, make films and play video games based on the ancient world. It’s in our psyche and our social DNA. In modern Western culture, we have built a way of life on the shared foundations of the ancient world. As the internet and other technologies drive us closer and closer to a global community, so our shared (and differing) foundations become more important to understand.

In a “new world” country like Australia, historically made up of so many migrants and superimposed on an ancient culture, an understanding of how everything fits together and where we all come from is particularly important to make sense of who we are, how we fit in, and how we can take ourselves forward.

Why does it matter? It matters because whether our lives are based in the Western tradition or not, we are all part of a continuum. In the East or West or anywhere else, we have cultures that didn’t spring up from nowhere, they had causes and we live the effects, and we create new ones for the people who come after us. Terrorism is not a new phenomenon, humour is common to us all, wars always start because of similar reasons, and human nature is the same, no matter where or when. Ancient History teaches us that. And if we learn the lessons, then perhaps we don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel.

The ancient Athenian philosopher Socrates was told by the Delphic Oracle more than two thousand years ago,”Know Thyself”, and the advice is just as relevant today. Societies and individuals know themselves when they know where they come from and why they do things.

Why do Australian students like Ancient History so much? It shows them we are not alone. It shows them that there are interesting people from the past who helped to build the world they live in. It shows them that they can do that too. It gives them hope, and it gives them meaning and a sense of themselves.

We all need that.


Lynette Jensen

Lynette Jensen is a director and co-founder of Genesys Australia and is committed to helping people achieve work-life balance through good job fit. In addition to contributing to this blog, she also writes regularly for HR Daily Community and Dynamic Business Magazine. Her articles have been re-published in India & the United Kingdom.

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