It’s 2018 and yet Ancient Greece and the works that were produced during this period continue to be consulted with lessons to teach us, as has been the case over the past two millennia.
Not everyone seems to think so, however, evidenced through the many shrinking humanities departments across the country.
“The way Australians view university is more as a practical tool,” explains Humanities 21 general manager Maeve Martyn.
“If you’re not doing something that has a direct practical application then maybe you’re wasting your time.”
She says you only need to look further afield to Europe or the US to see the many benefits of studying a broad degree, resulting in a wider set of skills including critical thinking and problem-solving, which couldn’t be more appropriate for the modern day job market, where people are estimated to change careers at least four times in their life.
So as we become more fluid as employees, with the need for skills that translate across different fields and jobs, there’s never been a better time to think broadly and critically.
This has certainly been the case for Humanities 21 founder and president Peter Acton.
Having worked as a consultant across the corporate sector for almost his entire career, with an MBA from Stanford, along with studies in Classics under his belt from Oxford University, Maeve says it is the latter that Peter finds himself drawing from time again.
“Having done all this fantastic study across the world, what he found working in the corporate sector for decades really was that his education in Classics was far more useful actually than studying business. He saw that knowing about history and literature and philosophy and all the other things encompassed by the humanities really helped him to get an understanding of the way human beings work, the way societies work. If you know about history you’re able to think more clearly and more insightfully about the present and also have ideas about what the future might hold,” explains Maeve.
Which is where Ancient Greece is a stellar example.
The ancient hub of innovation, it was famously the crossroads of civilisation – the peninsula of the Mediterranean – with Greeks venturing out to live among other civilisations to observe and learn from the differences, rather than conquer and stamp out local cultures as the Romans did – a cross-germination of ideas.
Through this, writings evolved to highlight critical ideas about people and societies.
As people become more focused on the individual experience, and less on community and society as a collective, Maeve says it’s more important than ever to come back to these books and historical narratives.
“That’s why Homer actually is quite important in giving people perspective on the way our world is currently functioning, because it is all about the human condition and a journey of self-discovery.”
That’s in large part why the not-for-profit organisation has chosen to put Homer at the forefront of their next event, a three-day Festival of Homer.
Set to be hosted at the stunning Hellenic Museum from 15 – 17 June, it will be a celebration of literature, history, myths and legends with a similar format to their 2016 event, kicking off with a cocktail party, and a keynote on Why Greek Myth Matters Today, at the Kevin Club.
The following two days will be filled with events including an interview with Emily Wilson, the first female to translate the Odyssey into English, and will delve into the challenges of translating Homer for a modern audience. A debate will also take place featuring four speakers who will tackle the question Was Achilles a Hero or just a Very Naughty Boy?
Dr Heather Seabo also features in the line up, and will explore our understanding of the geography of Ancient Greece in her lecture Is Ithaka Ithaka? before a Greek barbecue lunch closes the festival.
By running such events, the organisation is looking to inspire students to study humanities as the basis of a successful career, and to give people of all ages who are interested in the humanities the chance to engage with the discipline and other like-minded individuals.
On a bigger scale, Maeve is open about their ambitions to drive change among policymakers through their advocacy, while lifting the stigma surrounding the study of humanities.
“I think the policy around shrinking arts departments and funnelling students into courses that are more skills based rather than teaching you how to think … I’d like to see that change, and hopefully we can be a part of influencing that change,” she says.
For that to happen, she says businesses need to get onboard and alter their attitudes to broaden their perceptions around what employees can bring to a role, and from where they acquire those skills.
“We’d like to see people talking about humanities in a positive light and acknowledging just how important it is for people in any occupation to have an understanding of these sorts of things; if you know about Ancient Greece you know about innovation, if you know about the Medici in Florence you know about the way banking works. If you draw those connections for people that may influence their children, their friends, their peers at work, and within businesses.”
Which is exactly what Humanities 21 endeavours to do with the Festival of Homer.
“We hope we can remind people that there are certain things about human beings that don’t change over millennia, and they’re things that we really need to remember, particularly the idea of being a good citizen and contributing to the community.”