Would you like to use the study of ancient history as a lens for looking toward the future?

High-school students preparing to launch themselves into their futures sometimes wonder why they should devote time and energy to a detailed study of ancient history. Even those with an intrinsic interest in history and a love of story may find ancient times so far removed as to have little actual consequence on modern life. 

Much has been said already about the value of studying history, so I’m not rehashing any arguments about that right now. Instead, the question I’d like to explore here is:

How can we bring what we learn about ancient history into our modern lives?

As my son and I plan for our study of ancient history, we are thinking of how we can go beyond books and archaeological discoveries (fascinating though they are), and approach the study of ancient civilizations in ways that allow us to think about modern problems.

History is more than learning names, dates, and battles — to be meaningful in this context, history is really the study of patterns. If you analyze these patterns to determine what made a particular civilization successful, you begin to discern the holistic picture of humanity’s relationship with the natural world. From studying ancient history, therefore, we can learn about patterns that will inform our understanding of sustainability.

Looking to the past to solve future problems

Learning about sustainability practice requires us to ask questions that are future-oriented. It raises awareness of the roles that we have in solving the problems of our world. Environmental sustainability also happens to be one of my son’s passions.

Realizing that we can use what we learn from ancient history to dig deep into the concepts of sustainability was an invigorating revelation to us. It’s exciting to think about this in new ways, combining knowledge of both ancient times and modern science to consider solutions to the problems faced by contemporary civilization.

Project-based learning

This leads to an excellent opportunity for project-based learning. Project-based learning is open-ended and can result in any number of different types of work. I’m not sure yet what my son will choose to do since we are in the very beginning stage of our long-range planning, but there are many interesting opportunities here.

In designing your project, you are looking at ancient history as one part of a cross-disciplinary strategy for thinking about the future. You can include humanities, science, technology, engineering, art, and yes, even math. You may decide to produce a research paper, a scientific model, a simulation showing effects of different variables on the sustainability of a civilization, or even develop a new technology for green living. You may decide to take a humanities-based approach, and use story and images to convey your ideas in ways that are accessible and inspiring to others.

Designing a study of ancient history and sustainability may include coursework in different disciplines, and there are opportunities for collaboration, fieldwork, research, interviewing experts, and whatever else you may decide to include. Take advantage of your strengths and passions, and get creative!

I’d like to share our basic plan as a jumping-off point for you; my hope is that you’ll fill it in and modify it to suit your needs. We’ve got four main components to our plan for learning about sustainability through ancient history:

A robust ancient history course-of-study

We want to explore history through a variety of readings, exploring as many aspects of the cultures as we can. We want to learn not only how the ancients lived, but what they thought about—including what they thought a good life should be. We need to uncover their opinions about nature, how their environment influenced the development of their civilizations, and how these ancient civilizations affected their environment. We will also want to consider how these factors have influenced modern attitudes.

Concepts of sustainability and systems thinking as they pertain to events in ancient history

Through our course-of-study, we will learn how to use systems thinking. We will also learn how to identify and examine the interrelationships between civilizations and their natural environment that form the basis of ecology. For instance, how did the ancient Babylonians pull off their feats of engineering and botany that produced the Hanging Gardens of Babylon? What effects did that produce on their economy, their water resources, their agriculture, invasive and/or native species?

By exploring historical events and examining change over time, we can better understand how things came to be the way they are. We can learn to interrogate our assumptions, for example, about what a house should look like: how large it must be, what makes it comfortable, how to heat/cool, where to get water, what to do with sewage, how it sits on the land.

We can examine some of the issues surrounding the collapse of ancient civilizations, and connect them with contemporary problems to determine whether those solutions can be used or modified sustainably in modern times. For example, during the time of the ancient Romans, issues such as the deforestation that occurred in northern Africa, the use of concrete (and the toll it exacted upon the human body), over-hunting, the supplying of water via a system of aqueducts, and indeed even the political system itself can be considered and analyzed in terms of sustainability, desirability, and resilience.

Looking for patterns

There is, of course, the old adage that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The original quotation, attributed to writer/philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952), translates more accurately as, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

However, given what really happens in history, Mark Twain may have been closer to the mark when he said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” I believe he was talking about the patterns that show up time and again, despite our supposedly knowing better.

In ways both small and large, from post-war treaties that ultimately lead to future conflict rather than peace, to the ways entire civilizations rise and fall, patterns show up throughout history. Ecological transgressions, failure to adapt to a changing climate, and imperial over-reach resulting in bloated and shortsighted bureaucracy, are some of the obvious patterns that have contributed to the downfall of entire civilizations.

As you design your own study of ancient history and sustainability, I’d like to offer one of Isaac Newton’s famous quotes: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

We do collectively stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, all the way back to the ancients. Their accomplishments are astounding; they built for us the foundations upon which our civilization stands today. We face some very real challenges to our environment and the sustainability of modern civilization, and in looking back at those who came before, we can identify patterns in their history that look a lot like patterns in our own trajectory.

What lessons can we learn from them? How can we build upon what they did with what we know now and create a sustainable future?

The final project synthesizes your analysis

Whether you’re writing a research paper, designing a simulation, or developing an idea for a technological solution, in trying to solve the problems of our future, the trick is to continue to think systemically. If there’s an overarching theme to all the patterns that present in the downfall of ancient civilizations, it’s this: each component is one variable. Each variable contributes to the sustainability of the civilization as a whole system.

How can we as a civilization solve several problems at once? How do we revive economies that are turning downward, support massive employment, provide for a growing population, and still live harmoniously with the environment?

We are more aware today of the consequences of our choices than any other society in history has ever been. We have more tools at our disposal, and a far greater potential for applying technology in meaningful and creative ways. Wouldn’t it be amazing to explore these ideas from this vantage point?

Let’s go beyond the books and dig in!

Resources for ancient history and sustainability:

  • For a robust, literature-based guide for studying ancient history, check out History Odyssey Ancients Level 3, for grades 9-12 from Pandia Press. From first civilizations to the fall of Rome, Ancients Level 3 is a complete one-year study guide that combines history with literature, world geography, and writing activities. This comprehensive course-of-study covers the successes and failures of Ancient civilizations from all parts of the world such as the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Mayans, the Hittites, the Persians, the Mesopotamians, and many others.
  • For more ideas on teaching sustainability, the Center for Global Studies offers resources, links, and guides for educators of grades K – 12.
  • For sustainability-related readings, writer Lance Hosey offers a list of books that have inspired him.

Denise Wilson

Denise Wilson is a pro-level follower of rabbit trails who has homeschooled her middle-schooler since he was four (it was his idea). Her work includes writing for children and the adults who love them; creating and teaching science courses for middle-schoolers; and the general magic of the everyday. Denise’s family loves reading, traveling, table games, making stuff, and playing with their dog, Charlie Barker. She blogs about their secular, eclectic, weird but awesome home education life at BackyardOwls.com .