and report from Berkeley
Leonidas Petrakis*, PhD
Developments in Greece, including reforms, are of interest to the Diaspora. The current Government of Greece is pursuing wide ranging reforms -some demanded by its lenders- of many sectors including the educational system, a perennial target of previous governments also. The result has been a plethora of eponymous laws that have done little to solve the deeply rooted problems.
This latest process started rather inauspiciously. The ad hoc Commission, appointed by the Minister of Education to solicit imputs from the public for formulating reform proposals, was prevented from even holding its first meeting by protesters, an indication of the formidable obstacles that must be overcome. Emblematic of the daunting challenges is the existence of the para-educational tutoring system known as frontistiria.
Frontistiria have an antecedent in the “Clouds” of Aristophanes in which he lampoons Socrates. The hapless Athenian citizen Strepsiades enrolled in Socrates’s frontistirion in order to aquire skills for dealing with his non-perfoming (kokkina) loans. Contemporary frontistiria aim to help students get high enough grades in the many national tests and thereby gain entry in the highly competitive university system. The years of tutoring entail grinding hours for the students (emphasis is on memorization) and severe financial burden for the parents. It is ironic that success in the public education system depends on the private sector.
After WWII Greek students seeking better opportunities outside of Greece were welcome and even actively recruited by American universities. This exodus led the UN to identify Greece as a leading source of the “brain drain” phenomenon that was benefiting the rich Western countries. Professor David White, Director of the MIT Energy Laboratory, once confided to this writer that, based on the exceptional mathematical proficiency of the Greek students that he was encountering, he felt justified in concluding that Greeks “must be a nation of mathematical geniuses”. Yet, there are indications that not all is well. Particualrly alarming are the results of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) studies of the quality and level of achievement of high school students in various countries. In its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) competition for the period between 2003 and 2012 Greek fifteen years olds placed fourth from the bottom among European countries in mathematics, comprehension and the physical sciences.
Reform has been a constant concern of the Modern Greek state from its very inception, with the Greek language (a metaphor for the search of identity of modern day Greeks) being the focus of these efforts. The endless bickering between advocates of Demotiki and Katharevousa involved not just intellectuals and educators but the entire country. Professor Georgios Mistritotis of the University of Athens played a leading role in the demonstrations at the turn of the twentieth century protesting the serial publication of the New Testament and the performance of Aeschylus’s Oresteia in Modern Greek translations. The protests turned violent with scores killed and injured. The dispute was finally settled in 1976 when the Karamanlis Government made the Demotiki the official language in education and administration of the state.
But the language issues in education have not disappeared. Some reform advocates demand -as if dealing with a zero sum game- the curtailment or even the very abolition of the teaching of ancient Greek (a “useless” subject), for it detracts from what a modern system should provide. And the Director of a distinguished Modern Greek Studies program at a prestigious American university in an interview with the Athens daily Kathimerini pleaded that the Greek Government should not provide any support to Classics programs in universities outside of Greece, since Classics is a “superfluous luxury”.
Yet, classics scholars in Greece, often under extremely difficult circumstances, have continued to mine and bring forth the riches bequeathed by the ancients. So have non-Greek scholars outside of Greece, of course, who have leveraged hugely the efforts of their Greek colleagues. The Germans, French and the British were among the earliest travelers (some were looters) and scholars to unearth, study and advance the appreciation of these riches. The American School of Classical Studies at Athens was established in 1882 and has made major contrinbutions in excavations and restorations at the Athens Agora, Corinth, Pylos and Nemea, with generous support from American philanthropic foundations -The Rockefeller Foundation for the rebuilding of the Stoa of Attalus, and the Hewllett Packard Foundation for the Poikili Stoa in Athens. The Carnegie Foundation made a contribution of great importance to Greece’s cultural heritage by helping the American School acquire the collection of the Greek diplomat Ioannis Gennadius and establish the Gennadius Library at the School as a major center for post-classical Greek culture. Large numbers of faculty and students from major American universities flock to the School every year as they pursue their scholarly investigations into Greek antiquity.
The Department of Classics of the University of California (at Berkeley) is one of the most renowned centers of classical studies, both in teaching and research. It has a major presence in Greece, and it boasts several outstanding resources, vital components for the scientific advancement of the study of Greek antiquity. These include the Tebtunis Center of ancient papyri (which I presented earlier in these columns), and The Aleshire Center of Epigraphy.
Berkeley often hosts classical scholars from Greece who present the findings of their researches. It celebrated the centennial of its famed Greek theater with two perfomances, attended by thousands, of Stathis Livathinos’s (National Theater of Greece) Medea. The performances were preceeded by a symposium on Greek theater and the continuity of Greek culture and language, a theme that has been emphasized both by Seferis and Elytis on accepting the Nobel Prize. Greeks continue to have an important presence in the Berkeley faculty, including the late Gregory Vlastos, Alexander Nehamas as a Sather Professor, and currently Nikos Papazarkadas and Maria Mavroudi. Each year scores of students who are attending Berkeley from all over the world are exposed to Greek classical thought. Instruction, as might be expected, is rigorous and demanding, e.g., the year-long advanced course Survey of Greek Literature requires students to thoroughly prepare one thousand lines of poetry each week and analogous prose material. Many students spend time in Greece as well, and often they learn Modern Greek not only to facilitate their stay but also to enjoy the culture of Modern Greece. The University has expressed at times an interest in establishing a Modern Greek Studies program, but no Greek philanthropist has stepped forward to sponsor such a program.
Recently the Epigraphy Center of the University organized an international conference with many of the scholarly works presented being based on the riches housed at the Epigraphy Museum in Athens. The Greek participation was impressive, with the internationally renowned Princeton Advanced Studies Institute Professor Angelos Chaniotis featured as a keynote speaker, and presentations by several scholars from Greece headed by the distinguished classicist Dr. Angelos Matthaiou. This was particularly gratifying, given the many negative headlines of the recent past about anything Greek.
While some reformists in Greece are advocating further curtailing or eliminating ancient Greek, the subject is thriving at Berkeley and other American universities (and even at some high schools!), both the language per se but also the ideas (with their compelling contemporary relevance) advanced by the ancients.
Classics can teach us a lot about contemporary affairs. George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense while preparing to invade Iraq held seminars on Thucydides, but failed to learn from the Athenians’ disastrous expedition to Sicily. Herodotus tells in a very entertaining way how the leading families of Athens colluded and repeatedly tricked the Athenians (“more clever and less gullible”, and “the most intelligent of the Greeks”) to gain political power. He writes that Pisistratus and his fellow conspirators used for their trick “a woman from Paiania who was almost two meters tall and was also good-looking. They dressed this woman up in a full set of armour, put her on a chariot, and, after showing her how to hold herself in order to give the most plausible impression, set out for the city with her. Runners were sent ahead to act as heralds, and they, on arriving in the city, made the announcement they had been told to make. “Men of Athens”, they said, “Goddess Athena is giving Pisistratus the singular honor of personally escorting him back to your Acropolis” .. the city-dwellers were so convinced that the woman was actually the goddess that they were offering prayers to her…. and welcomed Pisistratus back”.
These days the leading families that dominate politics do not send messengers to the Athenian neighborhoods, for the task to persuade voters to elect even those making obviously impossible to keep promises has been assumed by TV -offering cacophony that passes for political discourse, soporific Turkish soapoperas, and mind numbing drivel imported from the American TV “wasteland”.
The beneficial lessons of the classics do not come for free. King Ptolemy I asked Euclid whether there was some easy way to master geometry, to which the great mathematician replied, “There is no royal road to geometry.” There is no short cut to learning ancient Greek either. Abolishing the subject is not a solution. Rather, the challenge for the reform minded educators is to devise a system that exposes the students to the beauty of the language and to the ideas of the ancients, but is free from the tyranny of the para-educational frontistiria, the attendant stifling financial burdens, and the students’ agony from interminable tests.
* Leonidas Petrakis holds a PhD in Physical Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley; has taught at various universities in the US, France and Greece; was Department Chairman and Senior Scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory. He divides his time between Oakland, CA, and Athens.