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Greek education in America: defining its purpose

By on October 26, 2015
by Athena Efter

by Athena Efter

I was asked by the Editor, a longtime friend and journalist, whom I respect for his independent perspective, critical way of thinking and his willingness to always open a forum of debate and thought inspiring articles from the voices of Greek-Americans, to write an essay on Greek Education in America and what it means to the students who attend Greek-American parochial schools today. Having worked for 10 years in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Education system, I imagine he considered me an ideal candidate to express an objective opinion. My intention is just that-to objectively state an opinion and open a forum of thought and debate.

Growing up as a first generation Greek-American in Boston, we did not have Greek-American parochial day schools to attend. We attended Greek school as a separate school and program and became familiar and indoctrinated in our culture through these separate programs, sometimes independent and sometimes run by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, or, at least, having had some connection to it. Greek School was not something I looked forward to attending. I was, first and foremost, an American and did not necessarily understand the need to learn about a history, culture and language that was not really a part of my birth right. I learned how to speak Greek, pray in Greek, listen to Greek music and make moussaka at home. But surely, that’s not what being Greek means. Besides, growing up in Irish Catholic Boston, it meant avoid your Greek identity at all costs. It just didn’t seem very important to me as an American. But still, my mother, a Greek School teacher, adamant to preserve the culture and language within her family, forced me to go to Greek School every Saturday. I use the word “forced” because I felt that the culture was imposed upon me in a way that conflicted with my American identity. What was its relevance? It’s one thing to receive an education in the Classics, which shaped our western world and much of our intellectual and academic identity today, but it’s another thing to create an identity as a Greek and to consider how it affects a child of direct Greek ancestry growing up as an American. Moreover, how does this dichotomized identity fit into a Greek-American school?

Many Greek-American parochial schools accept students of all faiths and backgrounds. Some are exclusively composed of a Greek-Orthodox student body, or, at least, must be Christian Orthodox in faith, which leads me to ask the question that was asked of me. What is the purpose of a “Greek education”? Is it one that is adherent to the tenets and philosophy of a classical education, with its roots in the classics, or one that is assumed to create and preserve an ethnic and nationalistic identity? Is it a multifaceted purpose? Greek-American Day Schools were initially created as a way to preserve the language, culture, identity, and even religion of the first-generation Greek American student. All of which was understandable and sensible during a time of immigration where prejudice was rampant, a cold war was imminent to exacerbate a fear of anything non-American, and being Greek may have been a “dirty word”. There was a logical need to create an insular solidarity. That was the mission then. What is it now, especially if being introduced to a non-Greek population? Is it to expand an ethnic identity or is to offer a curriculum that closely follows an education in the classics and applies it to a classical model that began in ancient Greece and Rome and extended into the Western World? Is its purpose to create a well-rounded citizen that understands the world around them or is to create an ethnic identity?

To the non-Greek student, growing up in a western society, founded upon an ancient Greek system of governing laws and an education for all, what does a “Greek education” mean to these students? Is it a nationalistic identity or is it a way of life and education that should be preserved, understood and practiced on a daily basis? I find that many Greek-American Day Schools only scratch the surface of what it really means to provide a “Greek education”. The line between ethnic pride and nationalism versus the offering of a classical education, which seems to be the intent of many, often gets crossed and the purpose and mission gets lost. Is there a way to balance it? Should it be balanced? It is not my intention to provide the answer, but merely to raise the question, and perhaps the question of many who choose to send their children to Greek-American Day Schools. More importantly, why would a non-Greek family choose a Greek-American school for the education of their child? Is it to indoctrinate them in an ethnic identity or to give them the benefit of an education based on critical thinking skills and the cognitive development of a classical model? That is the question I was asked to answer, but I don’t have the answer. I am not a formally trained educator. I can only write about the question that was asked of me through my own objective and critical analysis.

I know that I, growing up as a first-generation Greek-American, did not feel the need to further “cult-ize” myself into a Greek ethnic identity. I knew it was a part of my identity and one that I appreciated and wanted to preserve for many mundane and pedestrian reasons, like learning how to make a spinach pie, or for more intellectual reasons, like learning about the mathematical, scientific, philosophical, artistic, and literary contributions that were made by our ancestors of long ago and how they still stand today. My nationalistic identity is still American, and I always wanted to be part of my country as a citizen, not an outsider. How do you balance these two cultural and nationalistic, even ethnic, forces in a Greek-American school, or any ethno-centered school, for that matter? How do you create a sense of universal citizenship in any culturally ethnic school without excluding the student who is not of the majority ethnicity?

It is perhaps not the intention of any school to exclude any student, but often times the need to put our “own” first can inevitably result in a sense of division between the non-Greek and Greek students. That is always the challenge of any school that focuses more on ethnic identity as an ego boost to itself or merely as a burning need to preserve what they fear will become lost through assimilation, as opposed to an ethnic identity’s relevance and relationship to the world. As many Greek-Schools will celebrate the anniversary of a pivotal day in world history known as “OXI Day”, or NO Day”, it is important that we, as Greeks, understand and communicate its relevance within the course of World History, as it evolved into the world as we know it today.

It is important to separate ego from education. It is important to preserve a culture, a language, a system, an educational model, an intellectual, academic and philosophical contribution, and an ethos as rich and as enduring as Greek civilization, from its antiquity to today, and continue to drive it forward into the future through inclusion, not exclusion. It’s not “we” versus “them”. It’s not “we are better” because “we did this” a long time ago. It’s not “we are better” because we are Greek, but it’s how can we always strive to be better as people and citizens in any society because we understand the ancient Greek society which gave rise to our ethnicity as Modern Greeks today and that we wear so proudly on our sleeves.

If Greeks invented a complicated, untranslatable and very highly idealistic word like “filotimo” then we owe it to the world to live and lead this word by example. We do that by finding a universal, practical and sensible form of application through education, not a sense of pompous ethnic pride and entitlement, to explain the word that cannot be easily explained to the world we choose to be a part of. Or does that world choose to become a part of us? By becoming a student of “Greek education”, whether Greek or not, ideally we would follow a classical model of education that is essentially rooted in the understanding of an education for all. Is that not a true education in a democratic society? Greek-American Day Schools can carry that torch, and perhaps have an obligation, as a microcosm of the larger society, to reflect that democracy. Was Socrates Black? And if he was, he was still a Greek, and a well-educated one. I would like to see more students in Greek-American day schools that are not Greek have the opportunity to understand what it really means to be Greek, and not because they serve spinach pie at events celebrating major Greek historical occasions that really don’t mean much to them, other than that they are simply events in Greek history that happened. It’s more important to them, as Americans, to understand how Greek history, language, and culture influenced them. So yes, go ahead and serve those spinach pies. They make for tasty treats after all students, both Greek and non-Greek, stayed up all night memorizing, rehearsing and spitting back what they learned, and more importantly understand why they learned what they learned and how it relates to the world around them. I personally would have embraced such an education if it was an option for me as an American and a Greek-American child, but because I understood being American as assimilation and Greek as separation, I didn’t really care to understand what I felt had no impact on the world I live in today. Sure, I learned the language and understood its value when it helped the verbal portion of my SAT’s. It came in handy, but still, Greece, as a civilization and a culture, was ancient history to me. It doesn’t have to be. It can be a history we create again by continuing to educate ourselves and each other in what made our once close to idyllic civilization so great.

I would like to see “Greek education” continue to be an opportunity for all students, regardless of heritage. I would like to see it continue refining its goals and its mission toward a more progressive way of thinking (not to be confused with progressive education necessarily) by closely following a classical methodology, with an emphasis on the classics, that educates all American citizens. Many Greek-American day schools are also faced with the challenges of enrollment and retention. I have to ask myself why. Is it because parents don’t want to send their children to schools that limit their education by focusing on ethnic pride? I have to ask myself this question too. Would I have sent my own children to any school, whether Greek, French, Jewish, etc., that puts the mission of ethnic identity first? Or would I choose a more inclusive social, cultural, and academic environment, even if influenced by a Greek identity, that emphasized and carefully planned the type of education I wanted for my child? What if a school puts the mission of a “Greek education”, the quintessential classical education, first? Would that sway my decision, if I were not Greek? I don’t have children, but I can say this much: if Socrates was Black, I’d be very proud to admit that. And if I was living in ancient Greece, and my child who was 100% Greek, was receiving a classical education, but was lazy, apathetic and truant, and went to the same school as Socrates, I would probably say: “why can’t you be more like Socrates?”

So what is the value of a “Greek education”? It’s everything when you follow the example of what it means to be “filotimo”. If anyone can translate this word into English, we would have a great model of social, cultural and intellectual ideals to begin with. It’s a very idealistic word that comes with a very high standard of honor in definition. It does not have to be so impossible to translate into any other language. It’s an example of virtue and truth that should remain the driving force behind everything in which we choose to educate ourselves and others. An education that adheres to its mission, its core values, and its philosophy by creating a curriculum and environment that reflects the truth of that mission is an education well worth receiving, if that is the education you choose. There is always room for improvement and we always have to strive toward that end by firstly and accurately defining what it means to receive a “Greek education”, to give it the “filotimo” it deserves. I don’t have the answer, but I was asked this question by my friend and publisher, and being the philosopher at heart that I am, and the student of philosophy that I once was, he certainly got me thinking about it and questioning it.

*) Athena Efter is an independent film producer and full-time thinker.

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