St Kosmas the Aetolian
It is unsurprising that the above quote was spoken by a clergyman and saint who also advocated that schools were immediately more important than churches, during his ministry, for in the Greek mind, there has always been a religious component to its conception of schools. Thus the first school (for we did invent schools) in the form of the ancient Academy, contained a sacred grove of olive trees dedicated to Athena goddess of wisdom and its head, or principal, was known as the “scholarch.” The etymology of the word school, comes from a root that signifies acquiring or getting something, in this case, knowledge.
Over the years, various forms of ancient communal life were incorporated into the concept of school, most notably the gymnasium and it is this marriage of the two ancient conceptions of religion and community that led the Byzantines to arguably found the first public school system at a primary level in the world, in 425 AD and to maintain it, with intervening fits, starts and other vicissitudes, until 1453 AD.
Thereafter, one of the more defining expressions of Greek resistance to Ottoman rule is the not so mythical but variously exagerrated romantic institution of the “Kryfo Scholeio.” In the popular consciousness at least, in the dark days of Ottoman repression, the Church developed secret and where permitted, not-so secret facilities that ensured that the Greek culture and language did not die out. By the early ninteenth century for example, owing to the political astuteness of Ali Pasha, Epirus had more schools within its boundaries than the rest of Greece put together. The donations of benefactors were also geared towards the construction of schools. The ingenious Epirot Zosimades brothers for example, wished to construct a school in Ioannina at a time when the construction of new schools within the Empire was prohibited. They were able to circumvent the regulations by building the school in autonomous Wallachia, where the building of schools was permitted and transporting it brick by brick to Ioannina. When the enraged authorities took issue with the construction of the school, the Zosimades brothers were able to argue that they were not building a new school, rather transporting one that had already been built. Such desperate persistance in the construction of schools exemplifies their importance in the Greek mind.
It is thus evident that the concept of grouping students together in a centralized location runs parallel to the development of unified, modern cultural identity. Early modern Greek schools contained within them the seeds for both nationalism and imperialism. They were nationalist, in so far as they instilled in students a sense of their ethnic identity gleaned for scrapings and shavings of a glorious ancient and Byzantine past (in proportions analogous to the individual prejudices of the teacher). Considering that from the Byzantine times right up until the close of the Ottoman era, the Greek’s conception of self was submerged within a wider religious idenity within an oikoumene that was or should have been either Orthodox Christian or Islamic, the promotion of a Greek ethnic identity within schools was of seminal importance to the emergence of the modern Greek state. This identity had as a central tenet, its uniqueness and superiority.
Considering that other Christian races subject to the Ottomans availed themselves of Greek school facilities, not having an unbroken tradition of education or literature in their own language, one may have been forgiven at the outset for believing that this was so. However, rather than blindly accepting the Greek claims of superiority and uniqueness, they were able to use these sentiments, gleaned from “Greek” schools, in order to formulate their own sense of identity, one which invariably led to nationalistic conflict and the “Salade Macedoine” that was the Balkan wars. For example, it was the Greek educated nobles of Romania, led by Tudor Vladmirescu who in revolting against the Ottomans, were actually revolting against the cultural and political domination of the Greeks. While our historiographic myths tend to see the Phanariot hospodars as benign and enlightened rulers who instituted social and educational programs that benefited the native peoples of Wallachia and Moldavia, the Romanian national myth describes how the oppressed Romanians utilised the tools given by them by the hated Greek exploiters, in order to rouse the masses. If there is any poetic justice for the Greeks here, it lies in the fact that having refused to come to the aid of Ypsilantis’ Moldavian revolt, Tudor Vladimirescu fell foul of his Romanian people, was murdered and thrown down a toilet. Similarly, the leaders of the Albanian national movement, notably Faik Konitza and Naim Frasheri were educated at Greek institutions and translated the assumptions contained in such an education into their own national context. In other words, we are the authors of the limitations upon our own historic national aspirations.
It was in this that Greek schools exemplified just how intrinsic they were to the maintenance of a Greek identity. The first thing the Bulgarian komitadjis would do, when entering what they called a “Grekoman” village during the Balkan Wars, was to kill the teacher and replace him with a Bulgarian one. Underlying this approach to ethnicity is the tacit admission that ethnicity is but a fluid construct to be variously manipulated and instilled in an amorphous and largelly ethnically unconscious population at will. Counter-attacking Macedonomachs would remove the Bulgarian teacher and re-install a Greek teacher, thus ‘restoring’ that village to Hellenism. Schools were and still are treated as ‘units of idenity’ in Albania. In 1934-5, Greece had to take Albania to the World Court in order to secure the re-opening of Greek schools in that country and the free and unhindered operation of schools that teach the Greek language is still an aspiration rather than a reality in that country, owing to the ‘threat’ that these schools, as perceived harbingers of Greek nationalism and irredentism are seen to pose to the myth of Albanian homogeneity.
This historic background would seem to explain the almost holy stature we have afforded to schools within our community in Australia. It was a natural and sub-conscious act for first generation Greek migrants to endeavour to build schools as these were seen as the ark that would preserve and propagate Greek civbilisation and pure Hellenism to the generations of transplanted, static and immovable Greek children unto the ages. As these migrants entrenched themselves and gradually gained acceptance, they had a care to seek other ways in which to eternalise their Hellene-producing bastions. One of the methods they employed was the campaign for the institution of the Greek language in government/public schools, and some private schools as well, as well as tertiary institutions. The sub-conscious thought-process behind this seems to have been that by having Greek education instituted in public schools, this would amount to a tacit legitimisation of their presence and culture, since it was a ‘foreign’ government who would be providing the funding for such an institution. Further, according to historical precedent, there would be an ‘opening’ out to the other races of the realm, notably the British-Australians, who, recognising the innate superiority of all things Hellenic, would flock to avail themsleves of such superior enlightenment and in the process become imbued with Greek culture.
This never happened of course. Greek education remained in a ghetto of its own, restricted to Greek students and those with a direct interest in Hellenism because of family or other ties, simply because language learning within the Mainstream, is positioned upon two planes. The first is that of the acceptable languages which are considered to be on par with the dominant culture’s civilization ie. Latin, French, German, traditionally and later on Chinese and Japanese, the mastering of which confers some type of prestige. The second plane is that of the ‘ethnic’ languages. These are the community languages of the migrants which are of no value to the Mainstream, since those migrant communities are expected to conform with the cultural and political norms prescribed by the dominant culture, and their languages and cutlure are therefore confined to the ethnic ghetto, as inferior. As a result, the learning of these languages, in the private and public sphere exists to the extent that cultural perpetuation of the ethnic minorities in question is permitted by the Mainstream.
Recent comments by a veteran Greek school teacher and campaigner for the institution of modern Greek into public schools to the effect that we have been lax in our promotion of Greek language education are certianly pertinent at this time. Given the rapid decrease in numbers of enrollements in VCE Modern Greek, the demise of Modern Greek language programmes in Melbourne tertiary institutions in the past ten years, (compared with the inspiring activism by the Greek community and the Church to have such programmes instituted in the seventies anyway), the fact that while primary enrolments are stable, these increasingly do not follow through to the secondary level, and the fact that the quality of education is generally not to a standard that would permit a Greek-Australian to operate on any functional level within our community or that of Greece, one would have to ask why this is so.
This is because sub-consciously at least, a large section of the generation of Greek-Australians that is now producing children despises the Greek language. They despise it for two reasons, the first being because they have been brought up in a society which places no value on its aqcuisition. Thus, the time they have had to spend aqcuiring it has been painful, simply because it has been seen as a futile waste of resources that could have otherwise been employed for greater material or social benefit. Secondly, it constitutes a sub-conscious reaction and act of rebellion against the unilateral imposition upon them by the first generation of THEIR values, aspirations and conceptions of identity. Because as native-born Greek-Australians we must always recognise the first generation Greek-born migrants as authentic transmitters and arbiters of Greek culture and identity, we ourselves can never be authentic Greeks. As such, we will never be able to live up to our trasmitters’ expectations and we hate them for it and ourselves for our failure to fulfil them and to find our own identity.
The ontological fear felt by ‘unauthentic’ Greek-Australian parents is manifested in such ironic incidents as their pleading of their first grade offspring’s Greek teachers not to speak to their children in Greek in class so that they do not “freak out,” and constant complaints about Greek schools giving their students homework that is either “too much” or “too hard.” This ontological fear is addressed by Greek schools who purport that “learning Greek is fun and easy,” and have a policy of not correcting their students’ mistakes in red pen so as to ‘not upset them,’ or rather, their parents, in an effort to slowly coax and entice them back into a safe middle ground where parents may feel that they are at least fulfilling their progenitors’ expectations in part by sending their children to Greek school, but are not having their ontological position challenged by their children being educated in Greek to a better standard than their own.
This comes in stark contrast to the situation thirty years ago, where learning Greek was not ‘fun and easy’ but a ‘noble, holy and necessary task.’ If Saint Kosmas was to tour the Greek communities of Melbourne today, he would be told that one does not have to speak Greek to an adequate level to be Greek, as long as one ‘feels’ Greek and would also probably be castigated by ontologically fearful Greeks for attempting to ‘impose’ his own views. The truth is that at the moment that we were permitted to transcend the ethnic ghetto and integrate ourselves within the Mainstream, the Greek language ceased to be integral to our survival, since the Mainstream deals with us on a racial rather than a linguistic basis. The Greek language is thus a burden that many of us would love to divest ourselves of, and only cling on to because it is still imposed as a value by the Titans of the first generation. Upon their demise and unlike our Cavafian predessors, it is highly likely that as Antipodean Poseidonians, our lost identity and knowledge will not be a burden, or a release. If we are still able to spell and pronounce Poseidonian that is….