Saturday, June 04, 2016
The dolorous news that Northcote High School will gradually phase out its Modern Greek (and Italian) program has caused great consternation within the Greek community. This is especially so given not only that this is one of the more ancient public school Greek language programs in Melbourne, having been in operation for some four decades, but also because some 120 students are currently studying the language at the school. In their stead, Chinese and French will be taught.
This should not surprise us. Victorian educators aware of this matter have commented that ever since deregulation, principals have been empowered to make requisite decisions in order to attract students (principals’ pay being dependent upon numbers). The new and lucrative market of full fee paying foreign students is relevant to such decision making. School policy is thus aimed at marketing towards full fee paying foreign students (hence the inclusion of Chinese as a language) and upper middle class students as a target demographic in hipster town, that will give the school the grades so that it can market itself effectively (hence the prestige language: French). In this paradigm, Greek as a language is divestible.
It is not known whether the Greek community at large is cognisant of such considerations. Nonetheless, in the meantime, yet again, the Greek community is called upon to enter campaign mode and mobilise in order to prevent this calamitous event from actually transpiring.
Such campaigns are deemed to be effective, especially given the propensity of public schools to attempt to divest themselves of Modern Greek studies of late. Some years ago, a concerted community campaign to 'save' Modern Greek at Wheelers Hill Secondary College ensured the continuation of the program, at least until the present. In the case of Wales Street Primary in Thornbury however, where similar campaigns to preserve Greek were successful, earlier this year, Greek was discontinued after a democratic vote, despite the school having a large Greek student base. Since 2011, the study of Greek has also been discontinued at Fairfield Primary, Bentleigh High and Westgarth Primary School and it is rumoured that it is under threat at Balwyn High as well.
It appears then that at least for the past two decades, a pattern of decline has been established vis a vis Greek language studies wherein, rather than establishing a strategy for expanding the number of students, we are content to sit idly by, paying no attention to the diminution in enrolments or the decline of fluency standards until such time as any given programme is threatened with termination. It is only then, in order to forestall the inevitable, that we spring into action, largely ignoring and seldom addressing the root causes behind this disturbing phenomenon.
Apparently, one of the reasons cited for this tendency to discontinue Modern Greek Language programs from public schools, is that the Greek community is already serviced by its own private or community educational facilities and therefore there is no need to burden the public purse. Conversely, proponents of Greek being taught in public schools maintain that as taxpayers, we have a right to demand that Greek be taught in such public schools. This is a deep seated belief that has been widely held by our community ever since the formal institution of multiculturalism as government policy.
Nonetheless, it appears that our right to demand, does not correlate to an actual right to have the language taught. Various stakeholders have pointed out that when Greek was introduced to the public curriculum so many decades ago, the Greek community was one of a few that comprised the multicultural fabric of Victoria and was electorally significant. Now, though numerically significant, it is one of over a hundred ethnic groups, all of which vie for their place in the sun and a slice of the funding pie. Many of these groups can be trusted to vote en bloc in a particular way, in a manner which the largely assimilated Greek community no longer does. Therefore the need to placate the Greek community politically is seen as less acute than it may have been in years past. Put simply, there is a section of the powers that be, that consider that we are insisting upon the maintenance of privileges that are archaic and bear no relevance to the real state of our community and its needs, simply because this feeds our ego and makes us feel important. The maintenance of such privileges is a burden on the public purse, preventing distribution of funding to emerging migrant communities that have greater need of it. Furthermore, some of them argue, in a society where economics drives politics instead of the other way around, given the continuous decline in enrolments, funding programs for which there is no manifest demand is inefficient, leading to poor 'outcomes.'
We must pay homage to the committed first generation migrants who fought hard to have modern Greek language classes instituted in public education. Theirs is an unprecedented, historic achievement, effected at a time when there was dire need for such programmes. Yet we must admonish the broader community for resting on its laurels and not realising that regrettably, in the modern world the term 'policy' is not synonymous with 'rights,' that policies can and will change over time, according to expediency, social evolution and political considerations and that it is an exercise in futility to expect that the interests of the State will be in sync with those of the Greek community perpetually, without any diversion whatsoever.
As a community, we should have looked forward to a time when the maintenance of modern Greek language studies in public education was no longer in the interests of the State Government and planned accordingly to address such a happenstance, prior to its arising. Our experience during Ottoman times, when privileges afforded by Sultanic berat were rescinded and had to be re-negotiated every generation should have made us more cognisant of the transient nature of all things political. Our insistence, even now, upon illusory rights as taxpayers or citizens shows a wilful and concerning blindness on the part of our community with regard to the way it negotiates with government and plans for the future. While our political consciousness is stuck in the eighties, our demands will become either quaint or incomprehensible to those who purport to legislate on our behalf.
Blaming the abolition of public Greek language programs on the prevalence of private or community Greek schools therefore represents the height of cynicism and an attempt to distract us from government abandonment of a commitment to community language education. It is common knowledge that very seldom do foreign language students in the public sphere obtain functional fluency in the languages they study. Scores of studies have attested to intrinsic problems with the effective teaching of foreign languages in Australian public schools, indicating that even where such language programmes exist, their actual rationale and aims may diverge alarmingly from community expectations as to standard. This is something the Greek community has never addressed. On the other hand, schools run by the community for the community ideally have the freedom to tailor their language teaching to reflect values and aspirations relevant and particular to that community.
The underlying problem with our community's overall stance to Greek language education is not defencelessness in the face of cynical government shifting of political positions on substantive multiculturalism but rather a perennial inactivity to come together to articulate exactly what we want out of modern Greek language education in Victoria. In short, our community has no language policy of its own. Our institutions have developed independently and often in opposition and conflict with one another, with ideology or profit often displacing fluency as a priority and no uniformity of curriculum. No study of the changing demographics of our community and in particular the effect of mixed marriages, or the bourgeoisification of the latter generations, on language learning have been undertaken. Consequently, we can neither plan, nor co-ordinate our endeavours so as to manage the challenges of the future. Criminally, there exists no mechanism for review or evaluation of any of our Greek language learning providers.
There is immense folly in our approach. If we could, even now articulate a common approach to modern Greek language teaching, we could then, as a community, co-ordinate our activities in such away as to ensure that Greek is taught by a multitude of institutions, both public and private, in a meaningful way, aimed towards fluency and functionality, rather than a bureaucratic ticking of boxes reflecting the achievement of illusory outcomes. Such a co-ordinated body, properly invested with authority by our community would then emerge as the key stakeholder in any conversation with the State in matters of language policy and be able to enter into effective dialogue with it. Yet until such as the necessary conversation within our own community takes place, we will be doomed, as deluded Lotus-eaters, to sail between each linguistic Scylla and Charybdis, tacking to any wind Aeolus may send our way in the hope of salvation, all the while paying heed to the seductive song of the political Sirens, who continue to inform us that we matter. Aux armes, citoyens.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 4 June 2016