Why study Modern Greek?

The relevance of Modern Greek to Greek Australian students is challenged by PROFESSOR VRASIDAS KARALIS as he calls for a broader and more contemporary understanding of what Modern Greek Studies can constitute.

“Why study Greek?” The question is asked by many people. As is the question “How can we convince young students to study Greek?”

My perception is that numbers are dwindling because we have taught again and again what is already known and the young people are bored with the same material. For the last 30 years the same material has been recycled ad nauseam, from high school to university and anywhere else.

My response is to ask whether we can find a reason to show them how relevant the study of Greek is in their everyday life and how useful it can be in their professional development?

I think that if we answer this question we may also explain why enrolments in Greek are declining and continue to decline—and probably will continue to do so.

What is the crucial element that the study of Greek can offer to students so that they can chose Greek and not Japanese, Chinese or Spanish?

The usual patriotic slogans and the silly pronouncements about the ‘superiority’ of Greek tradition is not enough any more to convince the young.

The questions therefore remain: How do we present Greek to prospective students and how do we ‘market’ the study of Greek in order to attract the attention of students, of Greek or non Greek background?

The question is complex and somewhat confusing.

We ‘sell’ Greek studies as long as we have something to sell.

The idea that studying Greek means learning the alphabet, some swear words and some kitchen terminology in order to have lovely holidays in the Greek islands is also not sufficient again to change the current situation, let alone increase enrolments.

We need teaching material. Translations of Greek texts need to be undertaken in all fields of study: politics, history, sociology, philosophy, journalism, newspaper writing, political oratory, medical thinking, cultural debates, together with translations of works of literature, novels, poems and literary criticism.

My perception is that numbers are dwindling because we have repeatedly taught what is already known and the young people are bored with the same material.

For the last 30 years the same material has been recycled ad nauseam, from high school to university and anywhere else.

Even if the approach changed, with the arrival of postmodernism, poststructuralism and the rest, the extent of the material we have to teach with at tertiary level is minimal and constantly decreasing.

We teach the Greek Civil War as if we would like the communists to have won and extol the heroics of anti-Junta ‘resistance’.

Nothing else or more: these are the privileged areas of Greek study and research.

Yet these events are not unique, so as to deserve special attention, and they are episodes in recent Greek history.

Major personalities are ignored, alternative movements are not explored, great events like the Revolution or the Asia Minor Catastrophe, are usually neglected or passed over in a hurry.

There is also a certain reluctance to connect Greek historical events with European or world movements.

It  is almost heretical to study Greek fascism or conservatism or the Greek monarchy.

No one knows anything about Adamadios Koraes and Greek liberalism; No one knows anything about theophilos Kaires and religious heterodoxy.

No one knows about Greek Trotskyists and political dissent.

Nor do we know about the great oligarchic families such as those of  Karamanlis and the Papandreous.

The only biographies we have are personal memoirs or hagiographic apologies.

If we are to  collapse, let us sing our swan song first.

We must do our best to show the variety, richness and complexity of Greek culture throughout its historical development.

And let’s hope that this will convince more students to think that there is something positive and interesting and useful in Greek culture, language and tradition.

I will go even further: we must reclaim ancient Greek culture from classicists; we must reclaim Byzantine studies from Byzantinists.

We must establish diplomas in Hellenic Studies together with other disciplines and areas of study.

The concept of cultural and linguistic continuity should be our starting point.

But for these to be successful, we need an extensive program of translations, into English first and then other languages.

The idea that we can establish a whole program in Greek studies based on Seferis, Cavafy and Kazantzakis, or Elytis, is evidently unsuccessful.

It was sufficient during the 1980s and 1990s when there were many people with Greek as their first language.

Today, these works are not enough and not relevant any more.

We must renew the content of studies in order to expand our pool of students by reaching out to more potential takers.

Greek studies have shrunk because what we offer has shrunk over the last 35 years.

Even at the level of language teaching we don’t have enough material produced except in a rather scattered and fragmented way.

But teaching Greek doesn’t mean just teaching language.

We need to  increase the existing material we offer-and if the Greek Government wants to assist, the area of translation studies should be its main priority.

Funding translations and, more importantly, continuous translation programs over long periods will give the necessary impetus to teachers to re-organise Greek studies and expand their potential.

Until then we will spend money every year on short-term non-viable projects.

I will return next time to my proposal.

Professor Vrasidas Karalis is the Professor of Modern Greek at the University of Sydney as well as an author and translator.