Is it possible in this day and age to articulate or identify a particularly Greek Australian attitude to girls and education? This was the question I asked myself as I listened to a distinguished group of panellists and guests comprising; State Minister for Families and Children and Minister for Youth Affairs Jenny Mikakos, principal of Alphington Grammar Dr Vivianne Nikou, wife of the Greek ambassador Ms Eyvah T. Dafaranos, Professor of History at the University of Melbourne, Joy Damousi, Professor Georgina Tsolidis, of Ballarat University, Dr Anne Mitsis of Swinburne University and arts/law student Maree Skalistis, expound their unique perspectives on this question, at the recent Food For Thought Women’s Network event, in celebration of International Women’s Day.

The inspiration for the discussion, Food for Thought chairperson Varvara Ioannou, herself an educator and community activist, has long been at the forefront of a concerted effort to empower, motivate and establish networks among Greek Australian women and in this, the month of speaking Greek, an examination of one of our founding myths and the way it has played out among Greek Australian women presents a myriad of foci and possibilities.
Eyvah Dafaranos certainly believes that we can articulate a Greek attitude towards education. In a concise, perceptive and thoroughly moving exposition, she outlined a manifesto of education that had its roots in ancient Greece and defied gender boundaries or stereotypes. According to her, the main aim of the ancient Greek education was to rear children to be καλοί και αγαθοί, that is, beautiful and good. The emphasis therefore was not only upon knowledge but on ethics and spirituality, a sense of responsibility and service to a higher purpose than one’s self, as well as a dedication to excellence. Such an education also required constant lifelong cultivation. I would argue that this perspective was somewhat tweaked by the time we get to the birth of the modern Greek State. For activists and educators such as Saint Kosmas the Aetolian and Adamantios Korais, education was a form of spiritual rebirth that was inextricably linked to the rebirth of the Greek nation. This is important to note, as education thus forms one of the founding myths of our modern identity, one that has been absorbed by our ancestors and passed down the generations ever since.

Eyvah Dafaranos’ incisive contribution to the discussion was invaluable because it can be juxtaposed with the complex attitudes Greek Australians have had towards education since arriving in this country. All of the panellists agreed that both their parents placed great emphasis upon their children’s education, regardless of their own socio-economic position or level of education and provided a supportive environment in which to pursue their own academic interests. From thereon, the panellists examined aspects of gender relations in the academic and broader context, yet in my mind they kept returning again and again to the same point: for their, in most respects, uneducated parents, education was an important ideal. This is consistent with our community foundation mythology: our particular reality was brought into being by our creators because they wanted their children to be better off than they were; that is, educated and affluent. The fact that within a decade of our arrival here, Greek Australian women began to emerge as educated professionals attests to the power of this myth.

It is a pity that time constraints did not permit an analysis as to why this was so. Had the opportunity been provided to do so, arguably, enough anecdotal evidence would have emerged to suggest that the motivations of that section of the community that prized their daughters’ education were actually quite diverse and produced by a complex set of historical and social phenomena. Rather than being just a matter of producing women who were ‘beautiful and good’, one could speculate education was seen as a means of social advancement, of material and economic gain and also, as a form of attaining respectability and a sense of emancipation. This is logical considering the rigid, almost untranscendable social structures existing in post-war Greece and the manner in which an Australian education could facilitate social mobility.

Education was also seen as form of escape. This is the reason why so many Greek Australian first generation women today take great delight in involving themselves in literary circles, to the chagrin and merciless mirth of the local media. To these women, upon whom a multitude of expectations were foisted upon their arrival in this country, including becoming economically productive units, all the while adhering to a set of often oppressive stereotypes about their place and duties to the family and broader community, education, the ability to learn and discover, as well as to be transported away from a world of drudgery if only for a brief moment, was a luxury and form of solace available only to the lucky few. Further than this, it was felt, by a good many first generation Greek Australian migrants, that their daughters’ or grand-daughters’ education would empower them in their relationships, granting them an equality that they themselves did not enjoy. These viewpoints and psychologies have seldom been articulated openly, yet they form the foundation of the way our community views the education of its female members today and thus deserve deeper analysis.

It is easy to feel pride both in the panellists and our community when considering the manner in which their education was prized and fostered by their families. Their stories, similar in many respects save a few nuances, are valuable, leading us to believe that possibly, the Greek Australian attitude towards education has been a truly enlightened one from the outset. However, this is not so. For again, largely unexamined is the experience of a large number of young Greek Australian women of the sixties and seventies whose parents did not value education as highly as the stereotype would have us believe. In some cases, Greek Australian women had to fight hard against their parents and prevailing social stereotypes in order to secure their education and faced extreme prejudice and difficulties from their family unit when embarking upon their careers. Others, removed from school as young as fifteen, were expected to work in order to earn their keep and/or to get married. The presentation of such limited life prospects caused inestimable damage within that generation, its after-effects being felt within the family, the marriage and in relationships with children. It also influenced the manner in which that generation passed on an education value to their daughters: in some cases, it served to emphasise the importance of an education but in many others, mothers, who were taught not to attach particular importance to education, merely passed on the same attitude to their daughters, expecting them to follow in their footsteps, to produce and reproduce. The Food for Thought Network thus makes an invaluable contribution to the consideration of all facets of this issue, in giving rise to the need to examine such experiences.

As we can identify both conservative and progressive currents of thinking within our community’s historical attitude towards education, perhaps it would be instructive to see just how, if at all, such conflicts are a reality for modern Greek Australian women. If the work of influential local poet Koraly Dimitriadis, who has written extensively about the manner in which what she perceives as archaic social expectations are given greater priority than education or the prospect of a career in many a contemporary Greek family, it is quite possible that this unspoken conflict still is yet to be resolved for a considerable number of modern Greek Australian women. Again the unique historical, social and psychological phenomena that comprise this continued conflict cry out for further investigation.

Finally, even if we could argue that a unique Greek Australian attitude towards women’s education has ever existed, a question that the event rightly left unresolved, to what extent has this attitude, after half a century of our sojourn in this country, merged with the mainstream of public opinion? The Food for Thought Network is to be commended for instigating a debate that gives rise to such pertinent questions, inviting a certain introspection and self-knowledge that can only come from a deep respect and sensitivity to the unique and largely unarticulated experience of Greek Australian women within our community.

* Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.