Shortly after the invasion of Cyprus in 1974, in the aftermath of the latest display of Turkish aggression on Greek history, culture, and territorial integrity, the seeds of a new component in the history of Hellenism were being sewn on the other side of the Atlantic. Queens College’s Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies Center first opened its doors to the academic community in 1974, and has since established itself as the “oldest and largest Greek studies center” in the United States, according to its Director Dr. Christos P. Ioannides.
“It is no coincidence that our Greek program at Queens College offers the only BA in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies among U.S. universities,” he noted.
Professor Ioannides is quick to point out that the Center came about through first-generation working-class Greek Americans’ desire to provide their children with a college education and the Greek American Community’s need to become more civically active and influence the decisions of the Government.
“The Center came along at a time when the Greek American Community had matured. The invasion of Cyprus had just occurred, and it was the first time that we became politicized,” noted Prof. Ioannides.
Along with their political awakening, Greeks in America were experiencing a cultural awakening within the framework of the general shift in American society from assimilation to multiculturalism.
“Also, the second generation Greek Americans were coming of age. Blue collar workers began sending their children to college, and a large number of the professionals in the local Greek American Community got their start at Queens College,” Prof. Ioannides noted. Since 1974, it is estimated that over 14,000 students have passed through the Centers program – an unprecedented achievement for a Center and program of Greek Studies in America.
Today, in addition to the growing demand for political activeness in the Greek Community, the Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies Center at Queens College faces a new set of challenges. With the numbers of Greek immigrants to the United States dropping steadily from the 1980’s onward due to economic development in Greece and new opportunities in the European Union, the Centers role in preserving Greek identity in the U.S. is even more important.
Located in the heart of Queens, New York, just a few short miles from Astoria and other hotbeds of Hellenism all throughout New York City, Queens College has by far the greatest number of students of Greek ancestry among all American universities – 1,500 in all. The majority of these students are second and third-generation Greeks, while the rest come from Greece and Cyprus.
Professor Ioannides is well aware of the challenges facing the Greek American Community today, and considers the maintenance of the Greek language among his top priorities.
“First, allow me to commend the National Herald for the attention – indeed, the dedication – with which it covers the most critical matter of education in our community at all levels; and especially at the university level, where Greek Studies belong. This is a great service to our Community because we need an ongoing dialogue on Greek paideia in America. The question of Greek paideia is inextricably linked to the future of our Community and whether it will maintain its Greek identity, to what extent, and through which modalities,” Dr. Ioannides said, while stressing that the Community is at a crossroads. “The challenge before us is about preserving our cultural identity; addressing our American experience, while keeping the Greek part of our identity intact.”
When asked about the importance that language plays in this undertaking, his response left no room for doubt. “No ethnicity can preserve its identity without preserving its language.”
The phenomenon of globalization is at the heart of this question. Prof. Ioannides noted the irony that the Greek language was able to survive the dark ages of Ottoman slavery and occupation, but is threatened by the open society in todays global village. “The greatest difficulty we face is assimilation, and absorbing the prevalent pop culture around us uncritically. The task at hand is not about avoiding all things non-Greek, but about how to absorb these elements critically, within the context of the Greek American experience.”
Globalization, in spite of its challenges, has also afforded unprecedented means with which Hellenism can be preserved and propagated. “The communication revolution has given us the Internet and access to Greek programming and media that would have been unimaginable 15 years ago. Coupled by the ease and frequency with which this generation can travel to Greece, we have before us some really meaningful ways to engage the new generation of Greek Americans, and Philhellenes too,” Prof. Ioannides said.
Commenting on the experienced gained from visiting Greece, Dr. Ioannides called programs offering such opportunities “essential” to the advancement of Greek Education. “Ive never met a young person – Greek or American – who hasnt visited Greece and fallen in love with the country. Visiting Greece gives young people a profound sense of their roots.” Prof. Ioannides also underlined the importance of providing study abroad programs in Greece, and advocates offering them at three different levels – childhood, adolescent, and college level.
Discussing the Centers efforts in this area, he noted that Queens College has teamed up with the University of Indianapolis to offer study abroad courses in Greece, covering subjects like Greek culture, mythology, language, and philosophy. “This practice is also a great way to create Philhellenes among the American student population, and in this sense, we are killing two birds with one stone,” he commented.
“This July, Queens College students will take a course on ancient drama in Athens and perform the tragedy Oedipus at Colonus at the Colonus theater in Athens. I wish to express my deep appreciation to the Consul General of Greece Aghi Balta for her overall support to the Center and especially for her help in making the Oedipus project possible,” Prof. Ioannides stated.
Citing the role that Queens College plays in the propagation of Hellenism, Prof. Ioannides spoke about the Centers ever growing course offerings. “We cover the major areas of the Hellenic phenomenon: history, culture, language, the arts, Greeces neighboring region, and Community affairs. I want to stress the last subject area in particular, because as a consolidated community Greek America is at least 100 years old. We need to study our history, because we cannot plan our future if we do not know our past.”
Prof. Ioannides teaches the Centers courses on Greek American studies. He also highlighted the great contribution of the Centers Assistant Director and Program Coordinator Effie Lekas, and his colleagues Elena Frankakis-Syrett, who teaches Modern Greek History, Vasileios Marinis, who teaches Byzantine History and Art, Gerasimus Katsan, who teaches Greek Literature, John Zikoudis, who teaches Modern Greek language, Nicos Alexiou, who teaches Sociology, Art, and Culture, and Dan Georgakas, who also covers Greek American issues. “Our success is a collective effort, and our strength lies in our teamwork. We are proud of where we are today, and I am grateful to my colleagues for their hard work and dedication,” Prof. Ioannides said.
“I would also be remiss if I did not acknowledge the visionary spirit and tremendous work done by my predecessor Harry Psomiades, who first established the Center in 1974. He left his position as a Dean at Columbia University to undertake this challenge. It was a great risk that he took, but he made it happen, and the Community and Center owe him a great deal of gratitude,” Prof. Ioannides added.
Highlighting the importance of Hellenic culture to the world, Dr. Ioannides mentioned the wide press coverage that Hellenic cultural and artistic events receive from major media like the New York Times. “Just look and see how many Greek plays are being performed in theaters both on and off Broadway. Recently, a nationwide tour featuring the military dramas “Ajax” and “Philoctetes” was held for Iraqi war veterans. The reason for this is that the messages contained in these works – and in Hellenic culture in general – are eternal and ever relevant.”
Prof. Ioannides also referred to the increasingly important role Greek American artists are playing in American culture. He credited the Onassis Foundation for sponsoring relevant promotional projects, and noted that the events organized by the Onassis Cultural Center in Manhattan have become major attractions. “I would like to thank the Onassis Foundation, its Executive Director Ambassador Loucas Tsilas, and the Director of its University Seminars Program Maria Sereti for the instrumental role they play in bringing over scholars and prominent personalities from Greece, like former Government Minister Evangelos Venizelos or former UN Undersecretary Dr. Sotiris Mousouris, to name just a few.”
Prof. Ioannides noted that Greece produces its fair share of artists, intellectuals, and scholars. He also stressed that with the necessary educational reforms, it could do even more. “Education reform is needed in Greece, and the Greek American Community can play a role in this as well.”
He also called for a coordinated effort for Greek education here in the U.S., in cooperation with Greece. Prof. Ioannides suggested that Greek studies programs all across the country could become the breeding ground for a new generation of teachers, who would be equipped with skills and knowledge to keep the Greek language alive in the 21st century. He also explained that the Greek Government and institutions can play an integral part in this by providing valuable educational materials. According to Prof. Ioannides, this is more a matter of coordination and synergy than funding. He also said that no institution should be completely autonomous in undertaking such a major effort, but should look for strategic partnerships.
Addressing the bigger picture of Hellenic studies in American society, Prof. Ioannides cited the words of guest speaker Congressman John Sarbanes at the 31st annual Queens College Byzantine and Modern Greek Center graduation ceremony held two weeks ago. “Congressman Sarbanes was right in calling on the Greek American Community to rise to its potential. He asked us not to be preoccupied with ourselves, but to branch out and undertake our social responsibility within the framework of our broader mission to the community.” Prof. Ioannides said that the Congressmans suggestion to establish a Greek university health center, for instance, is a project that makes the Greek Community more influential. Through diversification, through participation on the boards of various institutions, etc., we can reach out to more people.”
Prof. Ioannides also thanked Archbishop Demetrios of America for attending the graduation and imparting his usual words of wisdom upon those present. “The Archbishop spoke not only as Primate of our Greek Orthodox Church, but also as a scholar, professor, and philosopher – which he really is.”
In citing the value of Greek studies programs, Dr. Ioannides pointed out that in light of the causes of the economic crisis, the world expects universities to teach students ethics and virtue now more than ever. These principles are at the heart of Greek studies. He also argued that judging from the number of students coming from top MBA school who are out of work, it is evident that it takes more than technical specialization to make it in todays competitive job market. Factors like virtue and ethics make a difference, he said.
Prof. Ioannides noted that there are currently over 1,000 students at Queens College taking courses related to Hellenic studies – including classics. He said that Greek Studies programs are also beneficial for the promotion of Greek national issues to the American Government. “18 of the nations top 20 Greek studies programs were established after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.”
Prof. Ioannides also noted that academia shapes a substantial part of American foreign policy. “Every new administration brings with it a core of scholars who provide key advice to the nations top decision makers. Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Madeline Albright, and Condoleeza Rice were all university professors before taking government posts.”
Based on this pattern, Prof. Ioannides said it makes sense for Greek Americans to study their own issues. “Issues like Cyprus, the Aegean, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, FYROM, the Greek minority in Northern Epirus, and above all, how to deal with Turkey must all be studied, and reviewed within a broader framework, or linked to larger issues like human rights, the environment, etc.” A serious approach to theses issues, rooted in comparative studies and backed up by research and bibliographies – devoid of propaganda – can become the Greek American Communitys strongest voice when it comes to promoting Greek national issues. “The recent letter signed by 200 scholars upholding the Greek identity of Macedonia is a basis for this course of action.”
Prof. Ioannides noted that the Center will offer a class during the Fall semester on the History of Cyprus from 1878 to the present. “In this regard, I wish to thank the Consul General of Cyprus Andreas Panayiotou for his support to our Center, especially in the domain of arts and culture.”
He also extended his appreciation to the Kallinikeion Foundation and its Chairman Emmanuel Demos for funding the Centers Byzantine Studies program.
As the Center enters its 35th year of operation, it continually strives to preserve and enhance its program, while adjusting to the changing needs of the Greek American Community. “We are constantly examining how to provide a learning environment that brings students closer to us,” Dr. Ioannides said. He underlined efforts to teach the works of modern Greek literary greats like Nikos Kazantzakis, Constantine Cavafy, and Alexandros Papadiamantis in English as well as Greek. “Although our core remains Greek, we are looking to attract non-Greek students as well. We are also looking to utilize new technologies, travel opportunities, and explore institutional ways of developing closer cooperation with Greek educational and cultural agencies.
Professor Ioannides sees the ongoing American experiment entering a new phase in its history. One where its different components can form a beautiful new mosaic, replacing the assimilated America of the past. “By taking advantage of the rich opportunities that present themselves, the Greek American Community can represent the spirit of an enlightened Hellenism in America.”
Prior to coming to Queens College in 2003, Dr. Ioannides was Dean of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the University of Nicosia in Cyprus. From 1989 to 2001, he was at the Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism in Sacramento, California. He served as Director of the Vryonis Center for 8 years and Chairman of Faculty for 5 years. Prof. Ioannides received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, specializing in Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Affairs. He has written extensively on Greek-Turkish relations, the Cyprus dispute, Middle Eastern affairs, Greek politics, and Greek American politics.