Paideia as the Linchpin of Our Historical Survival

The National Herald

FILE - The new school year began at the A. Fantis Parochial School of the community of Sts. Constantine and Helen in Brooklyn. (Photos by TNH/Michalis Kakias)

In the past – and especially during the memorandum-era – there was frequent mention in Greece about the need to turncrisis into opportunity and reassess priorities to promote development. The United Nations include Quality Education among their 17 Sustainable Development Goals, noting that “obtaining a quality education is the foundation to creating sustainable development. In addition to improving quality of life, access to inclusive education can help equip locals with the tools required to develop innovative solutions to the world’s greatest problems.” For a nation with as vast and prized a cultural heritage as Greece, the ability to invest in its cultural and use it to enrich the lives of the global citizenry, enhancing their per capita cultivation and offering them invaluable tools with which to face the challenges of the modern world, is a top priority that has been underserved in recent decades.

For example, Greek universities could play a much more far-reaching role across the boards, including contributing to local economies by making Greece a top destination for academic study and research in Europe and beyond. The cultural capital is clearly in place, but the political volition is lacking. The same holds true for primary and secondary levels of education. Most reforms introduced by government officials cater to political ideologies or special interests and don’t seem to reflect any transformative vision. Schools and universities in Greece continue to be a breeding grounds for future party stooges and a playground for the Don Quixotes of society to live out their revolutionary dreams and perhaps gain enough recognition/infamy to avoid working and secure for themselves a steady income as a party cadre or elected official.

As is often the case, however, the shortcomings of modern Greece are reflected and reproduced in the Hellenic Communities of the Diaspora. Despite all the lip service reserved for the importance of the Greek language and its global standing, educational institutions and initiatives in the Diaspora are suffering. During the same period that Greece was drowning in the tsunami caused by the Great Recession of the late 2000s and the glaring systemic flaws of the eurozone, the Greek-American Community has been undergoing an unprecedented educational crisis. Half of the Greek parochial day schools in New York have closed during this period, while others are barely struggling to stay afloat.

Unlike the Greek financial crisis, where a faux-bailout was given to save the banks and the euro (at the expense of the people, of course), authorities didn’t even bother with an “extend and pretend” approach for the Greek educational crisis. To say that this response was reflective of a laissez-faire approach is an understatement. Since we’re borrowing French terminology, the most accurate phrase to describe the attitude in handling this crisis is: “je m’en fous” …with the reader free to fill in the blank about what authorities don’t give.

Not surprisingly, about a decade into this latest shortsighted obliviousness regarding the fate of Greek schools in the U.S., the crisis spread to the Church, with the Archdiocese generating all sorts of negative press in the Greek-American and mainstream U.S. media regarding its financial mismanagement, mortgaging of its headquarters, and inability to complete the much anticipated reconstruction of its most prominent parish – the St. Nicholas Church at Ground Zero. Just like the financial crisis in Greece was at least in part due to the flawed mentality of previous decades that gave rise to irresponsible behaviors by Greece’s governing parties and state apparatus, so, too, are today’s financial woes in the local Church indicative of its secularization and preoccupation with materialism at the expense of traditional priorities like education and cultural/language preservation.

If the failed policies of the hated memoranda are responsible for the continued economic woes in Greece today, so, too, are the haphazard measures being implemented by the Archdiocese. Good financial housekeeping is only part of the solution. The real challenge lies in displaying “metanoia” (literally, a change of heart) regarding the mentality that has led to today’s sorry state. Rediscovering the passion for education and the Church’s historic role in preserving language and culture is central to this.

The directive of the Psalter (2, 12) is particularly powerful in the Greek text (but quite hazy and semantically unprecise in its English translation): “seize learning, grab hold of education.” The Prophet Isaiah speaks in a similar vein in a verse familiar to many from the Holy Week service: “Zeal will seize an untaught people…” In more modern times, the prophetic words of St. Cosmas of Aetolia remain ever current. This new martyr traveled throughout Greece and the surrounding areas, highlighting the importance of paideia and the establishment of schools as a central theme in his sermons. He implored local bishops to set up schools, aid teachers, and support needy students, while passionately sharing narratives from classical Greece and the Byzantine era to instill pride in the people over their glorious heritage and prepare them for the struggle for liberation.

The cultural capital conveyed by the Greek language remains a prized commodity that can and must be developed and promoted by the Church in collaboration with other Hellenic Community institutions. This not only represents the surest investment in the future, but a debt to society and a priceless gift to people of all backgrounds. Our schools, together with our other institutions, represent an ongoing and vital channel of discourse with which we can give back to society and become genuinely active citizens. Moreover, it represents the surest way out of the crisis in which the local Church has been mired and a return to the traditional parish-school model that served as the nucleus of every Hellenic Community.

Like Greece, the Greek Diaspora has an opportunity to turn crisis into opportunity. As in the past, where many Greeks from abroad led the way in ushering in progress in their Greek homeland, the Diaspora has an opportunity to actively shape the course of future events. It remains to be seen which leaders possess the willingness and vision to carry out this historic task. The fate of entire generations rests on this detail.

Follow me on Twitter @CTripoulas