Dr. A. Papadimitriou, President of Onassis Foundation, at the Leadership 100 Conference

February 13, 2017

MANAPALAN, FL – Dr. Anthony Papadimitriou, President of the Onassis Foundation, spoke at the 26th Congress of Leadership 100 held at the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa in Manalapan, FL. The focus of his speech was on two issues: Teaching the humanities and the role of the Onassis Foundation in the 21st century.

Read the full speech:
“Distinguished guests and dear friends,

I would like first of all to express my deepest thanks on behalf of myself, my fellow Board Member Marianna Moschou, Ambassador Michael Sotirhos who was a member of our Board for many years and his wife Estelle and my wife Afroditi, for inviting us to participate in this meeting.

I am not going to preach to the choir and I will not repeat how great is Greece and its civilization, what was our impact on the world. My speech today will deal with two topics, seemingly unrelated but in fact with a significant common ground. My first point will have to do with the teaching of the humanities and the second will have to do with what is the role of an organization such as the Onassis Foundation in the 21st century.

I do believe that the impact of Greek thought, directly or indirectly, cannot be ignored except by the ignorant. I do believe that in these times, when our common humanistic heritage is questioned, we should return to these sources. However I will remind you that during the Renaissance only a handful of scholars understood Greek.

It was a privilege that only a few shared. In the late 19th century and in the 20th century it was again an elite that studied the classics and the humanities. It was a very small minority of people but they were the leaders of their societies and they shared a common culture. So, today we should not just wriggle our hands and moan about the fact that the university classics chairs are struggling to survive. In fact, this is not limited just to Ancient Greek as a language, but it has to do with all of the humanities.

History, philosophy and art, in general, are struggling when their field of study is more than about 200 years back. So what we should concern ourselves with, is that the future leaders of our communities are not acquainted with the knowledge that will allow them to deal with the issues of our society today. We live in world of uncertainty, in a world where too much information and disinformation or even fake news circulate.

A world where business and political decision makers have to make up their mind ever more quickly on the basis of insufficient data. The only answer to that is to develop critical thought and to have a deep knowledge of precedents. It is useful for the Secretary of State of any democratic country to have read the Epitaph of Pericles and the Oration of the citizens of Milos in Thucydides. It useful for any businessman to understand how Ulysses navigated the uncharted waters of the Mediterranean Sea, how leadership, risk-taking and teamwork can create great stories.

The question is how to convince the business and political leaders of today and tomorrow that not only them, but the next generation of leaders they will nurture and chose, should be, for lack of a better word, “cultivated people”. Frederic the Great of Prussia, the famous general and founder of modern Germany, could put to Bach, the composer, a difficult musical problem and understand how well Bach could resolve it. He wrote a book in Ancient Greek entitled «τα αρεσκοντα τοις φιλοσόφοις» which means, “of those things that philosophers like”. Eleftherios Venizelos translated all of the books of Thucydides. Churchill was a scholar. But we see around us that many consider that this is elitist and therefore undemocratic. The question therefore becomes that the people as voters are or will be selecting leaders that are for all practical purposes not only deeply unfamiliar with culture but in fact distrust culture.
So, should we assist the publication of a scholarly book of an excellent quality from an eminent professor? Or should we rather spend the money to produce Antigone in a high school of Harlem in New York? Should we assist the survival of a chair in Hellenic studies with just a few students, many of them of Greek origin anyway, or should we try to embed a course in Ancient Greek Philosophy at one of the leading business, medical or science schools of this country? Why should Harvard be teaching the thoughts of the Chinese general Sun Tzu and not the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle?

The students of Harvard 50 years ago would probably have read Aristotle before being admitted to Harvard. This is the need that must be met by civically minded people. Not because we are Greeks. But because it is important in order to have educated, civilized, cultivated citizens and opinion makers. Not Greek studies for their own sake but because they are relevant to the average American or European or Asian student. They will then select better political leaders, we hope. When we do that, we should insist that the course is part of the curriculum of the academic institution and not an afterthought.

At the Onassis Cultural Center in New York we have that very much in mind. Every year we organize and present a major archeological exhibition. It is scholarly and it is scientifically important. But it is visited by tens of thousands including tens of schools. Why? Very simply, because people enjoy coming to see it. They are for the time being mainly but not exclusively well educated middle class New Yorkers. The challenge will be to maximize the number of the “others” and this is what we are working on in particular through our annual Festival. Our educational programs also move in the direction I have described. Bringing the classics not only in universities teaching the humanities but also in business, medical and science schools.

In Athens we face similar issues. Our Cultural Center «Στέγη του Ιδρύματος Ωνάση» operates in an environment of crisis. Unemployment, recession, poverty, immigration, brain drain are issues that need to be addressed. When we took the decision to establish Steghi, the crisis was on its way. We wanted to create a cultural center that did not exist, that would add something to the cultural map of the country. Yes, our cultural heritage is our strong point.

How about what Greeks produce now? What is the art and culture of today and tomorrow that reflects and expresses concerns and dreams of the days we live? At the Onassis Cultural Centre, our Stegi in Athens, we placed the word “contemporary” at the heart of our mission statement. And we went beyond great productions and shows. We put major effort in exporting contemporary Greek culture to Europe and the U.S., by establishing a network of affiliated institutions and organizations that don’t just host Greek productions, but include them in their official artistic programming.

After all, culture and art is Greece’s premium goods. We build equal relationships and become stake holders of the cultural market, internationally. However, preaching the converted would not be an accomplishment. Our strategy complies with the Foundation’s mission which focuses on being close to the people. We don’t stay in our beautiful ivory tower. We run cultural programs that support the idea of co-education, bringing together people with and without special needs, we run programs for children with autism and their parents or caretakers in more than 20 cities and towns around Greece, we work with more than 15 000 teenagers that live in deprived, difficult neighborhoods in Athens, we try to add an element of quality in everyday life, to make it more worth living. And that creates change. That creates hope.
Questions are always more difficult than the answers. Is culture necessary? It is a sine qua non to exist? Maybe, not. But one thing is for certain. It is a reason for being. It is necessary to be and not just to exist. It is the generator of human values for any and every society. It helps us preserve our self-respect and sense of humanity. The crisis will not be forever. When it ends, culture must have survived. It is part of what in Greek we call “παιδεία”, a term wider and more inclusive than ‘education’.

I do not know if we are born good, if we have good thoughts and good feelings by nature. But I know that true, open education is the tool for an open mind and an open heart. And that makes it a necessity. It is the best investment that any government can do, that any of us can do. The nations that today thrive are those that had for long time a high level of education and were renowned for their culture: the United States and China, Japan and Europe would not be what they are if they did not share these ideals. Japan and particularly China and India still do. Witness the large percentage of Asian students in U.S. Universities.

In ancient Athens, one of the worst accusations against a citizen was that he did not participate in the life of the city. Such a citizen who only cared about his own affairs, would be called an “ιδιώτης”, from which the word idiot is derived. We at the Onassis Foundation continue to believe that is our moral responsibility to be active and concerned citizens. We were granted this gift, and responsibility, to be financially independent.

We must respond to this challenge proactively. In today’s word, non-state agents, in other words people and organizations that are not affiliated or rely on state funding become ever more active. A number of them are acting in ways that are not acceptable. In this room there are a number of non-state agents that are doing a great work. The Church, represented here today by His Eminence, is the most ancient one. The work of the Church in the spiritual field and in the fields of social solidarity, education and culture over the centuries is beyond belief, if I may say so. Leadership 100 is also in a certain sense a non-state agent doing a wonderful job.

A lot of people here have made important contributions to the Church, to their communities, to universities, to hospitals etc are also non state agents. Because of our independence we jointly have a responsibility towards society. To act rationally and having considered what is the best use of our funds and time. In this time of crisis, the values we cherish are challenged by populism and undemocratic forces posing under the mantle of free speech and freedom of opinion. This is not the first time this has happened. We must rise to the challenge and each one of us is able to bring his own smaller or larger building block.

What I therefore propose is that we should redouble our efforts in this direction. But we should do that wisely. We should use our money and time in a way that will have the highest impact. Our mission is clear; support society and release its potential. Since 1975, the pillars of our public benefit work have been health, education, culture, as routes to social solidarity. Nevertheless, we keep on asking ourselves; how can we be useful for the society? What are the best practices?

The word that keeps coming up is “relevant”. Whatever we do, as much money as we spend, invest, give back to society, we must remain relevant. We must keep close to real life’s problems, not just hear but listen to the society before the problems become unsolvable. In Greece, we included the term “crisis” into our everyday vocabulary. But now is the time to think and find the solutions where they truly are; in the future. And this is what we do at the Onassis Foundation. We work hard in shipping and the world of business, in order to be able to invest in our country’s future.

This is what 7.000 scholarships are all about, this is what 13.000 jobs in the last 6 years in the cultural field are all about, this is what more than 5.000 sponsorships for thousands of public schools in Greece, special education programs, departments of Greek studies all around the world are all about. We are all here today because we understand that leadership comes with great responsibility. In the country where “thinking big” is part of its DNA, we, coming from a small, great, country must remain focused on what is important, what can make a difference. As a foundation born to support and present Greece at its best, I am very happy to be here today, feeling humble but also proud to represent the people of the Onassis Foundation. Yes, I am certain. The only way to do something good for oneself is to do something good for the society.”
Thank you.


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