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In Search of Big Ideas for Greek Education in America: “Seize Learning”

There is an oft-cited verse from the Psalter that is often associated with education – at least in the Greek tradition. In Psalm 2, the prophet-king David writes “Δράξασθαι παιδείας, μήποτε ?ργισθ? Κύριος.” A translation of the verse based on its everyday usage exhorts the reader to “seize learning, lest the Lord become angry.” For some reason, in the King James Bible this verse reads: “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry” (2:12).

One can speculate whether the interpretation is due to the similarity in the words education (paideia) and child (paidion), or whether the translators (or the poet himself) consider learning to be synonymous with Christ, who is God’s Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia). Regardless of theological semantics, this phrase has for many centuries been a motto for the intertwining of the Parthenon with the Hagia Sophia – the use of the Greek letters to promote knowledge in Christ.

The Greek Letters’ role in spreading the Orthodox faith was highlighted continuously, from the Byzantine era (Three Hierarchs and Photios the Great), through the dark days of Ottoman rule (St. Cosmas the Aetolian and Evgenios Voulgaris), to the modern era (St. Nectarios of Pentapolis).

That is why the continuing trend of Greek parochial school closures in the Greek-American Community poses a dire threat to the future of our ethnic vitality and collective existence. This school year ends with the closure of two more schools – one early childhood/elementary and one middle school. It would be most unfortunate to blame the results on the Covid-19 outbreak, as this will only set the narrative for possible future school closures to be attributed to the economic fallout from the lockdown or next episode of media hysteria.

Like the questionable vital stats currently being propagated, it’s worth researching the actual “life years” of the schools buckling under the weight of the crisis and identifying pre-existing conditions and endemic weaknesses that have left them so vulnerable. What seems most lacking is a clearly identifiable “raison d’être;” a solid selling point that provides these institutions with unquestionable “added value,” rendering their operation “essential.” Declining registrations indicate that this message is not being communicated successfully.

The reasons for this are manifold. Setting aside managerial missteps or growing financial constraints as offshoots of the underlying problem, the real danger seems to be the absence of a compelling “overarching theme” – a big idea.

What makes a parochial school teaching the Greek language, Orthodox faith, and Hellenic ideals worth financing? What impact will it have on students to enrich their lives in a way that can successfully compare against other educational narratives out there? Of late, it appears that the responses to these questions do not give cause for optimism.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Our community schools can once again succeed, provided they retool the “big idea.” Two, three decades ago, it might have been enough to provide a homogeneous learning environment that would cater to the needs of a fairly paternalistic community. Now, however, with a vastly more heterogeneous demographic makeup, changes in the nuclear family and the financial wherewithal of households, the traditional selling points must be rethought and the curriculum recalibrated.

Added value must tangibly arise from rigorous Greek language instruction, including its practical application in students’ learning and career choices. While it’s no longer a given that students will have a fluent native Greek speaker at home to help them, this doesn’t mean a new generation of sophisticated bilingual learners can’t be produced. This, however, requires substantially increasing the number of hours of Greek-language instruction in schools and linking this instruction to content (science, math, history). Nowadays, this is the gold-standard that successful bilingual schools all over the world follow.

Moreover, the value of this strategy needs to be abundantly clear. Practical advantages include higher SAT scores, better understanding of scientific and academic language. More importantly, a profound appreciation of the language of the Gospel, philosophy, and critical thinking is also attained by studying Greek – including classical Greek, which should be introduced at the elementary school level and purposefully cultivated through high school.

For those who would object that this is unrealistic, it’s time to think again. Aside from the successful implementation of the classical curriculum and the trivium by many high-end private schools and certain model public schools, some Orthodox Christian parochial schools outside the Archdiocese are also promoting the study of biblical Greek at the elementary level. Results from Greece in teaching ancient Greek as a game have also been very encouraging.

In addition to creating an intimate familiarity with some of the world’s most seminal texts – a true privilege with clear added value – this knowledge will be students’ springboard to actively explore Romanity (Orthodoxy + Hellenism) through academics. Our individual schools could then collaborate to create particular areas of specialization (STEAM, the arts, philosophy, civics) that would allow them to pool their resources and finally begin to plan more strategically, through a coordinated effort.

Maybe then, local parochial schools could finally stop competing against each other and collaborate to create a more lucrative, efficient, and viable school system that could be replicated all around the country throughout our various Metropolises.

On a final note, increased financing of our schools will ensure that more community funds are earmarked for investing in the future, thus safeguarding against some of the financial scandals (some of which go unreported) that also pose a threat to the Community’s future.

Follow me on Twitter @CTripoulas

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