The end of 2022 marks the conclusion of two years filled with commemorations of important anniversaries for the Hellenic world. In the United States and Canada the bicentennial of the Greek Revolution and the centenary of the Asia Minor Disaster were observed across the United States, with events sponsored by the Embassy and the Consulates of the Hellenic Republic, AHEPA, and other Greek American organizations as well as Modern Greek Studies programs in colleges and universities.
But the real work starts now.
I started thinking of the need for a new round of activities while talking to American students who have just spent their semester abroad at the College Year in Athens program. They had taken my class titled ‘Americans and the Greek Revolution’, which I have been teaching and which highlights American Philhellenism and its role during the 1821 revolution – a broad topic whose many sides were highlighted during the commemorations in 2021. I had difficulty squeezing them into the 14-week curriculum. They include the causes of the rise of American Philhellenism beginning with the significance of Ancient Greece for the Founding Fathers. It examines the role of the volunteers who fought side by side with the Greek rebels and the work of the numerous philhellenic committees across the United States and concludes with assessing how philhellenism contributed to the strengthening of the abolitionist movement and the fight for women’s education.
The students expressed their surprise at how closely Greece was associated with social movements in Antebellum America and were puzzled with why none of those topics are taught either in higher school or college level course in the United States. I believe the same can be said about the Asia Minor Disaster of 1922. It also deserves to be studied by Americans, both because the lessons one can draw from genocidal events, but also because of the enormous American contribution in the settlement of the refugees in Greece after 1922. The genuine surprise of the students at the absence of 1821 and 1922 from the teaching at schools and universities have made me think about how to rectify this. Especially after all the commemorations, it would be such a waste if they are allowed to gradually fade in people’s memories.
Yet if we are to do something in that direction the focus needs to change. As in many cases of public events staged by Greek-Americans, 1821 and 1922 were recalled in order to inspire pride in the younger generation in their ethnic heritage and also to demonstrate the ties between Greece and America. Neither of these goals are likely to lead to those events being taken seriously by American educators, however, unless they can be presented in terms they themselves can appreciate and understand. And that means making the case that 1821 and 1922 are significant moments in the history of the United States, and, given the particular role Americans and especially women played, in the history of American humanitarian and social movements.
To put it simply, make those events less about Greece and more about America. There are very few studies that adopt such an approach, but in order to make a lasting impression on educators we need to increase their range and availability. I know from experience educators need the tools, printed words, and visual aids if they are to include a particular item in their teaching. Without them, however important something is it might not make it into the classroom.
The way these materials could be produced is to provide the necessary funding in order to encourage scholars and creators to consider exploring further the implications of 1821 and 1922 for America.
Who or what can undertake such a task in the United States is less clear in my mind. Alas, Greece does not have an institution dedicated to disseminating Modern Greek culture and society in the United States or Canada. The Foundation of Hellenic Culture was envisioned as equivalent of the the Institute Français or the Goethe Institut which disseminate their countries’ culture worldwide. Its office in New York City was short-lived. That is probably why the Greek diplomatic representatives shouldered the task of sponsoring the commemorative events over the past two years. But they cannot be expected to, not should they be in the business of administering and judging academic projects. The same applies to the major Greek American organizations.
This leaves the Modern Greek Studies programs that exist in several major Greek Universities. Their purpose is to promote the study of Modern Greece, but one can imagine that they could take on a task of generating studies Greece’s 1821 and 1922 from an American perspective. If that is indeed possible, the only thing left is funding such projects. Otherwise, those events Greek America commemorated so passionately these past years will eventually be forgotten.