Theodoros Zervas on LEARNING TO BE GREEK
The first communities of people worked the land side by side. What relationships developed between them?
It's a very good question. We have some knowledge of these relationships in early human communities. We know that early humans relied on each other in order to survive. At the same time, one need only look at many present-day agricultural societies to get an idea of what human relations looked like millennia ago. As today, in many of these early communities, one relied on the other: they worked together and lived together in their communities.
Skills were taught from generation to generation, from parents to children. How many centuries did this go on?
It still happens today in some communities around the world. Not by choice, but as a way of life, although these are isolated areas of Asia, Africa and some communities in the Amazon, in South America. In these cases, children continue to be out of school and learn from their families and communities. Of course, many of these communities are disappearing, but anthropologists have extracted important evidence from them.
People have always taught children. Is this so-called "informal learning"?
Exactly. I think teaching children is written in human DNA. In many ways, I don't think we're all that different from other mammals. We long to teach our little ones. Informal learning means everything that children learned outside of school. These were important skills that children acquired through learning before any national school system emerged. Today, many of these skills have been lost.
Later the institution of the school appeared. In its first steps, was the school accepted by the people? What did the school do next?
Interesting question. I'm not sure most people understood the underlying motivations and nature of general and compulsory education. Initially, families, especially in rural societies, did not really understand the long-term value that education had. We know that in Greece, after the Revolution, the habit of being absent from school was widespread among the children of rural communities. Parents preferred children to stay at home and work with them in the fields or do household chores rather than going to school. But the school system in Greece, as in other parts of Europe, provided children with significant incentives to attend. First, it was free. And the more children attended, the more popular the school became in the minds of families. In western Europe, many schools provided children with free meals and clothing. Also, the children themselves liked the school and preferred going there to working in the fields. From the late 19th and early 20th centuries, child labor laws were passed in most Western nations, prohibiting children from working in factories and requiring them to attend school. General education was now seen as a way of developing the national economy of a country and as a unifying process of the nation around a common national identity, through the strengthening of the cultural bonds that existed in the nation.
Your book refers to the decades of Greece from 1880 to 1930. What was the political and economic situation in our country?
At the time, Greece was still a relatively new nation-state. The political and economic situation could at best be described as tense. Greece was looking to expand its borders. And there were several wars in this direction, during this period. The best known are certainly the two Balkan wars, the First World War and the Greek-Turkish war, which led to the Asia Minor Disaster and the exchange of populations. As we know, wars are not a cheap affair – and they have been particularly burdensome for Greece. The Asia Minor Catastrophe brought over a million Greeks to Greece from Turkey – many of the new refugees, unfortunately, died. These young Greeks and Orthodox Christians, therefore, had to be integrated into the Greek people. This was a daunting financial commitment for the Greek state and the Greek people, which must be acknowledged.
What steps did politicians take to address this required integration?
We must remember that there was some hostility from the native Greeks towards the refugees, especially towards those from Asia Minor. They called them "turkey seeds". I also assume that there are some analogies with what is happening today with the refugee crisis in Greece. As today, the Greek government and the Greek people generally welcomed Greek refugees and Greeks from the diaspora, but imagine what planning was required, logistically and technically, in order to integrate all of them into the normal life of the country. In the case of the Greeks from the Greek diaspora, many already spoke Greek, many were already familiar with Greece. But new homes and new schools had to be built for all these children. For a time, clothing and food for these children had to be found, and more teachers trained to teach these new students. In the end, I guess it all worked out for the best.
How did they learn to be conscious of being Greek in the 1830s to 1930s?
This is a central question of my research. The national school in Greece has been a guiding force in shaping what it conceptually means to be Greek. After the Greek Revolution, education in Greece played the primary role in shaping and cultivating a Greek national identity. This continues in a way to this day in the Greek school. From 1830 to 1930, the school taught students that there was some personal connection to the ancient Greeks. Today, the Greeks themselves tend to show great interest in their ancient roots and ethnic purity. For many Greeks, the more ancient you claim to be, the more genuine or Greek you are considered. Culture, however, plays a greater role in determining cultural and ethnic purity. Does this mean that modern Greeks have no cultural connection with the ancient Greeks? No, by no means. In many ways, modern Greeks have a very strong connection with their ancestors. We could say that they have much more in common than, say, the Italians with their Roman ancestors, or the modern Egyptians with the ancient Egyptians, the modern Iranians with the ancient Persians. The teaching of Greek History in schools was important for acquiring this sense of Greekness. In the writing of the Greek History textbooks of the 19th century, the guideline of Constantinos Paparrigopoulos regarding the uninterrupted continuity of Greek History was adopted. According to her, the Greek nation is one, which, starting from antiquity, continued unchanged through the Hellenistic and Byzantine centuries, and reached the modern era. Each era was historically connected to the next: ancient Greece led to Hellenistic Greece; Hellenistic Greece led to Byzantine Greece, and Byzantine Greece led to modern Greece; the Greek nation passed through the ages with relatively few cultural changes. The issue of geography was also important. In many of the 19th century schools, maps of ancient and modern Greece were placed side by side; this placement made the current Greek territories seem small compared to their larger historical counterparts. That is, the modern Greek territories were deliberately presented as much more limited than the ancient Greek ones. This suggests that for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the purpose of teaching geography in schools was to demonstrate to Greek students how limited areas their ancient ancestors themselves now inhabit, and how much land is left behind by the Greek state.
As you can see, I can go on and on about this issue. But I suggest readers better read my book. They will find the answers there.
Why was Karagiozis the most beloved sight in the late 19th and early 20th centuries?
Now that you ask, a funny thing comes to mind. Last summer I was in Greece with my wife and our son, who is four years old, and while visiting Skopelos, we had the opportunity to watch a Karagiozi performance. The audience seats were packed with children and there was no room to move! If Karagiozis shows are still popular with children today, despite any other forms of entertainment competing with them, I can't imagine how popular they must have been in late 19th and early 20th century Greece. It was perhaps one of the greatest sources of entertainment for children in Greece at that time. But more than that, it was a popular spectacle because it spoke the language that children were interested in hearing.
Children in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did not travel beyond their local area. How familiar were they with the differences between their nation and other nations?
Indeed, this was done through textbooks and other printed media, as well as what children heard from those who traveled outside their communities.
What were the readings of the children of that time?
A bunch of different kinds of books and magazines. One of the earliest stories for children in Greece was François Fénelon's Telemachus, Son of Odysseus, translated from the French (Adventures de Télémaque) in 1669. In the secret school, before the Revolution, children read mainly religious texts and stories from the bible. Popular magazines for children after the Revolution were the Children's Warehouse and Children's Appearance. A legendary humorous children's story of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Greece was The Terror of Georgios Vizyinos (1849-1896), first published in 1884. Gerostathis was another similarly popular story, as was The High Mountains (1918) of the poet and prose writer Zacharias Papantoniou (1877-1940). These are just some examples of what children were reading at the time, or what adults were reading to children.
Which politicians had vision and wanted to make cuts to change education for the better?
I think in general everyone made an effort. Venizelos and Trikoupis wanted a strong education system early on that would help Greece westernize and develop its national economy. Even today in Greece, education is important, as politicians often make reform plans for education, but also a significant part of the national budget goes to it.
What has changed in education in Greece since then?
Enough. Various researchers have already written about this issue. I don't think I can thoroughly answer this question within the context of this short interview. What I can say is that the Greek people valued education more than other nations. I think that for many Greeks being educated is a sign of success. Many families in Greece are willing even today to make great sacrifices in order to ensure that their children receive a good education. In this regard, I would recommend reading the works of Efi Abdelas, Katerina Dalakouras and Andreas Kazamias – they shed a lot of light on this particular issue.
You are a professor at North Park University. What is the subject you teach? Does the university have Greek students?
I teach History of Education, Comparative and International Education, Intercultural Education and some other courses. I am also director of the Undergraduate Teaching Program. Most of my Greek students are Greek Americans. Occasionally, I also have some students from Greece, but I wish I had more – students from Greece always provide a unique perspective.
What would you like to say to the readers who read your interview?
I believe that your readers will enjoy my book. It concerns the lives of most modern Greeks. And it also explains, from a historical perspective, how the Greek people learned to be Greeks.
Learning to be Greek
Formal and informal education during the development of Greek patriotism (1880-1930)
Theodoros G. Zervas