On Teaching about the Greek American Experience


From the book Reading Greek America published by Pella, NY

Greek Americans are a relatively a historical group. At first, this may seem like an absurd statement given the unmistakably high number of reference to ancient and modern Greece one is likely to encounter when talking to or listening to a first, second, or third generation Greek in the United States. But, if one listens carefully and over a period of time, it will become apparent that references to the Greek immigrant experience in the United States are astonishingly few. Of course, there are exceptions to this silence. The nature of the comments that are specific to this experience tend to highlight the achievement and upward mobility of the group, attributes that have traditionally been central values in American society. One is likely to hear about the love of America towards the Greeks, expecially after their courage on the Albanian front in World War II. On occasion, particularly when a recent immigrant encounters an immigrant from the early part of the century, there is some talk of the past and how "it truly was," but this type of encounter is usually brief. In short, there is very little overt consideration given to the Greek American experience by Greek Americans. This does not seem to vary based on location on the assimilation continuum.

The lack of adequate discussion and debate about the Greek American experience seems, at least on the face of it, to cut across age and social lines. Sociologist C. Moskos and labor historian D. Georgakas have also identified Greek scholars as resisting emphasis on Greek American history. A perusal of recent bulletins of the Modern Greek Studies Association is noteworthy for its lack of reference to Greek American studies. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the present development of a Greek American Studies newsletter. Currently at an embryonic stage, the first issue of the newsletter is eagerly awaited, but only time will tell the extent its birth and development becomes part of the Greek American saga.

Omission is not a sufficient reason alone to teach about a particular period of his-tory or the experience of an ethnic group, although it might be the case for some in a strict, academic sense. What is critical in education, and has been for ages, is cultural transmission. In fact, some educational philosophers believe that it is the major goal of education. The nature of the Greek experience in the United States is rich and varied, vibrant and current. In all likelihood, it is not a simple mosaic, nor a simmering melting pot, but probably a cultural version of mathematical chaos theory. Gaining a historical perspective on contemporary Greek American life is one of the indicators of an educated and cultured group.

An additional reason for teaching about the Greek American experience is a psychological one. Purposeful efforts to understand, organize, and articulate one's thinking and being is what makes us human. Without exploring the usual conceptual controversies about identity and psychological explanations, we can safely note the importance of identity and the need to remain true to oneself, both during periods of stability and particularly change. Of course, this does not mean that in order to have a sense of identity one needs to recall or reconstruct parts or wholes of the historical periods of one's ethnic group, but it does imply that some degree of conscious, awareness exists as to where one comes from. To know the attitude common to an ethnic group can be formulated or unformulated, immediately available or repressed, but it is nevertheless operating at all times. In all probability, one's sense of identity is a result of a continuous interaction among spatial, temporal and social interactional links.

There are also other more concrete reasons for teaching about the Greek American experience, and these reasons concern the immediate validation provided to young and old when they are given a perspective from which to view their lives. Youngsters are always posing the question, "Where did I come from?" and "What am I?" According to recent developments in the psychological understanding of children, these questions appear to address specific needs of children to identify and categorized themselves within a particular group.? The period of adolescence has been well documented with regard to identity formation and turmoil, but new research on adulthood and its stages points to equal importance. Greek American adults are also in need of a historical perspective and often react with astonishment to learn that there were times in the history of the United States when Greeks were perceived as Ottomans, strikebreakers, unsanitary restaurant owners, and called "Goddamn Greeks." The validity of these perceptions and the responses that they stimulated at the beginning of this century in an American population frightened by the influx of immigrants may not be as important as the fact that these became common stereotypes that imbued the daily experience of just about every Greek American before the 40s. If Greeks on a whole were a very proud people, there is reason to believe that for the first forty years of this century in the United States, they carried the pride internally and took high risks when making it public. Perhaps it is this negative image, the profound hardships, and the shame and guilt over migration and exile that further complicates the telling and owing of the immigrant experience. Selective inattention by participants can become a significant problem in the construction of a historical or narrative reality.

Independent of the unconscious reasons that Greek Americans are unaware of their historical roots in this country, there is a real and significant lack of information. The definitive history has yet to be written. In fact, what Moskos calls the "declasse" nature of Greek American studies is partly the reason for the lack. But the days of ethnic studies in major universities seem to be going the way of other higher education substantive instruction in our "back-to-basics" era. The exception to this seems to be the teaching and research being conducted at the Center of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies (CBMGS) at Queens College of the City University of New York. While there are other universities that on occasion offer courses on the Greek American experience, and some sponsor doctoral dissertation research (usually sociology departments at urban centers), CBMGS is distinguished in its ongoing commitment to course offerings on the subject matter. In the last ten years, it has offered a specific course dealing exclusively with the Greek American com-munity nine times, and twice it has of-fered courses on the subject in conjunction with a focus on other ethnic groups. Securing Modern Greek studies as a major undergraduate concentration requires taking the course on the Greek American community. Yet, the burden of gathering information on the Greek American experience cannot solely rely on higher education. Harry Psomiades has made a cogent argument for the multidimensional nature of the maintenance of Greek America and the importance of religious, social, and professional institutions. Another institution that can become a critical force in the teaching of the Greek American experience is the community day or afternoon school. But the little research that exists on these institutions does not point to a changing role in this area, despite the fact that on educational grounds, teaching about Greek America can be a powerful way of engaging children because you are addressing them on the level of their immediate experience.

Given an agreement that teaching about the Greek American experience is a reasonable pursuit, then the next issue revolves around what should be taught. Obviously, this cannot be so easily separated from issues of who is doing the teaching and to whom. The content and methods of the curriculum can also vary from educational setting to setting. For instance, fifth-grade students in a Greek day school may discuss the problem of language maintenance while similar students in a bicultural program in a public school, due to their setting characteristics, may debate comparisons to and with other ethnic groups. It should be noted that, most teaching and learning probably does not go on in schools, and that opportunities to teach and exchange views about the Greek American experience can also occur during ethnic festivals and community lectures and programs.

It is my general belief that the specific content of what is taught should not be prematurely decided upon. One should be wary of the one single and true rendering of the experience. Further, it must be kept in mind that the way a history is written tells as much about the writers as it does about the phenomena described. It is important to locate the psychological and social biases of the producers of information. For example, mainstream prejudices about a Greek church led by Archbishop lakovos, may shape erroneous notions about the separate Old-calendar Greek church.

The bias of this author is away from intellectualism and towards a presentation of the historical, sociological, psychological, and artistic in its full interactional dynamism. In the course the author has taught at the CBMGS since 1986, the focus is on the changing social ecology of the Greek experience in America and the values and choices that this presents to participants in the experience. Emphasis is placed on understanding the complexities and trying to bring some critical thinking to the basic human need of learners to simplify and make historical development into a cause-and-effect condition. In a fashion similar to Chouliaras, I hold that the struggle for identity"... represents the fundamental impulse of modern cultural life." Of course, as is evident to the reader by now, I also emphasize the psychological nature of this struggle. Using the interpretivist critique method of analysis, the focus is on the immediate meanings of an action from the actor's point of view, that is, the phenomenological perspective on the Greek American community's behavior. For example, one person's name Anglicanization is a loss of heritage, but for another an enhanced sense of belonging.

As we enter the next decade and century, the Greek American experience continues to change and develop. While indicators are that the current rate of immigration to the United States is 600,000 people per year, what it was in the first decade of this century, the highest level ever recorded, the number of Greeks emigrating to this country is probably the lowest it has ever been. Thus, the present ratio of three out of four Greek Americans born in America will be increasing, and this has clear implications for issues of assimilation and identity. Yet, despite the dwindling numbers, research activity is increasing. To quote another straddler of cultures, Carlos Fuentes, "What is unwritten is vastly greater than what is written."

Educators ranging from preschool teachers to postdoctoral scholars have always delighted in the sense of learning and discovery they experience as they teach. The very nature of teaching is an act of learning and remembering.

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