We’re annoyed at Princeton University’s decision to do away with the requirement that Classics majors learn Ancient Greek. And so we should be. At the same time, the champions of ephemeral political correctness in the United States are trying hard to convince us that it is wrong to include knowledge of the ancient Greek civilization as one the key pillars of a university education. As was the case with “Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization,” the pendulum swings back and forth. This time, though, it is swinging with greater force, as the tearing down of statues and role models gains momentum.
Why do we, here in Greece, care about what’s happening at American universities? It’s not just a matter of pride in our heritage. Greece has gained friends and allies over the past 200 years because important members of the Western elite associated the modern country with all the things they learned about its ancient past at school and university. It was a part of our identity, the flame that kept the spirit of philhellenism alive in the difficult times.
I have often marveled at the awe felt by foreigners for things we often take for granted. I have seen great intellectuals and important businesspeople from abroad tear up when reading “Pericles’ Funeral Oration.” I have been moved by the video of Robert Kennedy reciting Aeschylus when he got news of the assassination of Martin Luther King. I attach great importance to the fact that Barack Obama wanted to give his last big speech as president of the United States from the Pnyx. All of these people – and so many, many more – learned about Aeschylus, Pericles and the Battle of Marathon at the great universities of Britain, Germany and the United States.
That said, I also felt despondent on a visit to the Temple of Poseidon at Sounio hearing a kid on a school trip on the phone saying: “We’re here looking at a bunch of columns. I have no idea what they are.” It made me think that while we claim ownership of all the wonderful elements of culture that surround us and have shaped us, we don’t always make the effort to study them and make them an intrinsic part of our present-day identity and life. Even worse, we use them to argue, be it about the Acropolis or the antiquities in Thessaloniki, in a way that is shallow and with unnecessary passion.
A friend living in downtown Athens was recently telling me how fortunate she feels that her child is surrounded by so many marvelous things. Yes, we are lucky, but that does not mean that we don’t also have an obligation toward this heritage.
Giorgos Seferis, of course, put it best in his Nobel acceptance speech, in 1963:
“I belong to a small country. A rocky promontory in the Mediterranean, it has nothing to distinguish it but the efforts of its people, the sea, and the light of the sun. It is a small country, but its tradition is immense and has been handed down through the centuries without interruption. The Greek language has never ceased to be spoken. It has undergone the changes that all living things experience, but there has never been a gap.”