PISA, Schengen, mediocrity and isolation

Greece’s most serious problem is not the economic and political crisis, though it did contribute greatly to it. At the root of our evil lies our great isolation, not only from our partners in the European Union, with whom we quarrel when we should be winning them over with arguments, but because we do not see the world as a whole, with us a part of it. This is an old disease, but in the past few weeks we have witnessed even further isolation, with a government which sings the praises of mediocrity and is indifferent to its effects.

The Education Ministry is the flag-bearer of this mentality. It started off on the wrong foot when Minister Aristides Baltas, in Parliament, argued against excellence – the Greek notion of the aristos – claiming that the title was a heavy burden both for the one who bears it as well for the one who does not. Now, Greece is on the brink of being excluded from this year’s Program for International Student Assessment (the PISA test of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) because of the ministry’s indifference. This stand has encouraged teachers’ unions and their federation, who are aligned with the leftist government and have ideological objections to the test.

The test was initiated in 2000 and is conducted every three years. It tests 15-year-old school students in mathematics, reading and natural sciences. In 2012, some 510,000 students from 65 countries and economic regions took part. The scores of the Greeks, as in the past, were below average – coming 42nd in the rankings. In 2000, Greece ranked 28th in math and 25 in reading and science, out of 31 countries. In many other countries, low rankings prompted intense debate and a national effort to fix things; in Greece, the education system and the ministry chose to undermine the importance of the test. Today the ministry is struggling to find the 15,000 euros (yes, fifteen thousand) euros needed to fund the test. Even if it does come up with the money, it is clear that Greece is not making use of a most important tool in order to improve the abilities of its students. The same complex feeds a revulsion toward teacher evaluation: We do not want to be tested, ranked and compared, to see how we can improve. We oppose reform, we just want to be left alone.

Being comfortable with mediocrity is the hallmark of our politics. Recently the minister responsible for the police, Yiannis Panousis, saw fit to try to frighten our European partners by suggesting that Greece could unilaterally withdraw from the Schengen Treaty of open borders, if other EU countries don’t help out with a flood of immigrants. Yesterday, he was copied by a member of the Independent Greeks, the right-wing coalition partner. With unbelievable flippancy, they speak as if there is no danger of Greece being expelled from the Treaty by its partners, forcing Greek citizens to use passports when traveling in Europe.

Like so many others in positions of responsibility, they speak only to hear their own voices, to impress the locals, as if Greece is not part of a single Europe. When we choose mediocrity, when we vote for mediocrities, we trap ourselves in an isolation which hinders every effort to get out of this deep crisis.