National self-awareness put to the test

Greek university entrance exams, subject one: Modern Greek: “You have been asked to address a municipal meeting on ‘Protecting and promoting our cultural legacy.’ Using no more than 500-600 words, describe a) the reasons why we must…”

Nothing is easier than that; and nothing is harder. Some pupils must have found it hard to keep themselves under the 600 word limit, while others to write more than a few sentences. Some may have been annoyed by the word “must,” a standard feature of the subject we used to call essay writing. The word “must,” in a way, preempts the spirit of the pupils’ answers, calling for the soulless rhetoric commonly found in the guides of private tuition schools, based more often than not on rote.

Any children who have happened to visit an ancient theater at least once in their lifetime – on their own or with their teachers or parents – to simply see the site or to attend a performance of ancient drama are fortunate to be able to find inspiration from the most authentic guide: The unique location of every theater is enough to resurrect in front of your eyes the inseparable duet of beauty and democracy and the stage that was their temple. Any pupils, on the other hand, who for some reason never got a chance to visit Epidaurus or any other ancient theater that has for centuries lied neglected – possibly even just 20 kilometers from their village – had to conjure a sense of excitement and, after that, an opinion.

The exam question “Us and ancient theaters and concert halls,” which was based on a text by professor Vassilis Lambrinoudakis, falls under the “us-and-the-ancients” category.” It is us, as a state and as a society vis-a-vis a legacy that we so often find overwhelming.

When does it seem too much to bear? Each time we invoke that legacy as an alibi or as proof of our racial superiority although we do not really know that much about it. Or when we deem that we are the legacy’s sole proprietors, thereby reducing its universal character and turning a blind eye to all the precious things we have learned about ancient Greeks from foreigners. Or when we share the dogma that the debt of humanity to the ancient Greeks is large enough to sustain today’s Greeks.

Pupils hopefully answered the exam question in a critical, straightforward manner without resorting to ready-made responses mandated by political correctness. The children hopefully wrote what they truly believe and not what they “have to” believe or what we would want them to believe. And hopefully, of course, their papers will be looked at by honest examiners who will grade them while keeping in mind how they would answer the same question. Or rather, they will ponder what fuzzy, idealized or fabricated image about our identity and its relationship to the ancients we have bequeathed to the younger generation.

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