The Teaching and Learning of Greek Americans:
A Review Essay
Fevronia K. Soumakis and Theodore G. Zervas, editors, Educating Greek Americans: Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Pathways. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan. 2020. Pp. xxv + 188. 7 Figures, 3 graphs, 10 tables. Cloth $139.99.
by Eva Konstantellou
With the scholarly literature on Greek American education being rather sparse, Educating Greek Americans: Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Pathways is a welcome addition to the few books and articles that were published on the topic, mostly in the 1980s and 1990s. As the book’s subtitle indicates, the volume’s chapters cover the historical development of Greek American education as well as contemporary examples of educational experiments that carve new pathways in the pedagogy and curricula designed to educate Greek Americans. As Fevronia Soumakis, one of the editors and a contributor to the volume, writes in the “Introduction” (Chapter 1), the volume “seeks to revive a rich and long-overdue discussion of the impact of Greek American education” (2) and shed some light on this understudied topic. She provides us with a concise summary of the chapters in the book, expressing the hope that the book will generate interest in the debate regarding the current state and future prospects of Greek American education in its various forms, from day and afternoon parochial schools, to charter schools, to study-abroad programs for college students.
One of the strengths of the volume is that the chapters exist in conversation with and complement each other. Chapters 2 and 3 offer historical perspectives on Greek American education, and chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7 discuss contemporary developments in the field. This review essay will provide a close reading of each chapter accompanied by critical commentary and/or raise questions on each. The essay will also reflect on current research that attempts to define Greek American identity as it seeks to envision future research directions in Greek American education.
The History: Toward the Formation of a Homogeneous Ethnoreligious Identity
In her contribution to the volume, “Greek Orthodox Education: Challenges and Adaptations in New York City Schools” (Chapter 2), Soumakis meticulously documents the role of the Greek Orthodox Church in maintaining the “linguistic survival and ‘Hellenic consciousness’” of the Greek American community (10). Her chapter concentrates on the history of Greek schools operating under the auspices of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese from the 1920s through the 1970s in New York City. Through exhaustive archival research Soumakis provides a wealth of qualitative information and statistical data on the development and organization of these schools. In the early years of the twentieth century the establishment of Greek language schools was left up to Greek immigrants themselves and it was not until 1931 that the Archdiocese (through the creation of the Supreme Educational Council) began providing oversight over curricula, establishing teachers’ qualifications, publishing textbooks, and maintaining updated school statistics—this, despite the fact that the responsibility of financing the schools and hiring teachers rested with local parish communities.
Soumakis provides detailed information on all the New York City parochial day schools that were established and thrived with high enrollments in the 1940s through 1960s. Over half of chapter 2 is dedicated to her research on the city’s Greek Orthodox parochial schools under Archbishop Iakovos from the time of his appointment as Archbishop in 1959 into the 1970s. Since the beginning of his tenure Iakovos had made a commitment that education should always remain as the first matter of concern of the Archdiocese, and he urged church communities to support day schools. Soumakis discusses the ideology underpinning Archbishop Iakovos’s efforts: “The Archdiocese sought to instill the notion of historical and cultural continuity embedded in Hellenic-Christian ideals” (24) and consequently prioritized the teaching of the Greek language and culture as an integral part of the Greek Orthodox faith. In documenting the role of these bilingual, parochial schools in sustaining Greek American ethnicity and the pivotal role of the Archdiocese in shaping Greek American education, Soumakis also touches upon two competing positions: while some community members desired a primarily Greek curriculum, others preferred that greater emphasis be placed on an American curriculum and pedagogical practices.
In this chapter, Soumakis offers such a comprehensive account of Greek American education during its growth phase (from the 1920s to the late 1970s) that the reader is left wishing for an equally comprehensive survey of the last forty years or so which have seen a decline in the Church’s educational impact on the Greek American community, stymieing the growth of day and afternoon schools. A complementary study that covers the educational policy of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese is Alexander Kitroeff’s The Greek Orthodox Church in America: A Modern History (2020). In this comprehensive and fascinating study of the evolution of the Greek Orthodox Church in America during the twentieth century, Kitroeff provides a great deal of information on the church’s role as the main ethnic institution responsible for education. Kitroeff remarks that the Church managed to maintain its hegemony over Greek education because it “was able to define Greek Americanness, or rather determine the parameters of the conversation around Greek American identity and how to preserve it” (263). In fact, despite some of the chronic problems facing the Greek day and afternoon schools—such as the lack of adequate teacher training and professional development, paucity of textbooks, absence of pedagogically sound instructional methods, and the underfunding of schools—Kitroeff has this to say about the state of Greek American education during the 1970s: “[T]here remains a sense that the archdiocese’s educational program was a success—if not in strictly pedagogical terms, then in the wider sense of the church’s [sic] being the main force shaping Greek American identity. Simply put, the church was running the schools, and there was very little scrutiny of the premise of that project, let alone any secular-based alternatives” (157). Yet as many of the above chronic problems persisted, the schools began experiencing declining enrollments despite the efforts of many dedicated educators and priests to sustain them. Likewise, the inability of the Archdiocese to sustain a Greek American University has also garnered it criticism. While Archbishop Iakovos established Hellenic College in 1968 as a four-year liberal arts college—a secular undergraduate college to Holy Cross’s Graduate School of Theology—and while he envisioned it as an institution that would educate lay leaders who would serve the needs of the Greek American community, the project of a Greek American University was beset with challenges. As Kitroeff notes, “Despite the efforts of educators at both institutions, maintaining high academic standards has been a continuous uphill battle” (73). Hellenic College fell short of expectations as the Greek American community never embraced it and the Church’s heavy-handed administration has often jeopardized its academic accreditation.
In chapter 3, “The First Schoolbooks for Greek American Children,” Maria Kaliambou discusses her research on the textbooks that were produced in the 1930s by Greek publishing companies in the United States which, unlike the books imported from Greece, were better suited for the needs of the immigrant community. Kaliambou concentrates on the first four schoolbooks produced for Greek American children. The first, a spelling book, published in two parts in 1930, was originally intended for Greek students in Greece and included some revisions for a Greek American audience, but the second, a two-volume publication, published in 1935, was specifically written for Greek American children. Both volumes were written to promote the idea that “a Greek American identity should be centered around Greece” (51), and, as a result, contained stories of children longing to visit Greece. Another book analyzed by Kaliambou is the first Greek American anthology published in 1935 that consisted of poems and monologues, dialogues and theater skits, and longer theatrical pieces. There is only one passage in this book that acknowledges the reality of the Greek American experience of the time, stressing processes of assimilation into mainstream American life that, interestingly, were not treated as necessarily negative. Overall, however, “the anthology shapes the identity of young children by explicitly directing them to become proud Greeks in America by reminding them of their glorious ancestral roots” (55). The last book Kaliambou presents in her chapter is a school reader, The Palaces of my Fatherland, which was approved by the Archdiocese’s Supreme Educational Council as the only appropriate reader for fourth grade students. This reader went through four editions, with the first written in katharevousa (purist form of Greek) and the other three in demotic Greek. According to Kaliambou, the publishers tried to produce aesthetically pleasing books that would be appealing to children. To give the reader a feel for these texts that were intended for Greek American students, Kaliambou provides images of their covers. While her presentation of the new versus old textbooks is informative, her analysis could have been complemented by placing the books within the larger debates in American education at the time. Readers would have benefitted by an analysis of the ideology behind the explicit and implicit values that were being promoted by the schools. This is an important point particularly because Kaliambou writes in her introduction that she intends to “demonstrate that these books printed in America reflect a socially conservative outlook, which aimed to fulfill the wishes of the older generation toward the formation of a Greek American ethnic identity” (42).
Indeed, one could ask both Kaliambou (who writes about textbooks) as well as Soumakis (who writes about the structure and curriculum of Greek American schools) how such a conservative outlook connected with larger discussions within American society about the aims of education. Historically, discussions of American education have included some debate regarding the competing roles of education—that is, should education play the role of adjusting students to mainstream society or should it help transform society through the cultivation of critical thinkers? Where did Greek American schools fit into this conversation? Were they in any way resistant to the dominant ideology of American schools, which consisted of Americanizing immigrant communities during the first half of the twentieth century? What kind of identity were Greek American schools promoting to their students? Were they transmitting a particular version of Greek identity that might have matched or contested mainstream American educational philosophy? Indeed, such a discussion of Greek American education, one framed within the wider American educational system, may have highlighted the educational philosophy underlying the content and curricula of Greek American schools. At any one time, Greek American education cannot be adequately understood independently from corresponding educational values, ideologies and pedagogies in the United States.
New Perspectives: Curricular Innovations and Secular Experimentations
In chapter 4, “Considering the ‘Socratic Method’ When Teaching the Odyssey and Iliad at the Socrates and Koraes Greek American Schools,” Theodore Zervas shifts the reader’s attention to instructional methods in Greek American schools. Based on research Zervas conducted twenty years ago in the middle school classes of two of Chicago’s parochial day schools, he comments on the three teaching techniques utilized during the teaching of the Iliad and the Odyssey. One technique is predominantly teacher-centered; the other is “discussion based” but also teacher-led, as the teacher solicits factually-based information about the text; and the third one—which Zervas considers closer to the Socratic Method—seeks to engage students by having them interpret a passage to derive meaning from text. In the latter, the teacher is more of a facilitator of the discussion, a first among equals in the pursuit of meaning and intellectual stimulation.
The excerpts from classroom discussions that are presented and analyzed by Zervas give a good glimpse into how teachers and students proceeded to discuss and learn from the texts. What strikes the reader here is that the material confirms the criticism of many scholars who have written about curriculum and instruction in Greek American schools: there is a great deal of sharing factual information, and overwhelmingly relying on teacher-led discussions. And while some excerpts provide evidence of critical reasoning on the part of the students, in general students are not actively engaged in discussing the stories among themselves. Most discussion is about the text with very few occurrences of participants moving beyond the text to consider interpretive questions. Indeed, the predominant model of teaching that is employed is what is known as Initiation-Response-Evaluation (IRE) in the education literature. In this model the teacher initiates a question, one student responds to the question, and the teacher confirms or disconfirms the student’s response. In sum, while some glimpses of genuine thinking exist in students trying to solve questions that arise from the text, student “agency” is certainly not evident in most classroom discussions. Even the author admits that “it is unclear in both instances whether the discussions held by the teachers at the two schools were truly Socratic” (93). In short, while teachers engaged with individual students, students did not engage in conversations with the aim of sharing interpretations or ideas with each other.
Given these observations, one might question the author’s concluding statement that the exchanges observed approximate the Socratic method. Furthermore, the sample under consideration—two schools in Chicago—is too small for a researcher to draw conclusions about whether the Socratic method was indeed practiced in Greek American schools. Finally, the fact that Zervas’s research was conducted some twenty years ago, leaves the reader wanting more current ethnographic data that assess the predominant methods of instruction in Greek American schools today. The author himself admits this is a shortcoming (96).
Angelyn Balodimas-Bartolomei’s contribution to the volume, “Breaking the Traditional Greek School Mold: The Case of the Aristotle GSL Program” (Chapter 5), is an example of what is possible if qualified/professional educators reform the traditional content and pedagogy of Greek American schools to bring it closer to the standard practice of teaching Greek as a second language to second-, third- and even fourth-generation Greek Americans. Balodimas-Bartolomei refers to the need to change the outdated methods that have been used in the Archdiocesan day and afternoon schools from their inception well into the 1980s, when the author and other educators introduced more progressive practices. She identifies problems similar to those recognized by Fevronia Soumakis: an outdated curriculum, inadequate textbooks, and unqualified teachers who were not trained in second language acquisition. Learning was based on the copying of information, memorization and recitation of the lesson, as well as punishment if the students did not comply.
Balodimas-Bartolomei complements Kaliambou’s research about books written for the teaching of Greek language and culture in the 1930s by providing a concise account of books produced in later decades. In the 1950s the Archdiocese sponsored books by Theodore Papaloizos that were written with the American-born student in mind. In the 1970s under the supervision of its Director of Education, Emmanuel Hatziemmanuel, the Archdiocese collaborated with the Greek Ministry of Education to begin publishing language books. According to the author, however, many of these books were “falling short from including current pedagogical and second language methodologies” (108), and they continued to be based on rote memorization and recall. This changed in the 1980s when the Pedagogical Institute of Greece developed a series of pre-primary to secondary education textbooks entitled Mathaino Ellinika. These books were specifically written for Greek American children who did not speak Greek at home. The books were a far cry from earlier textbooks; they were based on the communicative approach of teaching language by incorporating activities, cassettes with songs and dialogues, live photos, and authentic illustrations.
Balodimas-Bartolomei shares her experiences in the St. Haralambos Aristotle Greek School in Chicago where she was responsible for piloting the new textbooks after having attended a 1989 conference where two educators from the Pedagogical Institute of Athens presented the new textbooks. With the unwavering support of the parish priest, she launched the Aristotle GSL (Greek as a Second Language) Program in 1990-91. The main goal of the program was to teach Greek as a second language in a stress-free and pedagogically appropriate environment. She and her colleagues devised a competency-based curriculum that indicated what students were expected to learn at each level. Based on the 5 Cs of language learning (Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, Communities), the curriculum included many hands-on activities outside the classroom (cooking, singing, dancing, Greek arts, and crafts).
In Balodimas-Bartolomei’s chapter we find the definitive explanation as to the single most important reason schools succeed or fail: “For decades, many Greek schools employed unqualified and ineffective teachers. Studies have demonstrated that effective teachers are one of the most important factors contributing to student learning and achievement” (113). This is precisely what her model sought to address. The educators employed at the school were also teaching in American schools. As a result, they were familiar with the American educational system as well as with how to teach a second language to children (See Appendix—G.S.L. Program Curriculum, pages 117–123). Informal assessments were used to evaluate the students’ progress. The school was a huge success as it managed to help nearly two thousand second-, third-, and fourth -generation Greek American children learn the Greek language and be in touch with their heritage. The program continued to operate successfully under other directors after its founder moved to a university position.
Given that the success of the program was based on the fact that it managed to create enthusiasm among Greek American students who often are reluctant to attend afternoon schools because of the antiquated pedagogical methods and curricula—which Balodimas-Bartolomei justly criticized—one might be curious about the program’s influence on other Greek afternoon schools. In the concluding paragraph of her chapter, the author states that the program she developed and implemented “became a model for several other Greek schools in the United States” (116), a statement that invites additional research on how the Aristotle GSL Program of St. Haralambos Church served as a blueprint for the Archdiocese’s reform efforts and for its philosophy of education.
A school based on the same language learning principles as the GSL School in Chicago is presented in chapter 6, “An American and Greek Language Integrated Curriculum for a Dual Language Immersion Program: The Case of Odyssey Charter School,” by Marina Mattheoudakis. The school, located in Wilmington, Delaware, was established in 2006 by the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA). The school aims to teach the Greek language and Hellenic history and culture and has an additional focus on Mathematics and Science. The Greek Program is at the core of the school and “allows the Odyssey students to learn the ideals of Hellenism, the adoption of democratic methods, lifelong enthusiasm for learning and awareness of world citizenship and culture” (130). The school has been highly successful, and its reputation for excellence has attracted students, a majority of whom are not of Greek background. Indeed, the school has a highly diverse population with students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. In 2017-2018 the school launched the first dual language immersion program in English and Greek in the state of Delaware, hoping students would acquire proficiency in both English and Greek. By drawing on research that highlights the significant cognitive benefits of bilingualism, Mattheoudakis makes a case regarding the benefit of being a bilingual student. She maintains that immersion programs such as Odyssey’s “enable learners to develop positive cross-cultural attitudes in an increasingly multilingual world” (135).
Mattheoudakis lays out the principles on which the Odyssey bilingual curriculum is based. Kindergarten children are taught Greek by focusing on the development of oracy—listening and speaking—and by learning through doing and playing. Students become academically proficient in two languages as they learn to listen, speak, read, and write about different subjects in both languages. As in Balodimas-Bartolomei’s Greek school, the Odyssey students meet the standards for all-language-learning areas—Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparison and Communities. One cannot but appreciate the degree of professionalism that is evident in the implementation of the program with its clear standards and expectations based on the most sophisticated and up-to-date research on language instruction and child development. This ambitious and pioneering project “aims to create a K-8 American and Greek language integrated language curriculum that will be available to all American students wishing to learn Greek in an immersion setting in the US” (148).
Mattheoudakis’s chapter prompted a few thoughts regarding the school’s contribution to the formation of a Greek American identity. For the small percentage of students who are of Greek heritage, the school curriculum certainly contributes to the strengthening of a Greek American identity through immersion into Greek language and culture. However, the school’s greater impact may be the creation of strong philhellenic dispositions in the rest of the students who do not have familial ties to Greece. Additionally, by placing students of Greek ancestry with students of other ethnic and racial backgrounds together, the possibility exists that this diverse group of students will acquire an understanding of each other, which may lead to relationship-building among them.
Finally, chapter 6, “Promoting Heritage, Ethnicity, and Cultural Identity in Diasporic Communities: The Case of the Heritage Greece Program,” authored by Angelyn Balodimas-Bartolomei and Gregory Katsas, takes us on a journey with the Heritage Greece Program. In their introduction the authors acknowledge the realities of the acculturation and assimilation of immigrants in the United States by referring to research that demonstrates that “by the third generation, most immigrant descendants completely lose or replace their heritage languages to English” (155). Greek Americans are no exception especially since their out-marriage rate to non-Greeks is at least 85%. Hence, the time has come for new initiatives—ones that will speak to the need of Greek Americans reconnecting with their heritage. The authors describe the so-called Birthright Heritage Programs that different ethnic groups have developed and are modeled after Birthright Israel.
The Heritage Greece program was launched in 2010 by the National Hellenic Society (a non-profit foundation that was founded in 2009 by a group of prominent Greek American leaders) and is hosted by Deree, the American College of Greece. The two organizations “carefully designed an academic and cultural itinerary that would enhance the participants’ personal notion of heritage through an intensive cultural immersion experience” (162). The program is funded entirely by philanthropists through their contributions to the National Hellenic Society. During a two-week visit to Greece, program participants take several courses and seminars on the language, history, and culture of the country. The experience includes fieldtrips to archeological and cultural sites as well as excursions to Greek islands.
The authors comment on the program’s impact on participants by analyzing data collected from an exit survey which had two parts: one measured the learning about cultural identity and the other measured the sustainability of the program. Each part included five statements that rated cultural identity and sustainability. Based on nine years of survey responses from a total of 350 respondents, the authors conclude that participants rate the program very highly.
One could not argue with the fact that Birthright programs generate a great deal of pride among participants who connect with their heritage through such programs. However, one might also wonder whether a quantitative survey following two-weeks of gratis study in Greece could accurately capture the level of learning about one’s cultural identity. Perhaps qualitative longitudinal research—for example, interviews with participants focusing on the long-term effects of their participation in the program—could provide more useful data about the participants’ experience of study in Greece and their subsequent engagement with facets of their Greek American identity. Such research would better reveal how participants assessed their experience in terms of the program’s contribution to the construction of a Greek American identity and how they define this identity. Moreover, research into the design of the program could provide an in-depth description of the courses and cultural experiences of participants. This would help assess the ways in which these experiences were life changing and transformative.
Possibilities for Future Research
The volume concludes (Chapter 7) with a personal essay by Theodore Zervas who looks back at growing up as an American-born, second-generation Greek in Chicago. The nostalgia for memorable childhood moments is palpable: going to Greek school, making lifelong friends there, attending church, observing family celebrations and gatherings, learning Greek folk dances, marching on Greek Independence Day in his foustanella costume, traveling to Greece for the summer. There is anguish as well. “I had to straddle two cultures all my life—not quite mastering either one” (179). Zervas also wonders how the next generation will define what it means to be Greek American. He asks, “What will a Greek American identity look like in the future?” “Will Greek culture be preserved in the United States?” (179). He also wonders whether the community will maintain the Greek language or whether one needs to speak Greek to be connected to their Greek heritage. Zervas discusses the role of the Greek Orthodox Church in maintaining Greek identity through the establishment of day and afternoon schools. Overall, he acknowledges that the construction of identity is complex and multi-layered.
As interesting and valuable as the publication of personal narratives of Greek Americans may be, readers of the volume may question the editors’ decision to include Zervas’s essay in the volume. In a book comprised of scholarly academic chapters, one expects the concluding chapter to consist of a summary that is written by the editors and comments on the volume’s contribution to the scholarship on Greek American education, including the limitations of current findings, along with proposals for future research. Further, one would expect that an assessment of Greek American education in all its forms—both of schools in the Archdiocesan system and outside of it—would be informed by a theoretical debate on issues of identity and ethnicity. Such a debate would help shed some light on the education al philosophy that underpins the structure and content of schooling in Greek America. The concluding essay by Zervas attempts to address such issues by mirroring Dan Georgakas’s arguments in the volume’s foreword, but it does not engage deeply with Georgakas’s proposals, nor does it present any reflections on ethnicity, informed as they are by the rigorous scholarly debates on Greek American identity which have been taking place in academia and scholarly journals—both in the United States and in Greece. In fact, a more sophisticated analysis regarding the shaping of Greek American identity in Greek American schools is found in another article Zervas has co-authored—an article that would have been more appropriate for inclusion in the volume under review (Zervas & Papadopoulos 2020). In that article, the authors raise the question of what kind of identities are constructed by the two parochial Greek American schools in Chicago and whether these identities are relevant to the different sociocultural realities of the American cities in which Greek Americans reside. They ask how the master narratives of modern Hellenism and America are represented in the curricula of Greek American schools. In my opinion, these are the questions that future research of Greek American education ought to ask.
Perhaps the most important contribution of Educating Greek Americans is that secular-based alternatives for educating Greek Americans is a reality that needs to be embraced and pursued by the Greek American community. Without minimizing the historical role that the Greek Orthodox Church has played in education, the inclusion of new developments (the Maryland charter school and the Heritage Greece Program) suggests that the Church does not hold a monopoly over the education of Greek Americans. Indeed, the Greek American educational community must engage with authors who have researched “the possibilities and limitations of these religious institutions [i.e., Greek Orthodox churches] as sites for developing dynamic bilingualism and biculturalism for the Greek community” (Hantzopoulos 2012, 129). In her writing, Maria Hantzopoulos asserts, for example, that in a community in which interfaith and interethnic unions are taking place, the community may need to rethink Greekness by raising questions “about the linkages among Greek language learning, cultural education and religious (Greek Orthodox) instruction” (139). Indeed, the time has come for the Greek American community to assess all its efforts (both within and outside the Church) to create innovative programs.
Essentially, a vibrant ethnic community has multiple paths to secure its education. As the community changes, the educational institutions that nurture it should change as well. The Greek American community is not insular, and its educational institutions cannot be either. Its connection to Greece should also be one of reciprocal exchange and collaboration. An astute observer of the relationship between Greek America and Greece has argued for the creation of a Greek American school that brings together the best practices from the American and Greek educational experiences (Diamandi-Karanou 2015). She writes: “Greek schools can be agents of cultural and educational diplomacy, having the ability to create a knowledge-based environment of mutual respect and understanding between Greece and the United States. This presents a paradigm shift in the approach toward Greek diaspora education which has been predominantly seen as an extension of the Greek national education system” (258).
Along these transnational lines, it is important that U.S. scholarship on Greek American education engages in depth with scholarship produced in Greece on this topic. The work of Mihalis Damanakis (2007), for example, is of particular importance regarding the incorporation of Greek American history and culture in the U.S. curricula as well as the development of pedagogies which cultivate the ethos of equal cultural esteem (isotimia) between Greeks in Greece and Greeks in the diaspora.1
In a nutshell, no research study of Greek American education can avoid raising the issue of identity formation in these schools and the nature of this identity. The question of who Greek Americans are and how they position themselves as an ethnic group in the United States may shed light into the kind of educational institutions that need to be sustained.
Educating Toward a Transnational Ethnic Identity
The foreword to Educating Greek Americans by the late Dan Georgakas merits further attention here because it raises valid questions that the Greek American community must answer if it is to grow and thrive in the twenty-first century and beyond. In his foreword, Georgakas wonders what the education of Greek Americans will look like in the future given the changes the Greek American community has undergone in the last one hundred years. The community moved from an Americanization/assimilation phase in the early part of the twentieth century to a resurgence of ethnicity after World War II, bolstered by the educational policies of the Church and the arrival of new immigrants from Greece, to finally become, in the twenty-first century, a community of multiethnic Greek Americans who ponder “how being Greek is defined” (vii). In light of the latter development, Georgakas posits the challenge that lies ahead: “Given that Greek America wants such multi-ethnics to identify as being Hellenes, it has to determine what educational strategies are appropriate to that end” (xi). Based on multiple crises, including a decline in church membership, the closing of churches, as well as financial and administrative irregularities at its institutions of higher education, Georgakas questions the role of the Church as a leading force in sustaining the education of American-born Greeks.
In the final analysis, the effort to maintain a Greek American identity requires engagement with debates regarding the construction of ethnic identities within an increasingly interconnected world. Georgakas argues for a definition of Greek American identity that moves away from earlier conceptions. In his article “The Now and Future Greek America: Strategies for Survival” (2004-2005), he proposes that the two opposing definitions of Greek American identity which clashed in the twentieth century—the American Greek model that conceived the immigrant community as an extension of Greece (a Greek diaspora) and the Greek American model that conceived the Americans of Greek descent as an American ethnic group rooted in American culture and society—have been gradually replaced by a third type of ethnic identity, “a response that might be described as binational or transnational Greekness… Instead of agonizing over the choice between two cultures, resisting and even resenting the language of one or the other, binationals are comfortable with both” (4). In the emerging landscape—one in which a high percentage of Greek American families are of mixed ethnic heritage—Georgakas sees an opportunity to educate Greek Americans to become bilingual/multilingual and bicultural/multicultural. To make Hellenism appealing to such individuals who are juggling multiple cultures we need to move toward innovative educational practices that engage the hearts and minds of learners. In the area of language instruction, for example, in addition to effective programs targeted towards young children, Georgakas and others suggest that “it might be wiser to shift our formal language training emphasis to higher education” (9). Indeed, Modern Greek studies programs housed in many universities across the United States are currently at the forefront of such efforts utilizing state of the art methodologies to teach Greek, offer courses on Greece and Greek America, and familiarize students with the artistic and intellectual production across the Greek American community.
To take Georgakas’s arguments further, we need to consider the research and scholarship that has taken place in the past two decades within the field of Greek American studies regarding issues of identity and ethnicity. Indeed, the term “transnational” as it applies to Greek American identity was theorized and proposed by scholars who rejected the simplistic polar opposites of Greek Americans as either members of a Greek diaspora that is an extension of the Greek metropolis or as an American ethnic group that is shaped by participation in and assimilation into broader American culture. A plethora of texts exist that propose a definition of identity that is not fixed but in a constant state of formation and redefinition. In her book, Transatlantic Subjects: Acts of Migration and Cultures of Transnationalism between Greece and America, Ioanna Laliotou (2004) writes of Greeks in America as “subjects” who constantly negotiate their identity by straddling two national cultures, Greek and American, resisting total identification with either one. She shows how cultural institutions and practices in Greek America have contributed to the formation of “migrant subjectivities” that constitute an experience unique to the immigrant community and distinct from that of the Greek metropolis.
Indeed, the “trans” in transnationalism captures precisely the notion of identity construction at the intersection of two or more cultures by rejecting the “either-or”—the dilemma of identifying and belonging to one or the other. Yiorgos Anagnostou’s writings have made a pivotal contribution to the conversation about the construction of a Greek American identity. His work highlights the fluidity and hybridity of identity and challenge the “either-or” dilemma between the two national identifications, Greek or American. But not all academic work recognizes these attributes of the diaspora. In Greek American scholarship, he notes, this phenomenon is analyzed in multiple sites and under diverse disciplinary assumptions,” resulting to “the proliferation of competing interpretations” (2010, 97). Elsewhere, Anagnostou (2020) proposed the undertaking of “diaspora studies” both in Greek and U.S. academic institutions that would explore “the ways in which Greek identity is produced in the diaspora” (3). His analysis conceives of “diaspora” in Greek America not simply as an extension of the Greek motherland but as a heterogeneous community that has created its own artifacts/cultural products, such as the novels of Harry Mark Petrakis, Helen Papanikolas and Jeffrey Eugenides, as well as the poetry of Nicholas Calas and George Economou, to name a few representative authors. According to Anagnostou, “A diaspora social field is created transnationally, through the two-way movement of ideas, knowledge, cultural products, and human beings—literature, documentaries, films, scholarship, autobiography, music—across diasporas as well as across a particular diaspora and Greece” (4). Importantly, due to technological advances, communication is enhanced among various locations and information travels freely, so people are not constrained by distances and borders.
Views of the transnational nature of the Greek American identity are truly interdisciplinary and have appeared in scholarship written across borders as scholars in various disciplines have written about the complicated relationship between Greek America and Greece. For instance, Theodoros Rakopoulos (2016), in his review of several poets in the U.S. diaspora remarks that we might think of diasporic poetry “as a decentered phenomenon, which claims a conceptual space of its own, independent of a Greek motherland” (163). Similarly, anthropologist Charles Stewart (2006) has used the structural model of creolization to study the relationship between the Greek state and its diaspora in the United States. Stewart uses the concepts of creolization and hybridity interchangeably to suggest “a creative process productive of new aesthetic fusions” (62). Depending on who is using it, creolization may have positive or negative connotations when applied to relationships between the metropolis and diasporic communities. The emergent Greek state in the 19th century established a unifying culture, Hellenism, which gradually began to exercise its hegemony over Greek communities that existed outside of Greece. As the Greek community in the United States grew in numbers and its members became citizens of the United States, it began to occupy a space where creolization occurred. This resulted in tensions between the homeland and the Greek American diaspora. Presenting the perceptions that the two communities have of each other, Stewart reveals the lack of homogeneity across Greece and Greek America. Pointing to their assimilation in mainstream American culture, which results in the loss of Greek language and culture, Greeks in Greece may consider diaspora Greeks as “not Greek enough,” while diaspora Greeks express the view that they are “more Greek” than the Greeks of Greece because they have preserved the values of their ancestors who left a different, traditional Greece, not the one that has become modernized and unrecognizable.
All the exciting research above points to discontinuities, tensions, changes, and uncertainty regarding the definition of a Greek American identity. It is this research precisely that could serve as a source of insights for educators trying to revitalize existing educational institutions in Greek America or others who may be envisioning the establishment of new institutions outside the official structures of the community. Author Zeese Papanikolas (2017) has written movingly in defense of programs at all levels of education that could become available to the larger Greek American community, “places where the lives of immigrants can be examined without sentimentality.” He asserts, “I would like to see Greek and Greek American history, with its debates, complexities and difficulties fully enter the churches and the Greek schools and young students of Modern Greek exposed not just to conversation, but to some of the great poetry and literature of the language” (8).
The critical issue then is for educators in Greek American schools to be informed about the current theoretical debates on the construction of a Greek American identity. They must begin incorporating the rich traditions of the Greek American community (its literature, art, social and cultural history, etc.) into their curricula. Greek American schools must also come to terms with the fact that this vibrant ethnic community is not homogeneous but is punctuated by different voices and conflicting ideological positions on cultural and sociopolitical issues. Only in this way will they attract and nurture the younger generations who come from multiethnic families within Greek America and help them forge an identity that is truly transnational and in conversation with the multiple cultural affiliations within their communities. Studying the histories of their own communities will also help young Greek Americans engage in critical reflection about how their communities interact with the broader culture. Furthermore, conversations within schools about the contributions of different ethnic and cultural groups will highlight the role of education in sustaining a democratic society. This is an exciting time, as we wait for the publication of articles and books on educating Greek Americans that focus on innovative programs found both within existing as well as new educational structures which aim to nurture Greek American identity as it undergoes reconfiguration within a multilingual and multicultural context in a globalized world.
Eva Konstantellou is Professor Emerita at the School of Education at Lesley University where she directed for twenty years (1998-2018) an early literacy intervention program that provides professional development to teachers on effective literacy practices. Her research interests and publications include teacher education and critical pedagogy. The opportunity to review Educating Greek Americans: Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Pathways allowed her to reconnect with her research on Greek American education conducted in the 1990s.
Anagnostou, Yiorgos. 2010. “Where Does ‘Diaspora’ Belong? The Point of View from Greek American Studies.” Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 28 (1): 73–119.
Anagnostou, Yiorgos. 2020. “Diaspora Studies Calling.” Editorial, 7 October. Ergon: Greek American Arts and Letters. https://ergon.scienzine.com/article/editorials/diaspora-studies-calling
Damanakis, Mihalis. [Δαμανάκης, Μιχάλης]. 2007. Ταυτότητες και εκπαίδευση στη διασπορά [Identities and education in the diaspora]. Athens: Gutenberg.
Diamandi-Karanou, Panagoula. 2015. “The Relationship between Homeland and Diaspora: The Case of Greece and the Greek American Community.” PhD Dissertation. Boston: Northeastern University.
Georgakas, Dan. 2004-5. “The Now and Future Greek America: Strategies for Survival.” Journal of Modern Hellenism, 21-22: 1–15.
Hantzopoulos, Maria. 2012. “Going to Greek School: The Politics of Religion, Identity and Culture in Community-based Greek Language Schools.” In Bilingual Community Education and Multilingualism: Beyond Heritage Languages in a Global City, edited by Ofelia Garcia, Zeena Zakharia and Bahar Otcu,128–40. Bristol UK, Buffalo, NY, Toronto Canada: Multilingual Matters.
Kitroeff, Alexander. 2020. The Greek Orthodox Church in America: A Modern History, NIU Series in Orthodox Christian Studies. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Laliotou, Ioanna. 2004. Transatlantic Subjects: Acts of Migration and Cultures of Transnationalism Between Greece and America. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Papanikolas, Zeese. 2017. “Confessions of a Hyphenated Greek.” BRIDGE magazine, 28 March. https://bridge.fairead.net/papanikolas-hyphenated
Rakopoulos, Theodoros. 2016. “Essay Review: The Poetics of Diaspora: Greek US Voices.” Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 34 (1): 161–67.
Stewart, Charles. 2006. “Forget Homi! Creolization, Omogeneia and the Greek Diaspora.” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, 15 (1): 61–88.
Zervas, Theodore G. & Alex G. Papadopoulos. 2020. “Creating Greeks and Greek-Americans: Geographic and Educational Identity Constructions at theSocrates and Koraes Greek-American Schools.” European Education, 52 (1): 16–32.