One More Challenge for Foreign Study: Greece in a Time of Troubles
Foreign study programs are in trouble, despite the fact that they are demonstrably one of the most powerful ways we have of increasing student academic engagement, retention and graduation rates. [See George D Kuh, High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter (Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008).]
A study by George Kuh of Indiana University showed how powerful these effects can be, especially for minority students, but also was a reminder that only a relatively small proportion of American students have taken advantage of such programs.
Now new challenges face foreign study. They are primarily the financial ones we would expect in times of tight budgets, but in some cases misleading stereotypes and lurid media reports are a factor as well. That’s the case with Greece, where excellent study opportunities are available through the American School of Classical Studies, College Year in Athens, Harvard’s splendid facilities at Nafplion, and programs run by many colleges and universities. Studying in Greece is not only one of the best ways of becoming acquainted with the origins of western literature, philosophy and art; the country has some of the most spectacular monuments of Byzantine civilization, and a rich and distinctive contemporary culture. Studying there is to confront historical change on the grand scale. But Greece is also a laboratory for exploring the economic and political issues the European Union is facing and what the current rush towards ‘austerity’ really mean.
But many people find it frightening. My wife and I saw that very clearly when we told friends that we were planning to introduce our grandchildren to Greece. “Aren’t you taking a big risk, with the riots and violence and all?” was the common reaction. We would be there when Parliament had to act on another round of tough austerity measures—the worst possible moment to be in Athens. Our friends had been reading about this and watching TV coverage of the demonstrations and occasional episodes when protests turned violent—tear gas, riot police clubbing protesters, and tourists trying to flee their expensive midtown hotels. Would we be swept into the melee or at the very least have our plans ruined by strikes or blocked streets?
We shared some of those concerns ourselves, and another one as well—the far less dramatic: Would the country still be the country we knew and loved more than a decade ago when we were last there? When it joined the European Union and adopted the euro had it also assimilated itself to northern Europe? Had tavernas become restaurants, vibrant Greek music given way to Euro-Rock, traditional Greek architecture knocked down to make way for the ubiquitous high rise? Would Greece still be Greece?
We went ahead with our plans. When, late on a tranquil evening we arrived at our hotel on the south slope of the Acropolis and saw the Parthenon through our balcony doorway, our doubts began to vanish. This was too good to miss.
Over the next few weeks we encountered not violence or rage, but friendliness to visitors, the old Greek xenia. Every day while we were in Athens we drove past Syntagma, Constitution Square, directly in front of the parliament. We saw the banners and the protesters camped out in the square. We saw police ready for action, but neither riots nor provocation.
I had expected plenty of anger—against the government, the IMF, European (and Greek) bankers, the German austerity makers. Among our Greek friends and others Greeks we met in Athens and later in the countryside, in living rooms, over coffee and off the beaten path, there was much sadness and self-criticism, but little trace of the anger I had expected. The demonstrations seemed almost pro forma—something Greeks feel they must do whenever big political decisions are being made. But they were almost entirely peaceful. And devoid of rage. There were strikes, of course, but a neatly typed note on the door of one bank was typical: a two-day strike would close all banks beginning tomorrow; please plan your banking accordingly.
Tourism was clearly down—a blow to the Greek economy but we did not miss the crowds. At eight one morning we walked over to the new Acropolis museum and found we had it to ourselves. We were the only visitors at that early hour. Even at mid day at Delphi, when the site is usually jammed, we could stroll at leisure. It turned out to be a very good time to be in Greece.
Greeks have always talked intensely and openly about politics. Those we met freely admitted that their country (and many of its citizens) had overspent. But why and for what? It was striking how many improvements had been made in infrastructure since we had last been in Greece—not only the new Athens airport with its fast connecting roads, part of a greatly improved transportation system, that includes baffle needed widening on the National Road and a dazzling new bridge across the Corinthian Gulf. The new Acropolis museum is literally breathtaking but new facilities at other major archaeological sites are excellent as well. Greece is trying hard to lead Europe in green energy, with impressive wind and solar farms. We wondered whether all the money spent on athletic faculties for the 2004 Olympics was a wise investment, but most of the public works we saw had clearly been badly needed. This was not the self-indulgence alleged in the financial pages, the profligacy that needed to be punished before bankers would “rescue” the country—and themselves— from default.
Recent private expenditures reassured me about my other concern –that Greece would have cut itself off from its past. There were some new high rise sea-side hotels—we avoided them, preferring simpler quarters in old sea captain’s houses and other traditional buildings converted into small hotels or bed and (often sumptuous) breakfasts. The tavernas were still there and the roadside psetarias serving old favorites from the grill, such as souvlaki and slices of kokoretsi sausage. Sure, there was fast food along the National Road, but no McMansions and, with gasoline at almost $10.00 a gallon, few gas guzzlers. Greeks seemed to have used their recent prosperity in mostly sensible ways. Perhaps they simply tried to don too many good things too fast, a mistake that many others have made as well.
It was a joy for this old philhellene to see how much has gone right in Greece in recent years, and a challenge to think through all that we experienced. Going back to Greece was a powerful educational experience. We’re glad we went and hope many American students will continue to share that experience.