debate over teaching of ancient Greek

A proposal by Greece’s conservative government to boost pupils’ poor vocabulary by increasing ancient Greek in the schools’ curriculum has reopened an old controversy about the place of Socrates’ language in the country’s society and education.

More knowledge of their ancient language will improve pupils’ skills in modern Greek, Education Minister Marieta Yiannakou argued. “One observes bad use of language, weakness in expression and poor vocabulary,” she complained.

Ancient Greek classes in secondary schools should therefore increase from four hours per week to five, Yiannakou said. Under the same set of proposals, high-school students would study the original texts of their famous forebears four hours a week, up from two.

The Pedagogical Institute, the country’s educational standards watchdog, is to pronounce its weighty opinion on the matter by mid-December. The ministry-run board is expected to endorse Yiannakou’s proposal, a source there told AFP on condition of anonymity.

But Greece’s powerful teacher unions are against it. “The measure would be wrong, artificial and unfounded,” said Costas Vamvakas, board member of secondary school teachers union OLME, told AFP.

Spoken Greek [Bah! — M.] is a simplified descendant of the language’s ancient variety, as the latter is known and taught throughout the world in the celebrated, classical works of Homer, Plato, Thucydides and Aristotle.

But modern Greeks find it difficult to understand their ancient language. Most pupils resent classes as a daunting and unnecessary task in an already overfraught curriculum.

“Pupils don’t like ancient Greek classes. They think it’s tiresome and useless,” one high school teacher told AFP.

“Changes should rather be made in the way ancient Greek is taught,” Greek opposition George Papandreou concurred. “We have to make pupils understand what Plato, Aristotle and Socrates actually said — only then will their words acquire meaning”.

The place of ancient Greece in modern Greek society has been a controversial issue back to the country’s independence in 1821. Authorities’ exaggerated reverence to the country’s classical heritage banned vernacular language from the curriculum and led to heated, often violent controversy between modernists and traditionalists.

Modern Greek became the official state language as late as 1976. It replaced ‘katharevousa’, an artificial, officialese mix between modern-day language, medieval and ancient Greek. Ancient Greek classes were confined to high school students aiming for a classical university degree.

But traditionalist educators felt that cutting modern Greek from its roots vulgarised young people’s language and left the country defenseless against the invasion of English. Ancient Greek returned to secondary schools under Greece’s past conservative government in 1992, after prodding by linguist professor Yiorgos Babiniotis who is considered to this day as the champion of the Greek language.

Babiniotis, currently the rector of Athens University, the traditionalists’ bastion in Greek academia, has softened his views. Boosting ancient Greek would be a “good first step,” but it should be supplemented by improvements in the teaching method, he said.

“The young who want to learn Greek in secondary school should be offered rewards,” said Yiorgis Yiatromanolakis, classic literature professor at the Athens University.

“Promotion of ancient Greek should be considered as a national investment with awards, grants, loans and prizes,” he said.

source: Ancient Greek soulsearching continues in modern Greek schools, from Agence France-Presse