Monday, January 23, 2012


If there are flagships to our fleet of Greek language educational institutions in Victoria, then certainly these are our three «δίγλωσσα ημερίσια κολλέγια» or bi-lingual day schools, whose stated aim upon their foundation was to provide the Greek community with a comprehensive facility that would fulfil the dual aim of readying its offspring for the demands and requirements of broader Australian society, while simultaneously, providing them with a grounding in the Greek language and culture sufficient to enable them to transcend both cultural spheres with ease. Two of these schools, namely St John's and Saint's Anargyroi, being schools associated in various ways with the Orthodox Church, added to this mission, a further aim: to instil in their students the faith, values and tradition of that Church.
It is worthwhile to refer to these aims when considering the recent controversy surrounding the renaming of Oakleigh Greek Orthodox College Saints Anargyroi in Oakleigh. According to one of two warring factions within the school community, a proposal to rename the school "Saints Anargyroi Grammar," was put to members of the Oakleigh Greek Orthodox Community at a General meeting of that organisation and approved. Subsequent to this, the school committee allegedly announced, without prior consultation with members, that the school would be renamed "Oakleigh Grammar." The aggrieved faction argues firstly that such a change is unconstitutional, since it was not approved first by members at a properly convened General meeting, wondering as an aside, why a General Meeting was convened to obtain member's approval to change the name of the school to Saints Anargyroi Grammar, when all along the intention was to name the school Oakleigh Grammar. Secondly, the argument is put that the removal of the saint's names from the school conflicts with the vision of the driving force behind the foundation of the school, the late but unforgettable Father Nikolaos Moutafis, who conceived of the school as an orthodox educational institution, under the protection and blessing of the unmercenary Saints Cosmas and Damianos.
Conversely, the Oakleigh Community Board defends its conduct by stating that nowhere in the Community's constitution is there a requirement for the approval of the members to be gained for a change of the school 's name and that they only held the previous general meeting "out of respect" for their members. Further, they hasten to point out, a name change to something neutral (and presumable less "ethnic") is necessary, as the school is losing money and students and an appeal to a broader market is intrinsic to the school's survival.
While the board has still failed to clearly explain the logic behind going through the tedious process of calling a General Meeting to put to the vote a change of name that will not be used, out of respect for members, when they don't have to, only to arbitrarily institute a change of a different name without regard for their own self-imposed voluntary processes, clearly there is a more important issue at stake. Put simply, regardless of which faction is legally vindicated, either our community has failed the vision of the School's founding fathers, or, that vision is no longer relevant to our community, which, in actual fact, may amount to the same thing.
It is trite that owing to the realities of the Victorian experience, and despite early visions of true bi-lingual education, it did not prove possible to create an educational environment where lessons could be taught equally in both languages. In fact, our day-schools are as multi-lingual as any other school that teaches languages other than English as an elective. Further at the same time that we may boast to those outside our community of the existence of Saints Anargyroi, and other like schools, the sizeable Greek community on the whole, based both on enrolments and anecdotal evidence, is hesitant to entrust the education of its offspring to the school.
While one of these certainly is the fact that the school does not have the aura of prestige and reputation of academic excellence of other private schools, on the whole, its students do not perform badly, and it constitutes and important hub of the local Greek community. Therein lies the problem. Not a few are the parents who, considering whether to send their children to the school, have uttered sentiments such as: "I want my children to have the best start in life. I don't want them growing up in a ghetto," or, "have you seen how those Oakleigh kids speak? Which employer is going to employ my kids if they learn to speak like that?" or even more disturbingly: "Yeah, as if I would trust a bunch of Greeks to run a decent school." A friend who is moving to Victoria from Greece for a short period of time and made enquiries about the school for his children confided: "At first I thought it would be a good idea, as I wanted my children to learn English, and also not lose their standard of Greek when we move back to Greece. However, when I saw exactly how Greek is taught and the class of people my children would have to mix with, I thought the better of sending my children there."
Of these comments, it is noticeable that only one expressed some concern as to the standard of Greek language teaching, and this, only from a parent intending to re-settle in Greece. A deeper prejudice underlies the other observations, made by Greek-Australian parents, who are apparently not unduly concerned about the school's Modern Greek curriculum, or in fact, if one is to dare to make such a conclusion from an absence of comments indicating otherwise, are largely unconcerned with their children's school instilling within them "Orthodox values." Instead, these parents are primarily concerned with ensuring that their children are best equipped in order to achieve professional success within the large melting pot of Victorian society. Thus, they have paradoxically adopted a prejudice that was originally and historically applied to them and their parents by the dominant culture: that anything that is 'Greek,' is by nature inferior and not to be trusted or supported by anyone with aspirations towards mainstream success. That is, as one parent pointed out to me, "the school is fine if you want your kid to become a builder and marry a hairdresser that will drive around Oakleigh in a four wheel drive chewing gum, but not so fine if you want you want kid to become a lawyer or an accountant, respected by other Australians and treated as an equal." What this horrifying statement says about class relations among second generation Greek-Australians and their perception of their own identity warrants a diatribe in its own right.
It cannot be doubted that the teachers and management of Saints Anargyroi are committed to the quality education of their students. So are the parents who send their children there to be educated. Yet schools can only do so much if they are not whole-heartedly supported and their vision shared by their own communities. It cannot be doubted that the original vision, which is one where Greek-Australian students would retain their identity by being educated together bilingually (as opposed to merely learning the Greek language), while simultaneously becoming good Orthodox Christians, is one that most people no longer subscribe to as tenable. Right or wrong, the decision to divest the school of its 'ethnically' sounding name, in order to attract students from the broader community reflects the death of this vision in the face of reality. Just how "Greek," and how "Orthodox" the school will become in the face of such an abandonment of its founding principles by the community it was built to serve will be proved by the passage of time.
Whether one adheres to the quixotic vision of a Greek-Australian community transcending the generations unsullied by assimilation or rather, laughs this off as an accumulated cultural baggage, the weight of which should not encumber or hinder one's progress within Australian society, it is time that our community determined, in an honest and realistic fashion, without hyperbole or fancy, just what it is that it wishes to achieve for itself in the future and what being Greek should mean. Viewed in this context, the change of the school name in order to position that institution for the future should be accompanied by an explanation of what the future is envisaged to be, and then a consensus reached as to whether that is, the way to go.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 21 January 2012