It’s (not) all Greek to us: A look at the Hellenic Studies program
What do our political institutions and drama storylines have in common? They’re both important contributions from the Greeks.
To say Greek culture is present in our everyday lives would be an understatement. It has provided the foundations of our democracies, introduced us to fields of study like philosophy, astronomy and medicine, and afforded playwrights and screenwriters with endless inspiration ever since the Antiquity. That’s why Themistoklis Aravossitas, a professor of modern Greek language who teaches in the Hellenic Studies program at the Munk School’s Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, thinks the expression “it’s all Greek to us” couldn’t be less accurate. “Greek culture is already part of who we are, and what defines us. We speak Greek without knowing it, and many aspects of our society are influenced by Greek culture.”
Program stemmed from a student initiative
The Hellenic Studies program offers modern Greek language courses as well as a course and seminar on contemporary Greece. The idea for the program stems from a student initiative — students successfully petitioned to have modern Greek reintroduced at the University of Toronto in 2014 after nearly a decade of absence — that was supported by the Hellenic Heritage Foundation, a Toronto-based organization dedicated to the promotion of Greek language and culture. In April 2016 the Hellenic Heritage Foundation committed to a $1.75 million endowment fund to support Hellenic Studies at U of T, further building an understanding of Hellenism in Canada and overseas.
“The program is an integral part of the Greek diaspora in Toronto,” says Aravossitas. “Students learn outside the classroom by attending cultural events in the city and engaging directly with the local Greek community.” For instance, Greek learners were invited to speak with elders at the Hellenic Home for the Aged, giving them a chance to practice their language skills while bridging generation gaps.
The program welcomes undergraduates from a variety of disciplines and includes a large number of students of Greek descent who want to learn more about their own familial, cultural and social background. “I decided to take a Greek language course to get more in touch with my roots and learn my heritage language, which I didn’t learn at home,” says student Sara Crilly. “It has been an amazing experience, and I’m now able to speak with my grandparents. It makes them happy and it motivates me to keep learning the language.”
Courses in Greek politics and history
In addition to language courses, the Hellenic Studies program offers a third-year political science course and a joint graduate and undergraduate seminar for those interested in studying Greek politics and history. “Greece has always been at the forefront of political developments,” explains Spyridon Kotsovilis, a professor of political science whose course explores current issues in contemporary Greece. “Greece was home to one of the first successful nationalist movements in the nineteenth century; its civil war after World War II was a crucial moment that marked the beginning of the Cold War; it was the first among southern European countries to democratize in the 1970s; the first among them to gain admission into the European Union — and more recently, the first to test the EU’s financial architecture and immigration policies. It is an important case study, not only in and of itself, but also comparatively, from a broader European and international perspective.”
Students have the opportunity to put theory into practice and learn first-hand in their country of study. As part of the program’s fourth-year seminar, they can conduct field research in Greece and meet key stakeholders from leading think tanks, non-profit organizations and the private sector. “When studying something that is unfolding, there’s obviously nothing better than on-the-ground work and interviews,” says Dominik Gora, an undergraduate student. “This experience lets me do just that. Talking with people directly involved allows me to better understand other points of view and get better information.” They can also enrol in a summer course through Woodsworth College’s Summer Abroad program, and immerse themselves in Greek culture for five weeks in Thessaloniki, the country’s second largest city, while gaining a deeper understanding of modern Greece within the wider Balkan region and the European Union. The challenges to which the Hellenic state is confronted might be great, but you can be sure these students are ready to undertake them with herculean strength.