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Comment: Don’t forget Modern Greek Studies

Modern Greek Studies is not just a small study programme. It is important for Denmark’s prestige and influence on the international stage, argues Trine Willert

Modern Greek Studies should be included in the discussion about the relevance of minor (language) subjects that are now threatened with closure, allegedly for being economically unviable.

The University of Copenhagen has for almost 50 years offered courses in the language, literature and history of contemporary Greece. From the late 1960s Modern Greek was a supplement to Classical Greek; later it formed an autonomous department with Balkan studies that subsequently was placed within the Department of Eastern European Studies. In 2005 Modern Greek Studies became part of the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies along with a number of other ‘exotic’ minor languages that are now threatened with termination. The history of Modern Greek Studies ended in August 2015 when the Rector of the University of Copenhagen ordered the study program to be closed because very few students had enrolled that year. (One, two or zero: the numbers are unclear.)

Whatever the number, we need to ask whether student demand is reason enough to close down a subject and research area. That few students these years are attracted to study Modern Greek should be no surprise to any of us, given the country’s extremely negative media exposure. But the cause of that negative image — the economic crisis above all — can hardly be a reason why Danish society does not need the language skills and the expertise to understand contemporary Greece.

Symbol of being European

As we all know, Greece is currently playing a major role in Europe’s development, especially with regard to the Eurozone and the Schengen agreement. But it is not the first time in history that Greece has played a key part in international power games, both within Europe and with regard to Europe’s relationship with its eastern neighbours. During the Greek War of Independence in the early 19th century, as well as during the two world wars and the Cold War, the European powers used Greece as a symbol of the essence of being European, while at the same time wondering whether it would actually better suit the interests of Western Europe if the Greeks were left to their own fate. Greece would then be considered not the ‘founding state of Europe’ but part of the Middle East.

These inconsistent policies, veering between engagement and laissez-faire, have characterized Western Europe’s relationship not just with Greece but with the whole region of the continent’s southeast corner over the past 200 years.

This region (sometimes called Balkan) constitutes a triangle squeezed between Europe’s three defining cultural historical regions: Turkey, Russia and (Western) Europe. But where the northern part of the region fell under Soviet or other communist influence from 1945 until 1990, Greece remained within the sphere of Western influence and from the late 1970s began its integration in the EC/EU. Greece is thus the country in the region that has the longest tradition of participating in (West) European cooperation.

Partners in solving refugee crisis

So do we need a study program that deals exclusively with Greek history, language and society? If south-eastern Europe is considered as a distinct region with shared historical developments and challenges, it would make good sense to develop a study program covering all languages and countries in that region. That is to say, to return Modern Greek Studies to its former status, integrated within Balkan Studies.

The advantage would be that one avoids ethnocentric focus on any one nation’s (cultural) history and language. The big disadvantage is that such a broad regional approach does not foster the expertise needed to understand the background of each country. Since the merging of small subjects into larger units (e.g. regional studies) must be presented and perceived as a money-saving exercise, the most expensive and time-consuming activity of language teaching would be abolished; students would not be able to study original sources nor to follow political and cultural debates in the Greek media.

Over the past year Greece and Cyprus have become the most important European partners with regard to solving the refugee crisis; for this and other reasons Greece is at the cutting-edge of Europe’s attempts to improve relations with Turkey and the Middle East. If Denmark is to play its part in European politics, and to express its views on migration and many other issues, it needs to speak with expertise and authority. Although English and interpretation are fine ways of communication, only proficiency in Greek gives access to the Greeks’ own self-understanding and agendas.

Not just a small department

It seems very unwise to close Modern Greek Studies in the only university in Denmark where it is offered, for it cuts Danes off from the possibility of acquiring the needed information, and of conducting the sort of research that can have immediate political and financial consequences. Those who represent Denmark on these matters must speak on a well-informed basis.

Danish views have been taken seriously in Europe and internationally because of the range and quality of subjects taught in Danish universities, chiefly at the University of Copenhagen. What we are giving up is not just a small programme (whose cost would hardly be noticed in the national budget) but an important resource for Denmark’s prestige and influence on the international stage.

Trine Stauning Willert, Assistant Professor, Modern Greek Studies, UCPH

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