Reconsidering SYRIZA’s Education Policy

The present study was inspired by the measures that Greece’s coalition government, headed by the far-left SYRIZA party, continues to implement. Specifically, I aim to address several key points of consideration where SYRIZA’s policies negatively impact Greece’s current education system through the continued reduction in ancient Greek and Orthodox studies. The points that I address relate to Greece’s political and cultural history, and the inextricable link between Orthodoxy and the ancient Greek language, including the ties between them and the Modern Greek state. In light of these important relationships, I then deconstruct many of the arguments propounded by Greece’s Education Minister, Nikos Filis, and SYRIZA. I propose that their changes to education do more harm than good to Greece’s people, the country’s progress, and its relationship with its western allies. My overarching claim is that Orthodox and ancient Greek education must not be reduced from Greek public school curricula, but rather, need to be improved and expanded upon.


Greece’s public education system faces a serious challenge, one that could undermine Modern Greek and Orthodox identity for future generations of Greeks. Greece’s far-left SYRIZA party, and Nikos Filis, the Minister of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs, have been promoting a political agenda at the expense of both the educational well-being of Greek students and the historical origins of the Modern Greek state.

Since coming to power in 2015, and again in 2016, SYRIZA has reduced ancient Greek language studies and is working toward reducing Orthodox religious studies from public school education. Among the reductions are measures that include the omission of original texts of ancient Greek works (such as Thucydides’ “Funeral Oration” attributed to Pericles) and the replacement of priests and other Orthodox studies specialists with non-specialists in schools. The Orthodox faith and the ancient Greek language are both major elements of Modern Greek identity. They are also closely related, because ancient Greek is the original language of the Orthodox liturgy and scriptures that are still used in Greece. If continued academic reductions occur in these areas, Greek students risk losing a necessary understanding of their country’s origins, their faith, their own identity, their own potential, and the unique and useful role they can play in the larger world.

SYRIZA receives praise from some of its supporters. They consider the teaching of ancient Greek as irrelevant since they view ancient Greek as a dead language and because some students say it is simply difficult to learn. There are also Greek parents who complain that Orthodox studies, despite the brevity of only a couple hours per week, are boring to their children. SYRIZA considers the current teaching of Orthodox Christianity to be an obstacle to progress as the current government brands it as “too confessional,” and as a whole, mistakenly view the Orthodox Church in Greece as little more than a harbinger of nationalism with little relevance in the modern globalized world, and as an inhibitor to both progress and friendly relations with the European Union countries. Indeed, the Orthodox Church in Greece has historically been part of the Greek public sector. However, the Orthodox Church is a religious institution that does not use its influence to interfere in the Greek state’s international partnerships or economic policy. The ultimate authority of state rests in Greece’s secular institutions, namely Parliament and the office of the Prime Minister. The Church’s role in the Greek public sector is, instead, of a symbolic nature, due to its historical connection to the emergence of the Modern Greek state. For instance, the Orthodox faith provided a rallying point around which the Greek-speaking peoples under Ottoman imperial occupation could unify to begin their independence movement. In other words, Greek unity  during this period owes itself largely to the fact that Greeks shared a single, common faith. The Church of Greece did not become an official state institution until 1833. The actual influence that this autocephalous Orthodox Church has had in Greece was really limited to the swearing in of the Prime Minister, enjoying a tax-exempt status, denoting religious affiliation on Greek ID cards, and specialized instruction in Greek public education. Over the last decade and a half, there have been reductions to the Orthodox Church’s role in the state. For instance, religious affiliation was omitted from ID cards in 2000, and in 2010 the Church’s tax exempt status was revoked, a measure largely attributed to the current debt crisis.

I argue that SYRIZA’s reductions to Orthodox and ancient Greek education is problematic for several reasons, and I instead suggest that such education should continue and be improved upon. First, as mentioned above, there is still some misunderstanding of Orthodox Christianity in Greece, particularly its relationship to Modern Greek identity. In this sense, SYRIZA’s reductions could contribute to a decline in cultural awareness. Second, while SYRIZA’s combined reductions in both Orthodox studies and the ancient Greek language appear to be a continued effort in separating church and state, they are not carefully calculated measures that would enrich public education. Rather, they are simply academic reductions that limit a Greek student’s potential for intellectual advancement. Lastly, I argue that SYRIZA’s education policy could indirectly compound Greece’s difficulties by empowering extremist far right parties, and thus, complicate relations with its allies in Europe and the United States.

To begin, let us examine in more detail the Orthodox Church’s relationship to Modern Greek identity.

Orthodox Christianity can be traced to the first century AD. The Holy Apostles spread it throughout the Mediterranean, where it grew during the first three centuries after Christ. It is the faith that the Roman emperor, Constantine I the Great, safeguarded in his Edict of Milan, and which became the state religion of the Roman Empire. Orthodoxy is the faith in the patristic writings of the Church Fathers and has spread throughout the world today. Orthodoxy is not reserved for Greeks or Greek speakers alone, nor is it a harbinger of nationalism. When Christianity spread, it spread first to the multiethnic, though largely Greek speaking peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean, or the so-called “Greek East,” which the Roman Empire had previously annexed. We call the eastern portion of the Roman Empire the “Eastern Empire” by the time of Constantine I (d. AD 337) who founded the eastern capital, Constantinople. When the western half of the Empire fell in AD 476, the eastern half survived for another millennium until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 (or 1461 if we include the Empire of Trebizond).

While today we often call the Eastern Roman Empire the “Byzantine” Empire, we must remember that “Byzantine” is a relatively recent term that first entered Greek and Roman historiography by the 1560s in the work of Hieronymus Wolf. Despite being a term of convenience now, “Byzantine” often masks the fact that all Eastern Roman citizens, including the Greeks, called themselves Romaioi (Ῥωμαίοι) the Greek word for “Romans.” This designation as “Roman,” rather than having an ethnic connotation, was indicative of being an Orthodox Christian. Orthodoxy was the central component of a Byzantine citizen’s identity.

For the Greeks and Greek speakers of the Balkans and Asia Minor, Orthodox identity remained predominant even after the Ottoman Turkish conquests of the 1300s and 1400s, and during the “400-year” period of Ottoman rule called the Tourkokratia. The nationalist mythologies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries held that during this time the Turks sought to extinguish Orthodoxy, which was attached to an elusive concept of “Greekness.”The truth is that Orthodoxy remained legal, and that the Orthodox hierarchs received more administrative power under the Ottomans than they did under the Byzantine emperors.

All Orthodox peoples in the Ottoman Empire, regardless of ethnicity, constituted the largest minority population, which the Turks called the Millet-i-rum (“nation of Rome”). We must not, however, confuse the Orthodox Church’s ability to retain power as Ottoman benevolence, because Orthodoxy was used as a mechanism by which the Ottomans controlled the Orthodox population. Regardless of this control, Orthodoxy survived. As it did during the Byzantine period, Orthodoxy remained at the center of most Greek speakers’ identity under the Ottomans, so much so that it served as a major motivating factor for Greeks to pursue independence from the Islamic government of the Ottoman state. Even though western influences such as the French Revolution and the Enlightenment had their impact on Greek nation building, Orthodoxy has never been separated from Modern Greek identity.

SYRIZA and its supporters’ characterizations of Orthodoxy as a “nationalistic” institution reveal a total misunderstanding of Orthodoxy altogether. Nationalism, as we understand it today, is a western concept that comes from the word natus (birth/race), and has nothing to do with the Orthodox Christian faith. The closest Greek equivalent of nationalism comes from ethnos, which is derived from ethos, a word that instead signifies a way of life or customs. This is why the “Greek ethnos” could include many Balkan and Anatolian peoples: they were Greek by language, custom, and most of all, unified by Orthodox beliefs and identity, without which, there could not have been a Modern Greek state. Thus, the Orthodox Church can be credited with preserving a way of life and belief that was central to the identity of so many people of both Greek and non-Greek birth. Education in Orthodoxy and Orthodox life would actually serve to eliminate tendencies toward nationalism, and instead promote respect and inclusion.

It is also important to consider the relationship between Orthodoxy and the ancient Greek language. The presence of diglossia in Modern Greece is not a detriment to intellectual progress. Rather, it is a gift. The usage of two languages in Greece by the same speakers can be traced to the Byzantine age, when a demotic and state language existed simultaneously. Byzantine Greek was closely associated with the ancient koine, the language of the New Testament and liturgical Greek. While the ancient koine remained the language of the Holy Scriptures and the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, a demotic language began to develop, which today is known as Modern Greek, or demotic. In the nineteenth century Greek intellectuals attempted to replace demotic Greek with a “cleansed language,” called katharevousa, which combined elements of demotic and ancient Greek. Katharevousa’s “official language” status was abolished in 1976. Despite the language question over katharevousa, the ancient koine remains today as the language of the Orthodox Liturgy and Scripture, while Modern Greek (demotic) is the official and commonly spoken language of Greece.

Even though demotic Greek prevails today in common speech and affairs of state, ancient Greek must not be dismissed as a dead language, because it continues to maintain its unique and active role in the religious lives of the Orthodox faithful. Despite complaints that ancient Greek learning is challenging (as students sometimes complain about math or chemistry) Greek citizens to this day have been able to understand the koine Greek in their church services. By eliminating ancient Greek from the public school curriculum, SYRIZA would not only be killing a living language, but would also make Orthodoxy less accessible to the Greek youth, thereby, diminishing the value and relevance with which the youth views Orthodoxy.

The same point can be made regarding the accessibility of historical documents by ancient Greek authors, such as Thucydides or Aristotle. Along with Orthodoxy, the legacy left by the ancients is also a major foundation of Modern Greek identity. It is not nationalistic to claim an identity that has earned international recognition for a century and a half. Thus, it is wrong for Greeks to be condemned for acknowledging who they are or where they come from with words such as progonoplexia. Eliminating a language that is a foundation for who and what Greece is today will reduce the Greek youth’s understanding of, and appreciation for, the Byzantine and ancient Greek contributions to their country and way of life. By sacrificing a language that is still very much alive, the Greeks could inadvertently lose a major component of their identity, and revert to a trivialized perception that Modern Greece is little more than a nineteenth century construct of the West.

While SYRIZA believes that its education policy is politically sound, it actually empowers the extreme right. The extreme right-wing party, Golden Dawn, has grown in power over the last several years because of the Greek citizenry’s disenchantment brought on by the country’s many crises. Golden Dawn gains popular support by exploiting people's’ feelings toward the challenges facing Greece. One way is by condemning political or social action that the party claims are attacks on conservatism. Reductions to Orthodox and ancient Greek studies are among the actions that it cites as destructive.

Posing as a countermeasure to such change, Golden Dawn suggests that it is a defender of Greekness and Orthodoxy. In truth, Golden Dawn is not. As Greeks around the world have come to realize, Golden Dawn does not demonstrate the Greek idea of philoxenia (good will or hospitality toward strangers), and its anti-Semitism and xenophobia are not at all part of the Orthodoxy that they claim to defend. Thus, because of Golden Dawn’s hyper-nationalistic rhetoric and self-proclaimed association with Orthodox Christianity, many Greeks mistakenly associate the Church with nationalism and xenophobia. This poor understanding of Orthodoxy is evidence for why Orthodox education must be improved, not reduced.

A related consideration is that an empowered Golden Dawn could deteriorate Greece’s relationship with its allies in the United States, Israel, and Europe. This is an especially important point given the recent developments in American politics. In November of 2016, Lt. General Michael Flynn, who became Donald Trump’s pick for National Security Advisor, stated his intentions for the Trump administration to prioritize the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On the one hand this presents some concerns given Erdogan’s authoritarianism, his systematic abandonment of secularism, and his crackdown on human rights such as free speech. On the other hand, a closer relationship between Turkey and the United States would concern the Greek state, especially given Erdogan’s repeated irredentist claims on Greek and other European territory and the Turkish military’s frequent violations of Greek waters and airspace.

If a party such as Golden Dawn ended up gaining a majority in Parliament in the future, Greece’s current allies, who have fostered good relations with Greece, would likely begin to distance themselves. As a possible consequence, they could, as Michael Flynn intends, put more support behind Turkey, as a regional ally. Given the current political climate in Turkey, it is difficult to predict with certainty whether or not more U.S. assistance to Turkey will even come at all. What can be said with more certainty, however, is that the continuation of Greece’s close ties with its allies depends upon Greece’s ability to promote progressive ideals such as human and civil rights- something that Golden Dawn does not. Even though decreases in education are only one issue that the far-right party uses to fuel its rhetoric, a moderate approach to education (that is, one in which Orthodox and ancient Greek education can be maintained) would nonetheless contribute to drawing at least some popular support away from Golden Dawn.

As a point of conclusion, there are indicators of some positive change. Independent Greeks’ president, Panos Kammenos, has stated that he will not reduce Orthodox education, despite his party’s role in a governing coalition with SYRIZA. More importantly, there is a strengthened opposition party, New Democracy, headed by Kyriakos Mitsotakis. In his October 2016 interview with Bloomberg, Mitsotakis identified what he considered shortcomings with the current government. He voiced a need for “administrative” change and also maintained that Greece’s education “has been overlooked.” So far, however, he has remained vague regarding the specifics of his education plan. Still, Mitsotakis does show a great interest in Greece’s youth, and has encouraged young Greeks to take an active role in their government to help shape a culture of innovation. As of now, Mitsotakis shows potential as an amicable partner of the United States and a facilitator of Greek educational progress.

While this remains to be seen for certain, Greeks should maintain hope and vigilance, because, as is often the case in Modern Greek politics, the opposition party almost inevitably comes to power. This has been known to be true especially since the era of Deliyiannis and Trikoupis in the late nineteenth century. While the world awaits developments in Greece’s economic crisis, the reality is that the Greek youth that Mitsotakis encourages will, I believe, ultimately inherit the task of finding the solutions to Greece’s challenges. Their success will require a solid education and the ability to innovate. An educational foundation in their identity will be especially important for them to realize their importance and the special role that they can assume on the world stage. Without expanded and improved education in Greece’s own identity, the country will forget what it is beyond its name, and never achieve total emancipation from the internal and external challenges that it currently faces.


Andrew H. Ntapalis received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of New Hampshire in 2014 with a dual major in the Modern Greek Language and History, graduating summa cum laude, and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. In 2016 he earned his Master of Arts degree in History from the University of New Hampshire, specializing in European Political History, with a focus on the political development of both ancient and modern Greece.

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