- Formal and Informal Education during the Rise of Greek Nationalism: Learning To Be Greek by Theodore G. Zervas
Over the last 50 years, scholars have produced a rich and nuanced literature on the crucial role that education, particularly popular instruction, played in the construction of national identities in Europe and around the world. Theodore G. Zervas’s book, Formal and Informal Education during the Rise of Greek Nationalism: Learning To Be Greek, promises to contribute to this field by exploring how the Greek state mobilized and shaped what children in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century learned not only in school, but in their homes and communities, as well. Unfortunately, Zervas’s book does not quite deliver.
Zervas divides his study into five thematic chapters framed by an introduction and conclusion. He begins with a survey of family and community life (from the village to minority ethnolinguistic groups) and the place of childhood in Greek society around the turn of the twentieth century. In the following three chapters, he discusses schools and textbooks, children’s literature, and folk practices as sites of formal and informal education. The final chapter offers a series of biographical vignettes of Greek cultural figures meant to showcase how informal learning shaped them as children.
From the start, Zervas struggles with the very concepts that anchor his study: nationalism and informal education. He never clearly articulates the coordinates of the Greek identity that the state promoted, nor does he directly link it to the content of either formal or informal instruction. While we get a glimpse of the contours of Greekness from allusions to the work of others, notably Michael Herzfeld (115), most of what we learn comes from vague statements. For example, Zervas writes that “Greece was hesitant in welcoming a more Western and secular society and Greek Orthodox Christianity was seen as crucial to maintaining a Greek cultural identity” (65). He leaves us to wonder to what or whom “Greece” refers here—political leaders? teachers? peasants?—as well as what these Western values were, and how they ran counter to Orthodoxy. More generally, Zervas tends to elide Orthodoxy and national identity without clarifying what sets apart the Greek case. The closest to a sketch of Greekness at the time is the claim: “[Today] it is easy . . . to define what it means to be Greek. We speak Greek, we live in Greece, we are Greek Orthodox (at least the majority of us are), and our history and culture dates back to ancient Greece” (15). This essentialized definition of contemporary [End Page 205] Greek identity points to the most troubling aspect of Zervas’s book—the reproduction of nationalist tropes.
While Zervas makes it known he has read key works on nationalism (Benedict Anderson, Ernest Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm), his study fails to problematize national identities, histories, and ideologies as historical-political constructions. Already in his preface, Zervas imagines his own Greek ancestry extending back as an unbroken line to 7000 BCE (vii). He contends, in contradiction to a wealth of studies, that customs and traditions—from when to lead a dance to how to serve coffee—were uniform across Greece (12) and rearticulates the figure of the timeless peasant, positing that rural life in postin-dependence Greece not only continued to resemble the entirety of the Ottoman period (1453–1821) but had often changed little “since late Byzantine times (1000–1400)” (31–32). Discussing its ethnolinguistic diversity, he calls Thessaloniki “an old relic from Greece’s Ottoman past” (40), without noting that for most of the period under consideration (1880–1930), the city was actually part of the Ottoman Empire; it only became Greek in 1913. Similarly, his brief note of educational institutions in Smyrna and other parts of Anatolia lacks any recognition of the historical or political context (70)—neglecting to nuance how Greek identity may have developed differently in the diaspora or to inform readers unfamiliar with Modern Greek history that these locales were outside the reach of the...