International conference draws Hellenists from around the world
Greeks of the diaspora debate cultural future
by Eugenia Xenos
The study of modern Greek civilization comes with a tangled politics, history and culture, not to mention the baggage of having been the cradle of Western civilization.
However, these challenges did not deter a lively and thoughtful group of about 50 academics who came to Concordia from May 27 to 31 for the Third International Conference of Research Institutes of Hellenism, called Hellenism in the 21st Century.
Participants came from Australia, France, Greece, the United States and Canada, proving that Hellenism, or Greek civilization, is coming into its own academically. While it is not a new subject, the presence of a maturing diaspora is changing Hellenism in ways that are altogether new, including a focus on retaining language and culture in contexts that do not require or value anything other than English.
Even without taking factors such as technology into account, the dawn of the 21st century presents vastly different challenges for the retention and promotion of a civilization than it did for Greeks in other periods. After the classical age, for example (ending in the fourth century BC), the culture spread throughout the Mediterranean, Middle East and into Asia, and flourished, even while the Greek city-states stagnated.
Today, however, the culture may spread to North and South America, Europe, Australia and South Africa, but its proponents often find it difficult to preserve when the language is no longer a lingua franca, and the values and religion and are seen as hopelessly outdated in this modern, secular era.
Nevertheless, this group of Hellenophiles tackled this subject and others with gusto. At the wrap-up panel on the last day of the conference, a debate ensued about whether culture could be promoted without a strong emphasis on language acquisition for second- or third-generation Greeks in the diaspora.
Some advocated a more relaxed approach to learning it (mostly Americans, citing influences such as the spread of individualism and a lack of practical relevance for the language), and others suggesting that language, culture, religion, history and politics are so tied together as to be inseparable (mostly Montrealers, who take a more traditional approach in other issues as well).
In the end, the group agreed to disagree on the method, but stressed the fact that they all wished to see Greek civilization prosper and become more relevant in daily life. "I believe we are on the right road, economically, linguistically and so on, despite our differences," said moderator Stephanos Constantinides, a political science professor at lUniversité du Québec à Montréal. "Were taking a few positive steps toward the 21st century."
Other challenging topics at the conference included the resolution of the perennial Cyprus question, the fact that Greece is becoming a country of immigration rather than emigration, and foreign policy on the question of Kosovo. The Greek political system and structures, economics in a post-Euro Europe and the character of Greek-Australian literature, were other topics addressed at the conference.
The third international conference was organized locally by the Canadian Centre for Hellenic Studies and Research (known by its Greek acronym, KEEK), whose chair of the board is Concordia Political Science Professor Paris Arnopoulos. Other Concordians who helped out and were present at the conference were Sociology Professor Efie Gavaki and Communication Studies Professor Nikos Metallinos.
The previous two conferences were held in Cyprus (1995) and Australia (1997). The next one will be held in Thessaloniki, Greece, in two years.