Friday, June 5, 2009

When Lower Is Higher

When I first came back to Greece in 1959, there were far more donkeys in residence than there were people who could speak English; that is no longer the case, since the number of donkeys has alarmingly fallen to the point where some children wouldn’t recognize one even if it came up to them and brayed, “I am an ass! What are you?” On the other hand, the number of Greek children now able to speak and understand English has risen dramatically—thanks to the countless number of private language schools (frontistiria) scattered throughout Greece.

When I returned to Greece again in 1972, there were certainly many fewer such schools than there are today, but the measure of any school’s success was and continues to be its track record vis-à-vis how many students manage to pass either the Cambridge First Certificate (“The Lower”) or the Michigan ECCE examinations held twice a year in various venues throughout Greece.

Students usually sit for these examinations after six years of studying English as a Foreign Language, and the certificate issued after successful completion of the Cambridge test is usually referred to as “The Lower”—as it used to be called up until the early 90s—but which term the vast majority of Greeks still use when referring to this particular (cough) “diploma.”

Back in the late 90s, there was a spirited national discussion carried on within the private foreign language teaching community as to who is better qualified to teach English: those with university degrees in English, or those with so-called “Proficiency in the language,” i.e., those who lack a university education but who have successfully passed either the Cambridge or Michigan Proficiency Examinations—usually taken after eight years of study at an English Language School.

This question of who is better qualified remains controversial; what is beyond questioning is the unsettling fact that more and more parents are relinquishing their responsibility to find the best language school for their children’s foreign language education. Looking back on my 30 years of teaching English in the Greek boondocks, I have to conclude that though there are parents out here who are truly concerned with the caliber, qualifications and experience of English teachers, and who do make their selection of schools accordingly, there is an ever-increasing and thus unsettling number of parents who just don’t give a damn one way or the other.

Decisions about where to send children are often reached at the hairdresser’s and/or as a result of door-to-door campaigns carried out by industrious language school owners who also enlist the help of relatives, politically affiliated cronies, hoi polloi, you name it—and all the while thinking up every conceivable wile to drum up business, including free lessons for kids in kindergarten, free school bags, free notebooks, etc.

Peer pressure also plays its part and lets many a parent off the hook—the children assume the responsibility of selecting their own school—which means the more lemmings, the merrier; and if it’s also the cheapest place in town, so much the better. Get the picture? If not, let me tell you the following true story. It illustrates what many conscientious English teachers are up against when it comes to dealing with the great majority of Greek parents.

When Lower Is Higher

Quite a few years ago, in the late 70s, Eleni was working in one of Meligalas’s two tailor shops as an apprentice to a man who had spent 19 years in various concentration camps after the Greek Civil War. He had been a member of the Greek Underground and his period of imprisonment was his reward for fighting against the Germans during their brutal Occupation of Greece. It could have been much worse for the tailor—hundreds of his compatriots were either murdered by roving bands of Rightist thugs after the Occupation, or put on trial and executed by a series of US-supported Rightwing governments up until the early 50s.

In the late 70s, I was heavily involved in party politics as a founding member and local secretary of the
PASOK organization. Back then (how times change!), PASOK was considered by many of my area’s residents as more Leftist, more radical and perhaps more dangerous than even the Greek Communist Party! Zounds! To understand the region’s fear and loathing of Communism and its cousin, Socialism, we have to go back to September 1944, when Meligalas was the scene of a fierce three-day battle between Greek partisans and the
Security Battalions set up by the retreating Germans to protect their rear as they were leaving the country.

The Security Battalions lost, summary people’s trials were held, and those found guilty of collaboration were taken to a site just outside the village of Neochori, shot and thrown down a well. Estimates vary, but there were at least 1,400 men, women and children executed. The battle and resultant executions left an indelible mark on the area’s residents and makes it easier to understand why Meligalas is today such a bastion of conservatism. It does not satisfactorily explain why so many Messenians and locals swore an oath to Hitler, donned German uniforms and fought against the partisans as members of the Security Battalions.

So, it was in this former partisan’s shop that I would drop by one or two times a week to spend a pleasant half hour or more talking with both the tailor and, of course, Eleni. One morning, a client of mine dropped by the shop while I was being measured for one of the two suits I eventually had made as an excuse for stopping by the shop to see Eleni. Never wore them but they were well worth their price in more ways than one! Anyway, after dispensing with the usual social amenities, my client asked me about his son’s progress in English. After telling him his son was unfortunately not progressing, the following exchange of vast pedagogical import took place.

“Ah, I see. Thank you, Vassilaki; that is interesting. Now that I think of it, just where was it you learned your English?”

“Well, Mr. Banias, thank you for asking! You know, I’ve been teaching for ten years and you’re the first parent who’s asked me that—most of them just want to know how much I charge. Let me see. My parents took me to the US when I was four; I went to elementary school for six years; then another six years of junior/senior high. After that, I went to university for four years, got my BA in English, and then did two more years of graduate school for my MA, also in English. After returning to Greece, I taught for two years in Athens before opening my school here. That’s about it.”

Mr. Banias hesitated, but only for a moment.

“Well, all that’s fine and well, Vassilaki, but can you tell me please, HAVE YOU THE LOWER?”

NB: Written two years ago as a part of the Messenias supplement to
Elizabeth Boleman-Herring's excellent website on Greece; unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond Elizabeth's control, the supplement was never published.


  1. In the US, we're seeing something similiar, meaning the students are viewed more and more like customers. Therefore, faculty and admin are in "customer service." Trying to implement the plan for successful business models is not the answer. Meanwhile, students and parents capitalize on the mentality that an education is something purchased not earned.

  2. j and a,

    Thanks for commenting! And your pun (unintended?) on 'capitalize' is priceless, a!

  3. Succeful Real Pagosmios
    Stavros Athanasakopoulos
    Engineer Architect
    Messene Messenias
    Helas - Greece
    Telephone 0030 27220 24320


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