In September 2020, I was invited as a lecturer of the ancient Greek language on the Department of History, Archeology and Ethnology of Abkhazia at the Faculty of History of the Abkhazian State University (ASU). I delivered lectures on the course of “Ancient Greek for Historians” for master’s degree students of the Faculty of History of ASU.
The main goal of the course is to give master’s degree students, who study the history of Abkhazia (Eastern Black Sea region) in the ancient (period of the Great Greek colonization) time and in the middle ages (Byzantine period), basic knowledge of the ancient Greek language, including the basics of morphology and syntax, as well as the skills of reading and translation with a dictionary of simple texts.
In addition, I set one more goal, to acquaint students with the Modern Greek language (the course of “Ancient Greek for Historians” was started from it), as well as with epigraphic and other monuments of the Greek language on the territory of Abkhazia (students will be able to get acquainted with this part of the lectures in the next academic year).
In the end of May, another academic year ended at ASU and I had the opportunity to return once again to the topic of higher education in our country and share some of my observations and reflections.
First of all, it should be noted that the pandemic and the quarantine regime had a negative impact on the teaching and learning process at ASU. I planned to give 140 hours of lectures for two semesters of the past academic year, but I managed only 72 hours. The main thing is, thank God, everyone is alive, although some of my students had COVID-19.
In my opinion, conditions for study at ASU are very good. A large and comfortable building of ASU has been repaired recently. It is located on the outskirts of the capital of Abkhazia, in a quiet and beautiful place, with a magnificent panorama (by the way, this word comes from Greek – πανόραμα) of the sea and the ancient Dioscuriada, i.e. modern Sukhum. The university has a good canteen for students. This is important because ASU is located far from the city center.
The only thing that was not taken into account during the restoration works at ASU (forgive me for being frank!) is the arrangement of restrooms.
There were fifteen students on my course initially (most of them, as usual, were girls). After the first semester, two students left the university, although, they were very talented. We studied with the other thirteen students until the end of the year.
From the very beginning of our lectures, I explained to the students my approach in learning, which is as follows:
- Attendance of lectures is very important for me. Firstly, students cannot study only at home by themselves, though in our time, thanks to the Internet, they have enormous opportunities for that. Secondly, at lectures students can unexpectedly take an interest in learning (this process depends on the teacher a lot, of course) and live communication gives knowledge, expand horizons.
The American Clay P. Bedford said: ‘You can teach a student a lesson for a day but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives.’
During our lectures, I often asked students whether they had read a certain book, a certain movie, listened to this music, etc. Unfortunately, more often I heard the negative answer. Then I did my best to get them interested in reading a book, watching a movie, listening to music, etc. This approach works.
One of the students asked me in the middle of the second semester: is it too late for her to start getting knowledge in various fields?
These words were very important for me! I reminded her of the famous aphorism of the Roman rhetorician Quintilian: “It’s never too late to learn!”
By the way, in the second semester, my students’ lecture attendance increased significantly. Four of thirteen students in the second semester did not miss a single lecture at all! Three students missed just one.
- Activity in a virtual group (social network). From the very beginning, I created a Facebook group called “Greek for historians of ASU”, where I regularly posted lectures, various audio and video materials. Over the past academic year, in our group there were posted 40 texts and textbooks in pdf format, 88 audio and video materials. Of course, I checked the students’ activity in the virtual group and this activity influenced the final grade they received at the end of each semester.
I would like to note that I began my course “Ancient Greek for Historians” from the Modern Greek language, because it is easier and more accessible. I know well the complexities of ancient languages, including ancient Greek and I didn’t want to discourage students from learning languages. I aroused their interest with the help of modern video clips, music, films, that is, I used those resources which modern young people are interested in.
There is a wonderful Greek comedy film «Το ξύλο βγήκε από τον παράδεισο», i.e. “The beating came from paradise”. It was filmed in 1959 by director Alekos Sakellarios. The film shows the relationship between teachers and students of an elite school. The ancient Greek language is taught in that school, of course. So, a student of this school Liza Papastavrou (she is the main character of the film), having learned that a new teacher has been invited to the vacant position of the teacher of the ancient Greek language and she discusses with her classmates why do they need the ancient Greek language? How can they use it in life? It will be better if they are taught English, maybe one day they will be in Hollywood and could talk to Marlon Brando. Or they would have taught them French so once in Paris they could talk to Gerard Philippe. Or some Spanish … Let them learn any foreign language, this will be more useful than learning ancient Greek! What shall we do with ancient Greek? Shall we speak to Pericles and Aspasia? (Hope, my students know who they are) However, in the end of the film, graduates of an elite school begin to understand how important it is for modern people to know what ancient Greek thinkers, philosophers, poets and others said and wrote about humans and life.
The film ends with the following verses from the tragedy of the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles “Antigone”:
Ἔρως, ὃς ἐν κτήνεσι πίπτεις,
ὃς ἐν μαλακαῖς παρειαῖς
φοιτᾷς δ᾽ ὑπερπόντιος ἔν τ᾽
καί σ᾽ οὔτ᾽ ἀθανάτων φύξιμος οὐδεὶς
οὔθ᾽ ἁμερίων σέ γ᾽ ἀνθρώπων,
ὁ δ᾽ ἔχων μέμηνεν».
I hope my students will use the ancient Greek dictionaries (they have them in pdf format) to translate these verses.
My students began to watch and listen to video clips with modern Greek songs with great pleasure, began to memorize the lyrics of these songs by heart and sing with me at lectures. I even bought a portable speaker for that.
Everyone already knows if Greek music sounds at the Faculty of History, this is Fr. Dorotheos sings with his students. By the end of the year, a leading duo of performers of Greek songs was created in the group (I will not call names, not to embarrass anyone).
When the students did not carry out my requirements for studying the ancient Greek language, I told them: if you do not want to study the ancient language in order to be involved in teaching and scientific work, then you will earn money for a living, performing Greek songs in cafes and restaurants!
In my childhood, most parents in Abkhazia frightened their children who did not want to study well with the profession of a shepherd (аҵара шәҵар шәҭахымзар, аџьмақәа шәрыцзаап)!
By the way, such a negative perception of the above profession, apparently, influenced the fact that the oldest and most important branch of the economy of Abkhazia animal husbandry was completely disappeared.
As a result, most of the population of our country ирҵазгьы ахьрыхәаз ҳәа акгьы ыҟам, иара арахә ааӡараҟынгьы, анхамҩаҟны ирдыруазгьы рхашҭит.
Our compatriot writer Fazil Iskander wrote in his “Letter to Friends”: “People who spoke about the dangers of education were not so stupid, although they looked reactionary. I think that the best of them were not concerned with their own selfish interests, but with the understanding of a rather long and dangerous intermediate state of mind of a huge number of people. They forgot folk ethics and did not assimilate universal human one.”
- Creation of an individual training manual. The study of any language is a constant repetition of the learning material, from the very beginning I said to my students to buy two large file folders (one for Modern Greek and another one for Ancient Greek). During the Academic year, these folders were replenished with various materials – texts, tables, tests, photocopies and other materials that I provided to each student.
At every lecture it must be used visual aids, it is important for me. Visualization is very important because visual memory is the most important factor in language learning process.
Over the past academic year, I have provided students with more than 70 pages of theoretical and more than 50 pages of practical materials.
Now I would like to draw your attention to one of my observations from the life of ASU students. I rarely meet our students with backpacks, the life of students in other countries of the world is unthinkable without them.
In most cases, our girls have fashionable mini-handbags and clutches, and guys prefer to have one notebook for all lectures.
I have been carrying a backpack for fifteen years and cannot imagine how it is possible to study at the university without having a backpack with many notebooks, books, folders and other necessary accessories.
I would like to appeal to parents: instead of expensive clothes and cell phones, I ask you to buy backpacks and laptops for your children-students. Successful study without these things is impossible!
- Independent work at home. It included various written assignments, tests, independent studying of textbooks in the modern Greek and ancient Greek languages. Students had textbooks not only in pdf format, but also in printed one. So I could see whether the students worked with textbooks or not. If the textbooks had various marks with a pen, marker, etc., it was clear that students were working with them. This factor was also taken into account in the final grade at the end of the semester.
Unfortunately, the biggest problem of modern students, including mine, is the lack of a strict daily schedule, especially outside the walls of the university. I was a student too and I know, that at this age, the main interests of young people are focused on the beautiful aspects of human life. But a good education is always the result of a strict daily schedule and discipline of a person, that is, self-organization.
In the second half of 20 century, this was a time of imaginary freedom and emancipation, a violent protest began against the traditional upbringing of children and the classical methods of teaching them. A vivid illustration of this is the second part of the famous composition of the British rock band Pink Floyd – “Another Brick In The Wall”, which tells about the problems of education and “bullying” of children.
However, the classical educational centers, including monastic and church schools with a strict daily routine, gave more good results than the free form of education that prevails in our time.
Many church and monastery schools have educated a huge number of outstanding figures. Here are a few examples. Marie-Henri Bayle (1783-1842), known under the pseudonym Stendhal, French writer, one of the founders of the psychological novel. As a child, Stendhal was taught to read and write by the Jesuit Rayyan, who forced him to read the Bible and researchers of the writer’s life believe, he felt horror and hatred to the clergy because of that through all his life. In Stendhal’s novel Red and Black, an acknowledged literary masterpiece of the 19th century, the protagonist of the novel, Julien, quotes entire pages of the Bible in Latin. Or General Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970), “the last great Frenchman,” as the compilers of his biography wrote about him, his father was a professor of philosophy and literature at the Jesuit school. Two great directors of XX century – Federico Fellini (1920-1993) graduated from the monastery school, Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) was the son of a Lutheran pastor. I have listed only those people I remember now.
Maybe many of them, assessed their studies in monastic and church schools negatively in adulthood and this attitude was reflected in their subsequent work. But, believe me, the above and many other famous people would never have become great people without those years of their lives, which they spent according to a strict schedule and under the supervision of monastic and church schools.
Andrey Chochua (1879-1965), an outstanding teacher, public and state figure of Abkhazia, tells us in his own memoirs about the daily routine of the Sukhum mountain school’s students in the end of 19 century.
“The life of students was built according to a strict schedule: they got up at 7.30 am, drank tea at 8, and classes began at 8.30 am. After the third lesson, students of the boarding school had breakfast in the dining room, and others (who came to study from home – Father Dorotheos) brought food with them. They had lunch at three o’clock in the afternoon. After an hour and a half break, students started to work, then had supper. From 7 to 9 o’clock they did their lessons, and at 10 o’clock went to bed. Our teachers were interesting people, many of them were simple people but had a good education. Supervision of students by teachers was constant and strict, so breach of discipline was rare, and for fights and other misconduct they were punished by leaving without lunch or dinner.”
- Additional literature for reading. Nowadays the problem with reading books exists all over the world. The era of gadgets, unfortunately, taught people to read only small texts. Nevertheless, my students and I managed to read the following three additional books: 1) The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius; 2) The Birthplace of Civilisation and Barbarism by Neal Ascherson; 3) The Histories by Herodotus, book l.
On Christmas and Easter Days I presented my students with all the books and magazines that had been published by the Publishing Department of the Holy Metropolis of Abkhazia. I hope they will read them too. The biggest gift for them was my doctoral thesis in Greek, which had also been published by the above-mentioned publishing department. It was their first book in Greek.
- Tests. We had two tests in the end of both semesters. The tests took place as follows: first, for two hours, students were given a written test (5-6 pages), then an oral test, they were reading small texts in Modern Greek and Ancient Greek, and translated them into Abkhaz or Russian. Almost all students were very good at reading Greek texts, but there were many problems with written tests and translations of the texts they read.
The final grades were as follows: in the first semester, six students had fours, the other eight had threes; in the second semester, eleven students had fours, and only one has three. At the same time, eight students had talent for studying the modern Greek language, and only four for studying the ancient Greek language.
6 June, 2021