Teaching Greek in Turkey - Some Experiences from Interethnic Learning
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By Hercules Millas for the conference 'Cyprus in Textbooks – Textbooks  in Cyprus', organized by Georg-Eckert Institut in Braunschweig, 28-30 April 1994, unpublished presentation.



Teaching Greek in Turkey -

Some Experiences from Interethnic Learning


     My experience from the University of Ankara, where I teach Modern Greek literature in a recently founded section will be the topic of my presentation[1]. Taking into consideration the tense relations between Greece and Turkey and the negative image of Greeks among the Turks, the undertaking faces a challenge. The history of Greek literature and the history of Greece are presented to young Turks. This task has to satisfy two conditions:

1) the neighboring nation should not be presented in a biased manner, as it has generally been up to this date in Turkey (and the presentation should satisfy or at least be acceptable to the Greek side) ;

2) the past and the present of Greece should be presented in a framework acceptable and conceivable by, and to the satisfaction of, the Turkish side.

     The challenge has been in general successfully met. It seems that there is a way of presenting history in an acceptable way to most members of both sides. This 'way' will be my main topic.



      Prejudice against Greeks in Turkey is a vast topic and will not be dealt with here. It has been built up as an anti-Christian and/or anti-Western sentiment during the Ottoman period and culminated as an ethnic feeling (“them” against “us”) during modern times. History books, textbooks and literature even today mostly reinforce this prejudice:  the Greeks are considered responsible for most  past mishaps and      present friction. The Greeks are characterized as aggressive, irredentist, rude e.t.c.[2] Of course many Turks also believe that they are not biased against the Greeks and that   their judgment is based on objective facts.[3]

     In spite of these 'unfavorable' circumstances present-day Greece and her history is presented in Turkey (in our classroom) with great ease, in an outspoken way and with great sincerity. Bilateral relations and crucial problems are discussed when they impose themselves through the headlines of the daily press or when brought up by students. The past is a main issue too, since most Greek novels read in class deal with incidents and wars in which Greeks and Turks are directly involved.

     Peace, understanding and deep mutual respect prevail in our class, among the Turks and the Greeks.[4] History is not a topic which creates tension or disagreement but on the contrary it leads to an understanding and rapprochement. The 'way', the 'method' or the means to accomplish this 'peace' was not known or set from the beginning. When the section was founded only a vague intention in this direction existed both on my part and among my Turkish colleagues who initiated the establishment of this section at the university. My first steps in this direction were not planned from the beginning but they developed in the classroom; one could say that the first steps were taken rather by intuition.[5] It is this conference (of the Georg-Eckert Institute) which gave me the opportunity to think over my three years' experience and try an ad hoc   evaluation of my 'approach'.

      This 'approach' does not claim a universality or a guarantee for success. It may prove however (partly!) useful if it is known. A list of practices in the form of things to do and not to do follows hereunder. The sequence does not imply priority. In fact it is not clear which specific actions actually contributed in accomplishing the desired results. The following actions in aggregate simply gave good results. A historical framework has been created where Greeks and Turks can talk, can understand each other, and when they disagree, at least they share a common language - in the sense of values respected in common - to discuss their disagreements. Here is what we did in class:


1) There was not the slightest effort or intention of avoiding crucial and sensitive topics of the past. The attitude usually expressed as 'let's forget the unpleasant incidents of the past!’ is neither possible (somebody will bring the matter up) nor desirable (history is a source of precious experience). Censorship or self-censorship may provoke the national sentiments of people who feel proud with the deeds or sacrifices of their ancestors and which are mostly imposed by the 'other side'. Additionally the effort or practice of 'forgetting', infers a past that cannot be rationally explained or justified; it is as if one confesses that he is unable to cope with the past of his ancestors or the deeds of his neighbors. The attitude of escaping to forgetfulness, a last resort to avoid the consequences of things done, gives the impression of non confessed guilt. The natural reaction of the ‘other side’ would be to demand for an apology first.[6]



2) When history was in the agenda 'change' was the key word. It was always reminded that people, nations and their world views, national ideals and targets, ideologies, attitudes, understandings, interpretations, daily life and social values and even racial compositions of ethnic groups continuously change. National and nationalistic historiography in Turkey and Greece (and this is not naturally a specialization of these countries only) have mainly undertaken a serious missionary role of nation building. The 'continuity of our nation' was the thesis which had to be proved, and made a dominant and national credo. As each nation established this ideal of 'continuity' (together with the national characteristics which reach back thousands of years), it automatically and unavoidably established the same understanding and criteria for the neighboring nation too: the act of the 'other side' can henceforth be explained on the basis of permanent national characteristics. This understanding very often leads to racist evaluations. We tried to avoid talking about 'the Turks' or 'the Greeks' but of Turks and Greeks of a specific time and area. Presenting the other nation as 'always good' is as bothering as condemning it forever.



3) I tried to communicate the understanding that things as well as human beings can be classified in almost infinitely different ways. Individuals for instance can be grouped according to sex, age, profession, education, mental capabilities, industriousness, married status, language, religion, birth place, political preference, favorite ideology, hobbies, preference in arts and philosophy, national identity, health, complexion (race) etc. In our societies precedence is given to national identity because nationalism is in our time a dominant understanding. It was not so in the past, for example when religion was the dominant ideology, and probably it will not be exactly so in the future. Therefore Turks and Greeks not only change as nations within time but the nations are not composed of stereotypes of the same understanding, inclinations etc either. We tried to look at people and individuals also through other perspectives than their ethnicity. These other perspectives present  common links and similarities among members of different ethnic groups.[7]



4) The relativity and subjectivity of our own personal judgments and values (not only of past generations!) and the influence of bias and prejudice on our actions were discussed. This subjectivity was not conceived as a weakness and a source of doubt and skepticism which could cause reluctance when action was needed, but on the contrary as an extra check on our values and feelings before a decisive act is taken, a check which gives confidence and greater assurance. The socially established images (of them and of ourselves), the harm done due to these images to our capacity for thinking is discussed. Prejudice is as harmful as ignorance; ignoring the existence of probable prejudice is worst of all.[8]



5) A tolerant and open approach to all ideas, beliefs and ideologies was advocated. Tolerance towards the 'others' does not only make the life of others easier (and consequently 'ours' too by lessening tension in general) but, much more importantly, the understanding that tolerance brings opens the way to sympathize with the other side. Intolerance means refusal to communicate and the end of dialogue. And there should be almost no limit to tolerance. Even the worst act and the cruelest decision can be analyzed and the 'reason' (historical or personal) could or should be found. Then the 'reasons' (the conjuncture if you prefer) can be condemned and not the individuals who are bound to act unavoidably in socially dictated directions. People were not condemned (as hideous); but we tried to make their motives understood. We mostly agreed that we in our times - with our present values - would have acted differently. Tolerance also means respect to others, to their ideals, needs, fears, sensitivities, dreams, aspirations, weakness; respect to all these, especially if they do not directly harm us. We made a few jokes with some national 'sensitivities' but we were not ironical or cynical    about   them.



6)    The   higher    one's   self   esteem   is,    the   more   one   gets    frustrated when   he is criticized by the other side (or when the image which the other side has for him is very far from his own self image). The more a self image is balanced the better. One can feel proud with himself and his nation as a flawless person/nation; we learned to feel even more proud as an even superior person/nation having accepted some shortcomings. We tried to see what was wrong with 'us' too. We found quite a number of wrongs in 'our' history, so we are more tolerant now and we understand the other side better. We understand ourselves better too, knowing now why we were sometimes so furious with the other side.[9]



     In summary the headings of the above 'approach' could be as follows: 1) do not avoid any issue, 2) emphasize 'discontinuity' of nations, 3) pay attention to differentiation rather than the stereotypes within a nation, 4) remind prejudices and the tricks they play on us, 5) praise tolerance which reinforces understanding, 6) bring to consciousness that no nation is flawless. A prerequisite for applying the above is of course a multi-dimensional knowledge of the history of both countries. This 'knowledge' should include not only the historical facts but also all cultural and ideological sensitivities, fears, aspirations of the 'other' nation in order to succeed in drafting or presenting a 'history’ accepted by both sides.


      All these 'principles' were not taken up of course as separate topics in different sessions. These were the basic values which were always present and continually discussed every time history and our evaluation on history came to the agenda. Time does not allow me to demonstrate how we applied them. But I will give a single short example. Suppose a question is put by the students in a seminar asking for my comments on the Greek invasion of Anatolia (1919-1922) and on the violence exerted by the Greek army. The purpose of such a naive question is usually not the need of information, but to test the feelings and the honesty of the teacher. The students are also very curious to hear how Greeks evaluate an incident of the past which in Turkey quite often is used to demonstrate a) the eternal irredentist plans of the Greeks, b) the violent character of the Greeks, c) how the Greeks hate the Turks. My answer, in corresponding simplicity to the question, would roughly be as follows:


     I would give some examples of violence exerted by Greek soldiers (frightening atrocities really took place during this war). Many, I would say, had developed those years a primitive notion of justice where they justified all kinds of violence on the excuse of ethnic self defense ('in advance' against imaginary future danger), of 'historical' vengeance or of reciprocity, actually 'punishing' innocent people for things that others or nobody did. I would also state that there were some Greeks who were against this war and that even endangered their lives as they composed a small minority in an enthusiastic nationalistic majority. Nationalism and its ethnocentric radical ethic (or its absence of pity toward the 'others', if you like) can be presented. Nationalism was at its peak in those years. I would remind the dangers of condemning all, due to the wrongs of the few: if only 1% of the Greek soldiers had committed one crime every 3 months this could cause about 10,000 crimes in 3 years, a number which approaches the official Turkish number. Then I would probably remind the students how images are created, how the acts of the few or acts of the past become a pretext to give permanent characteristics to nations. "The barbarous Turk” is such an unjust image created due to past friction and probably due to violence exerted by some Turks. I would also add that the Greeks of today, except for few ultra-nationalists, and these always exist in every country, would not sacrifice their taverns, holidays and vacations and especially their lives or the lives of their sons in order to capture a part of Anatolia. ‘Megali Idea' is   not   the   dominant   ideology  in   Greece   in   our   days.


Naturally the crucial question is if such an approach and understanding can be appropriated by a ministry of education and can be applied nationwide, in primary and secondary education. Of course it is possible. But it is not probable in the near future. There are some difficulties in espousing such a policy:


1) Not being directly under governmental control and discipline an individual may be able to choose the method of teaching and the interpretation of history which best suits his understanding. The ministry however has limitations which may prove difficult to surpass: a conservative bureaucratic mechanism which sets the tone in evaluating history and a public which is happy and content with the   traditional   interpretation   of   history.


2) Greece and Turkey (and especially Greek and Turkish speaking Cypriots) are presently opponents in an international arena. Each side tries every means to justify its position accusing the other side. History books and textbooks which carry a semi-official status would  naturally refrain from accepting  mistakes or wrongdoings on 'our' part. Such an act would automatically be exploited by the other side.


3) There are only a few historians in Greece and Turkey who do not share   the old fashioned understanding of 'national characteristics', i.e., the ethnocentric and nationalistic interpretation of history. The pressure from the professional body of   historians   is   generally   in   the   direction   of   preserving   the   old approach of teaching history. They probably do not see the need for a drastic change.


4) Behind the interpretation of certain historical incidents which may look insignificant, there sometimes lies an ideological basis on which the philosophy of the state is founded. It is difficult to make small changes unless this ideological basis changes.[10]


      As a conclusion we can probably say that it is possible to adopt an approach in history teaching (in primary, secondary education and in universities) which will not reproduce past animosities, will open the way to a better understanding and less tension etc between nations; this is possible even between Greeks and Turks. Under two conditions though: a) both sides should really want a rapprochement, b) both sides should feel the need to appropriate a more 'modern' approach in history teaching, a teaching which does not reproduce animosities. It is true that there are some problems between Greeks and Turks. But there are also some problems 'within' them; and it is mostly these internal problems which create the biggest obstacle in improving textbooks and history teaching.




[1] The full name of the section founded in l990 is: University of Ankara, Faculty of Letters, Modern Greek Language and Literature (Dil ve Tarih-Coğrafya Fakültesi, Çağdaş Yunan Dil ve Edebiyatı Anabilim Dalı).

[2] See for example the following by H. Millas: a) for history books, "1821Yunan Ihtilali Öncesinde İdeolojik Çatışmalar (Ideological Controversies Prior to the Greek Revolution of 1821"), Master Thesis, Institute for Social Sciences, Ankara, 1993 (in Turkish); b) for textbooks, "History Textbooks in Greece and Turkey" in History Workshop, U.K., April 1991; c) for           literature, "Türk Edebiyatında Yunan Imajı -  Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoglu" (The Image of Greeks in Turkish Literature-Y.K. Karaosmanoglu), Toplum ve Bilim, Istanbul, Autumn 90/Spring 1991, Issue 51/52 (in Turkish).

[3] Almost the same self confidence for their 'pure', 'objective', 'non-biased' etc.  judgment with respect to theTurks prevails among many Greeks,  too. Both sides believe that it is the 'other side' which is prejudiced or, as some more sophisticated  persons claim, at least  'more' prejudiced.

[4] Various Greek teachers from Greece teach in his section.


[5] I may have a relative advantage over others in matters of 'intuition' since I am a Turkish citizen of Greek origin and                I have lived and still live in both countries.

[6] A present-day apology of one group of people for incidents of the past or for deeds of their ancestors reinforces and perpetuates the notion of the 'continuity of nations' (discussed in the following paragraph), and this notion in its turn, implies that those who acted in a 'negative' way in the past and the ones who apologize today are the same people. 'To be sorry' means two different things: a) to sympathize with mishaps of others or not to approve of past wrong-doings (and there is no harm invoicing this),        b) to feel personally guilty and ask to be pardoned. How can one be guilty or responsible for things done before he was born? Even if one is in favour of past wrongdoings, he can be considered responsible only for his present attitude and acts.


[7] Modern Greek novels are of great help in this respect. They present Greeks, old and young, men and women, students and soldiers etc, in such a way that they enable Turkish students to identify corresponding 'Turkish characteristics' in human beings and/or        other ethnic groups; 'Greekness' becomes secondary. E. g. , some students in their  compositions evaluating 'Loksandra', a heroine of M. Iordanidou, wrote that she is like their mother or their  aunt.

[8] A student after reading my book "Tencere Dibin Kara...' on Greek/Turkish relations wrote: 'We         now see              the main problem, it is education.  We make our children read those misleading history books...  We have so many                common things (with the Greeks) whereas we have become complete strangers… I feel determined to do something about this. '


[9] Here is an interesting (and not un-typical) extract from a report of a student after reading and having discussed Dido Sotiriou's novel 'Earth in Blood'; the writer is Greek and the novel is about the Greek Turkish war of 1919-1922: "I was greatly surprised. I had never before heard of these things. At school we were taught that only the Greeks had acted in a barbarous way, that they massacred us without pity. Whereas, now I know the Turks also have done such things. I could not overcome my confusion and anger... This book helps us see our history in a more realistic way… I am not very angry at            Greeks    anymore, as I had               been before". Another student evaluating the               same book wrote:                "I was for war (when national issues were the issue). Now even though I am for war when our national existence is in danger, I believe it would be more sensible if both sides try all means for a       compromise before they resort to fighting".


[10] Approaching the issue on a theoretical base, one can recall that a liberating approach for society is understood by Habermas as the result of a 'reconstruction of history' after 'self-reflection' or 'self-knowledge' ("Knowledge and Human Interests"). As for the effort to reach a 'unity of sense' and an interpretation of history acceptable to both Greeks and  Turks, it can be seen as a test for the validity of the interpretation, after it  has been subjected to the 'dialogue' between the interpreter and the

interpreted   (Gadamar: "Truth and Method").


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