By Gary Francoeur
In December, leaders from Canada’s Greek community came together to donate $1.2 million to McGill to strengthen Modern Greek research and scholarship and endow the University’s Phrixos B. Papachristidis Chair in Modern Greek and Greek-Canadian Studies in perpetuity.
The gift, which includes contributions from over 70 donors in Montreal and across Canada, will allow McGill to expand the scope of its Greek studies program, one of the few in the country that examines the Greek cultural diaspora through a contemporary lens.
The Papachristidis Chair, which is housed within the Department of History and Classical Studies, was first established in 1988 by the Papachristidis family in honour of the late Montreal shipping industrialist. McGill has supported the Chair financially on an annual basis since its inception, bolstered by considerable contributions from the Governments of Canada and Greece.
The Reporter caught up with Professor Anastassios (Tassos) Anastassiadis, the current Papachristidis Chair, to get his thoughts on what this gift means to McGill and to Modern Greek Studies in Canada.
Tell us first about the Chair: what is it and what do you do?
In a nutshell, the Phrixos B. Papachristidis Chair in Modern Greek and Greek-Canadian Studies immerses students in the rich historical and cultural tradition of Greece. We offer a minor concentration that is designed to enable students to achieve not only linguistic proficiency in Greek, but also an understanding of the diachronic influence and synchronic importance of Greek culture, history and language. Furthermore, we take a closer look at specific subjects, such as immigration in Canada, the development of educational globalization in the Mediterranean region since the 19th century, state formation and institution building in the post-ottoman Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean, and the emergence of modern debates on archeology, museums and heritage management, always using Greece and Greeks as our entry point.
Why is McGill’s Greek Studies program relevant today and what do you hope students take from it?
Let me say that the primary reason is relevant whatever the language and the area studied. There is a growing value in this globalized but increasingly unilingual world to be multilingual and to have the ability to navigate its many different cultures. My students often ask me: Why did the Romans conquer the Ancient Greeks and not the other way around? Historians have of course been debating this for a long time but my favorite answer has to do with education: Romans learned Greek. Ancient Greeks never bothered learning Latin. A civilization that doesn’t learn from its peers by studying them risks perishing. This lesson is worth meditating whatever the scale of reflection, whether a city, a country or a civilization. In our case, many of our students have majors in political science, international relations, economics or art history, and they find our program appealing because they are thinking of working in a region or in sectors where knowledge of Greek culture can prove valuable. English might be the world’s most dominant language at the moment, but tremendous potential exists for people who can master multiple languages and cultural codes.
Going beyond this general principle there are of course more specific reasons to join our program. First of all, this has to do with the disproportionate role this rather small country has played and is still playing in the world’s imaginary and history due to both its antique heritage and its geopolitical situation. Additionally, the Greek Studies program is relevant to McGill students and to Canadians in general because Greek immigration is an important part of this country’s history and Greeks make up a vital part of the Canadian identity and experience. This is quite obvious in Montreal. In fact, a lot of what we teach our students also appeals to broader and highly relevant themes, such as immigration and multiculturalism.
Why is McGill so well placed to house this nationally renowned program?
Is there a better place than McGill, Canada’s most international university, situated in Canada’s greatest multilingual city to house a program capable of offering the study of a language in all its forms during the last three thousand years? Not to mention that Montreal is the home of the first Greek community to be established in Canada.
How will this new endowment enhance the Greek Studies program?
This new endowment will enable us to look to the future in a far more serene manner. First of all, the program will now exist in perpetuity, which guarantees that there will always be a professor teaching Greek language, culture and history at McGill.
We are also planning to create training opportunities for McGill students. A new joint summer studies program will provide students from across McGill and other universities with the unique chance to study at the International Hellenic University in Greece and actually visit the places they have been studying about. In addition, students who complete a Bachelor of Arts with a minor in Hellenic Studies will have the opportunity to receive funding to spend one month in Greece following their graduation, stepping in the shoes of such figures as Lord Byron, Marc Twain or…Leonard Cohen. Another new initiative will be two endowed lectureships, which will attract important key-note speakers and visiting faculty to the University. Finally, we will soon announce the creation of a dedicated space, including offices, lounge and library, for our students to congregate.
There’s no question that this endowment will put McGill on the map as one of the top institutions focusing on Greek studies in North America.