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Mary Kalantzis, Honorary Doctorate, University of Athens - Speech and Pics

A Learning Odyssey: The Personal and Scholarly Journey of a Greek Emigrant Daughter - Mary Kalantzis 

Ten years after the fall of Troy, Odysseus had still not returned to his native Ithaca. Athena, god of wisdom and his strength in the hardest of times, urged Odysseus’ son Telemachus to seek out his father and bring him home.

Athena, icon of this university, has for some time been urging my return to Greece, and I have returned many times, as if I never had left, and as if I was always away. Let me tell you how.

Before I begin to speak more generally of my journey, I want to acknowledge in gratitude the people who have beckoned me to the University of Athens on this special day. I want to thank the Assemblies of the two departments in the School of Education, who unanimously supported my nomination, approved then by the Senate of the University. Personally, I want to thank: my colleague and friend Professor Thalia Dragona, former Dean of the School; Professor Thomas K. Babalis, current Dean of the School of Education; and Professor Konstantinos N. Buraselis, Vice Rector of the University of Athens. This is a great honor for me.

Athena appears in the Odyssey several times, offering her wise counsel or support. In her first appearance, she visits Telemachus in the guise of another goddess, Mentor, advising him to seek his father and bring him home. Athena is with Odysseus, but her nearness to him is far away. She is distant even in her appearance before Telemachus, because Athena is in disguise. Though distant, this daughter of Zeus is everywhere present and always for Odysseus. So is Greece, for me.

Odysseus’ life’s journey takes him to many places, away from Ithaca and eventually back. As I now recall my journey for you, I am going to revisit three metaphorical places—places I will call “design,” “sociality,” and “transformation.” But before I begin these philosophical travels, I want to speak literally of places.

Any return must begin with a departure. My Ithaca is a small village in the mountains of the Peloponnese. When I was born, it was called “Valcouvina,” Italian for polka and wine, though after my family and I left, the name was changed to “Ambelos,” Greek for vineyard, as if renaming alone could create homogeneous nation where before there had been none.

When I was born, there was no road to Valcouvina, just a steep walking track, no electricity, no water other than what could be carried in buckets from the well or the stream. The German invaders had beaten a retreat just a few years previously. Civil war still raged. At the time, Greece was a frontier, where communism still struggled to overthrow capitalism.

My parents and their people were self-subsisting peasants, technically speaking, though any such terms of socio-historical classification tend to become terms of derision. Then they decided to leave the poverty, the terror, their lives as peasants.

Strictly speaking, I am a first generation emigrant, though I think of myself as a daughter of emigrants because I have no memories of migration. I was just three and a half when we left. The photos of us on the boat to Australia create a kind of weirdly mediated retrospective memory, figments of the camera, not real memories.

My real memories of Greece are vague and—or to use a word from my subsequent academic repertoire, synesthetic. Greece is the sweet smell of a fig tree—there was, indeed still is, a huge fig tree outside the window of the room in which I was born. Greece is the sensation of being in the presence of a horse—the animals were kept downstairs in the house, and I would go with my parents and their mules to the fields each day.

In Australia, my parents were hard-working and modestly successful. But our home had no books nor any other material that could help me with school. Their main fear was the influence that “alien” Australian culture might have on me, weakening my Greek culture, so eventually they could arrange a suitable marriage for me to another child of immigrants from a village not too far away.

After leaving Troy, Odysseus’ finds himself on the island of Ogygia, charmed by Calypso. After Greece, Australia was a stopping point for me, but not to stop, because here I want to mention the first of my three philosophical places, a place I will call design.

Something about Australia, something about liberal modernity that is the antithesis of peasantry, captured a part of my self. It was in the local public library, where I resolved to read my way voraciously along one shelf and then the next in order to understand my life and the world. It was also on the radio, with the children’s program on the Australian Broadcasting Commission, “The Argonaut’s Club.” But it wasn’t at school, I am afraid to say, where apart from occasional moments of inspiration with the odd teacher, immigrant children were held in generally low regard.

So, design: I redesigned the meaning of myself, patching together bits and pieces of my available designs of meaning—from whatever my parents cared to retain of actual Greek background, from a newly imagined older Greek background in which Argonauts now appeared, and from what I dreamed Australia might be, at least from its idealizations in the library and on the radio.

The idea of “design” loomed large for me after I became an educator. Why do we want learners merely to replicate the things we give them—heritage designs transmitted in the guise of grammars of proper usage, mathematical procedures, scientific facts, historical certainties, and such like? Of course, schools must teach these things, but what of the agency of the learner? What happens in their making sense of these things?

For every moment of meaning is also one of re-meaning, and meaning again is never the same as any meaning before. We are not just given the world, to be what we are told to be. We remake the world. We are what we become of ourselves. From this comes a vision of education, not as cultural reproduction, where learners are passive recipients and replicators of knowledge and culture, but active (re)makers of meaning, knowledge and culture always rethought and revoiced, and always uniquely.

On the subject of “design,” I want to mention some colleagues in Greece with whom I have worked on my frequent returns, and while never leaving. Early in my professional encounters with educators—knowledge and learning designers—I met the late Prof. Tassos Christidis, at a conference he organized on “linguistic hegomonism” hosted by the Center for the Greek language that he then directed in Thessaloniki. My paper about the idea of language as “design” was the first of my writings to engage formally with the Greek context and to be translated into Greek.

Soon after, I met Prof. Gella Varnarva-Skoura from this University, who invited me along with the late Basil Bernstein from the University of London to speak at her conferences for teachers, linked to her project to reform the Greek Education system. Professor Skoura has devoted her life to enabling teachers to gain the skills that will allow them to prepare learners for a future marked by new literacies and new technologies. In many schools for the first time, her project brought libraries and technology in the form of small resource centers, spaces of creativity and inquiry to which teachers and students could retreat, away from the conventionally institutionalized school.

The teachers who participated in Gella’s programs thirsted for professional learning. They wanted to create conditions for learners to be able to discover and define meaning for themselves. I can still see in my mind’s eye, a senior male teacher, with patches on the elbows of his jacket and 25 years of service. Participating in this project was the first time that he had been allowed to be a reflective practitioner, to work with his peers to design pedagogy and curriculum appropriate to the real world. He wanted to be a professional practitioner. He wanted freedom to be creative, not just for the pleasure of it but because he knew that was the most powerful way to engage learners for the future.

So, here we have design at several levels, at one level to recognize and value student agency in learning, against the grain of more didactic traditions in pedagogy. We also have design and redesign at an institutional level, changing purposefully and meaningfully the practices of teachers and the physical configuration of classrooms.

Now to a second stop in my journey. And again, just as Athena is always there and always away for Odysseus, so is Greece for me. This second stop is in a place I call “sociality.”

After leaving Calypso, Poseidon wrecks his raft, and Odysseus finds himself washed onto the shore of the island of the Phaeacians. Athena, again both there and not there for him, sees to it that he is found by women washing clothes by the sea. Taken by them to their leaders, the Phaeacians offer unconditional hospitality—philoxenia. For this generosity Odysseus begins to retell the story of his journey to them, as well as for us, his latter-day overhearers.

I resided in Australia in Calypso’s grip for a quarter of a century before I returned in person to Greece, heeding the sirens’ call. Finding Greece again was a revelation. The discovery was part visceral—my parents remembered their pasts without positive feeling, because they had left grinding poverty and horrific war. They had never told me how simply beautiful Ambelos was, lying beneath the watchful eye of the mountain-queen, Evristina. They didn’t tell me about the ‘V’ of the valley, directing one’s eye down to the sea of the gulf of Corinth, and the cool breezes that returned from there, up to the house in which I was born. My great grandmother had built the house, and she selected the site so well, on a small ridge to catch the breezes even on the hottest day. Nor had my parents told me about the lives of the old folk in the village who never left, the people I then came to know and love, and whose not-yet-modern lives I came to understand only as an adult.

But the discovery was also in part an insight that I want to name in the greatest breadth of generality, as philosophy of history. My family and I had not been the only ones to travel many miles across the seas. We had also been part of a great historical transformation, from the traditional ecological modes of subsistence and the communitarian forms of peasant societies, to a society dominated by division of labor, techno-instrumental rationality, and individualized perseverance.

These world-historical changes might be considered in retrospect either to have been for the better and the worse, or both. In any event, modernity is profoundly different from its predecessors. My life’s journey, I came to realize, had been a journey centuries-long and humanity-wide. I was not alone in my wanderings. I have walked with hundreds of millions of others, or their parents, or their grandparents.

Before returning to Greece for the first time, I started my adult working life in a Catholic school in working class Sydney. In that school, if the children were not descended from Irish peasantry, they had migrated more recently, fleeing the Lebanese civil war, or the most recent conflicts at the latest borders of communism and capitalism, in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Their journey was mine.

Tritely at the time, but also in a moment of partial recognition, Australian school systems had come to call the realities of our schools “multiculturalism.” I say “tritely” because although the sentiment was well-intentioned, it failed to capture the depth of the transition for these children and their families. It was as if we could celebrate the “spaghetti and polka” of superficial cultural differences without addressing the hopes and traumas of socio-historical transplantation, experienced so abruptly.

In Australia, at university, I learned to think as widely as the philosophy of history. This is how I have made sense of myself as an in-between person, living neither in a beginning, nor an end, nor in middle spaces. I am fortunate to have gained some sense of the width of the world and the depths of time, concentrated into personal space-time by migration.

And on the subject of migration, and on the matter of diversity in our schools, I will mention two encounters, one there, another here, and both at once here and there.

Some of my work in Australia had been on what are somewhat carelessly named “heritage languages.” Greek is one such language in Australia. It’s a “minority language,” again so-called and again carelessly so. English, by comparison is “national,” “mainstream,” “dominant.”

When I became Dean of the Faculty of Education, Languages, and Community Services at RMIT in Melbourne, I found we had a Greek Language and Culture Centre. We had a doctoral student from Ioannina studying there, Eugenia Arvanitis. Eugenia was on a mission: maintenance of Greek language and culture in the diaspora. “But it’s more complicated than this,” I said—painfully so, liberatingly so, I thought but didn't say just yet. “Why don't you keep a diary, see what Australia does to your sensibility, not just how culture can be maintained?” Later Eugenia published from the diary, speaking a personal narrative of experiences of sociality that was shifting and plural rather than monolithic and fixed; designable instead of replicable. Now she is at the University of Patras, working with refugees and developing cutting edge ideas about interculturality.

And another perspective here, in Greece, in the work with Evangelia Tressou and Soula Mitakidou at the University of Thessaloniki as they address the educational needs of Roma children. It was my privilege of to be an evaluator on their remarkable project, its aim to ensure one day that even the most marginal in Greek society are afforded the educational opportunities they deserve.

Also, I want to mention the work of Thalia Dragona and her team from the University of Athens on the educational needs of Muslim minority in Thrace. And the wonderful doctorate of Keratso Georgiadou, on whose dissertation committee I served, examining the window on the world opened for Muslim women by IT competency.

The Roma are Greece, quintessentially. Muslims are Greece, quintessentially. Erasure is impossible. To attempt such impossibility is racism.

Not that the margins are so separate a place. “Kalantzis” means “tinker,” a traditional Gypsy trade. In his quest to know more, my son Phillip did a genetic ancestry test, and found that we have a small percentage of “Indian” ancestry. With a name like “Kalantzis,” it would be wishful thinking to imagine that was anything to do with Alexander’s marauding. Who knows what any of us might have been, had we been allowed to remember?

This work with the Roma, with Muslims, and now with refugees in Greece, is so important and so profound in its implications because it is located on the margins, at the borders, in the interstices. But its insights go to the heart of things. These are places where the truths of centers are unmasked for what they are, and that is, useful fictions ultimately serving only the interests of the few.

Meanwhile, our classrooms continue to be filled with students searching for a home, whose worlds are in-between, who are needing to belong anew. Far from taking us to the margins and leaving us there, this work prompts us to consider the nature of sociality in an age of turbulent transformation. What are the conditions of inclusive sociality?

When we look hard, we simply don’t find the tidy either/or of namable identities—ethnic, linguistic, national, cultural; not to mention embodied, gendered, class-bound; nor for that matter any neatly isolatable identities among the panoply of other contemporary differences. An alternative to the neatly namable is a new kind of cosmopolitan citizenship that I have come to name in my work, “civic pluralism.”

After design, sociality; and now, after sociality, we reach my third and final waystation, “transformation.”

Athena had long been scheming Odysseus’ eventual return to Ithaca. When he lands on its shore, he doesn’t know where he is until she informs him. She arranges for him to re-enter his household in disguise, as an elderly beggar. A dog which had been a puppy when he left, immediately recognizes him. A housekeeper notices an old, telltale scar. Penelope, his wife, also notices a resemblance, but Odysseus must still be tested to reveal the incontrovertible truth of his identity. He does this by showing his prowess with a bow and arrow, then demonstrating his knowledge that their matrimonial bed was immovable, made by Odysseus from an olive tree in situ years before. Athena sets up the tests. Odysseus proves the bona fides of his identity against them.

Today, I am honored that the University of Athens has recognized my return, my bona fides if you like, though not now as the same person who left. Education brought about my transformation. After the arranged marriage that my parents considered my fate, I returned to university as an adult. Then, unexpectedly from my family’s frame of reference, unbelievably for a daughter of immigrants and then a wife, I attained a degree, then a doctorate, then an academic career.

And here, on the subject of transformation, I want to mention the work I was privileged to be able to do with Professors Eleni Karantzola, Vangelis Intzidis and Chryssi Vitsilakis. In Australia, I was lucky to have been offered a second chance at education, going back to finish high school as an adult in a technical college, allowing me entry to university. I met Eleni and Vangelis when they were working on adult literacy in Greece’s second chance schools. Then, we started to work together, creating Adult Education policy for the Ministry of Education. (By this time, I had been extensively involved in Adult Literacy research and policy development in Australia.)

This was the beginning of a now-decades long working relationship with Eleni and Vangelis, hard workers and profound thinkers in the domains of literacy and learning. Their agenda has been to bring new, pan-European principles of citizenship and participation to Greece. This is still their mission, notwithstanding the apparent betrayal of those principles by the troika. We are now also “Koumbari”—Greeks are wont to layer the personal into the professional, the traditional into the modern.

In the same spirit, I must also mention here Professor Chryssi Vitsilakis and her online master’s program at the University of the Aegean. Gender, globalization, technology—no issue of contemporary significance is neglected in this program, and it has been a privilege for me to be able to contribute. Today Chryssi is Rector of the University of the Aegean—the first woman in such a role in Greece, congratulations to her—a recognition so well deserved, a milestone achieved none too soon.

Also, I want to mention here the important work of Professor Bessie Dendrinos, exploring the nuances of gender and culture in language. And Professor Eugenia Koleza, with the work she does on engaged science pedagogies. It has been my pleasure to have been associated with this work, and the work of others I have failed now to mention, even if distantly.

So, you can see, I have travelled with many of you on this learning journey, battling limited resources, inadequate training, the straightjacket of officially dictated textbooks, the strictures of timetables, and the constraints of terminal examinations.

Nevertheless, whatever the barriers, the direction of this work has been transformative, its destination to change the world for the better, no less.

Of course, whatever our hopes and aspirations for the future, there is no escaping the challenges, even under the influence of Calypso on wealthier islands that can better afford generosity, for me Australia and then the United States where I now live. Forging cohesive sociality out of a history of fractured diversity, addressing injustices and inequalities, navigating the turbulence of human movement, redirecting the disorientation that comes with technological change—these are our challenges today.

You, my dear colleagues, and I together have over the years proposed remedies—civic pluralism in our public lives, productive diversity in our working lives, and multilayered identities in our personal lives. We have proposed new conceptions of multiliteracies, emphatically in the plural. And since I have been at the University of Illinois, we have together worked on e-learning solutions to the challenges of learner agency, engagement and performance. We have called these approaches “new learning,” nea mathesi.

Today, we face challenges even greater than those of the past. Liberal democracies are plainly not working very well and their legitimacy is diminishing. Digital media are dominated by a handful of companies whose ethics are at best careless, at worst reckless. We face widening social inequalities and environmental catastrophe. These are matters that we educators have no alternative but to address.

I also sense that we stand in a moment of extraordinary opportunity in education. In the digital era, the traditional tools of our trade are fast becoming anachronistic—textbooks, face-to-face teacher lectures, the patterns of teacher-student discourse in classrooms. Not only are these discursive artifacts destined to disappear in their traditional forms. The old institutional boundaries of education and life are in a state of flux. This is why my research in the United States and with colleagues here in Greece has turned in recent years to what we term “e-Learning ecologies” and “ubiquitous learning.”

We stand today on the cusp of what seems likely will be the biggest change in the institutional forms of education and the social processes of learning since the creation of mass-institutionalized schooling in the industrial era. We educators must seize this moment and transform the means of learning in ways that reflect sound pedagogical principles and educational values. We need create the tools to do this, and new professional sensibilities if teachers are to put these tools to good use.

Education is the science of sciences. Without it, there would be no other fields in the university. Educators do the work, from kindergarten through to the university, that prepares students to be curious and creative, to be lifelong learners, to be competent and skilled workers, and to become mindful, discerning citizens. In striving for these transformative ends, the one variable that makes a significant difference is the teacher, their professionalism as they make deliberate, purposeful design choices, and their capacity to track the effects of their teaching so they can recalibrate as needed.

The work we do in education is to change the world. One learner at a time, we ease them through the pains of modernity, we inspire them to believe that more may be possible, in their personal lives as well as the lives of us all.

This means that one of the most difficult challenges we face as teachers, involves how we touch the lives of others. We must struggle to understand our own demons, how to release the better angels of our nature as we come into contact with learners different from ourselves, to know how to create safe haven for creativity, and to harness our peers’ energies and commitment in joint professional efforts. In the depths of its complexity, education is a social site like no other.

As I close, I want to acknowledge the people who have travelled so far to be here today, and travelled with me through my own life transformations—the people from my village who hired a bus to come here tonight; my colleagues here in Greece; the people from our Learning Conference, this year in its 25th edition; dear friends who have travelled to be here from as far away as the United States and Australia. And, of course, I want to acknowledge the love and support of the fellow travelers in my family, my partner Bill Cope, my children Phillip and Tamsyn whose tenth wedding anniversary it is today, and my grandchildren Sophia and William, who are here these evening, as well as those back in Australia. Their future and the future of all their peers, never leaves my sights.

I regard the honor that you, my compatriots at the University of Athens, bestow upon me today, on the evening of the solstice, to be a celebration of our mutual aspirations. Thank you sincerely for allowing me to become part of your journey, and now to become an honorary member for your most illustrious institution. The home of my soul remains Greece, even as I wander the world.

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