For more decades than I choose to remember, I have taught history to unsuspecting university and high school students. I have illuminated history’s themes and issues through exciting and thought-provoking texts and artistic and architectural images. My travels have taken me to more than 20 countries on five continents. But until a month ago, I had never been to Greece. Neither had our scholars from Success Academy High School of the Liberal Arts.
I felt lucky to experience this extraordinary place in the company of 10 scholars who had studied Greek history and culture with me in our world history class. We visited in late May, before the country’s financial crisis worsened and the government shut its banks. It was our first study abroad trip, and the experience was transformative for them and me.
What struck me immediately was how familiar, yet surreal, being in Greece felt. Was I actually standing in front of the Parthenon? Was this really the ancient city of Ephesus, with its monumental library of Celsus built in the second century CE?
Here’s what Aida Bathily and Sydney McLeod, said about their experience exploring the country’s ancient sites:
“The Greek Parthenon stuck with us the most – what an incredible sight! We were able to see how massive and beautiful the structure was from the great white columns to the wonderful inscriptions. And have we mentioned the sacred precinct of Delphi and the eternal city of Ephesus? These experiences were so much more than just looking at old piles of stone! These sites made Greece’s history come alive!”
As our Success Academy scholars contemplated the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, I couldn’t help but hope that they would take to heart the advice Socrates once allegedly received there: “Know thyself” (γνῶθι σεαυτόν)!
Over the course of the trip, our scholars were tested as they encountered new experiences and new people every day. Here’s how ninth grader Lexi Torres described her experience, including the people she met:
“Over the past few days, I have been able to look at fascinating archeological sites and walk the paths of Socrates and Pericles in Athens and Delphi. I’ve also tasted amazing Greek food and even cooked my own Greek meal. But Greece has more to offer than Feta cheese and the Parthenon. It has beautiful islands with stony beaches, white houses trimmed in the glorious colors of the sea, and the friendliest people on the planet.”
Two thousand years ago, the Greeks came to believe that the dignity of humanity, and the individual’s capacity for self-realization and self-assertion in the world, was brought about by the harmonious cultivation of human faculties and powers. These Greek ideals were not lost on our scholars. Ninth graders Jeremy Richards and Ismael Savane said:
“In our world history class, we studied Greek culture and history, yet we never got to see Greek “history” with our own eyes (that is, until now).”
Viewed in this way, any experience – whether it’s traveling in Greece and touring the Aegean islands, visiting the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx, or, for that matter, reading a great work of literature – can be life-changing.
For me, Greece made the history I have studied and taught for so many years come alive. It allowed me to truly appreciate the remarkable achievements of a bygone era, and it altered my sense of self — even at this stage of my life! For our scholars, I believe they absorbed important lessons about history, philosophy, and their own place in the world, lessons that will affect their lives forever.