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It’s all Greek to us, and soon may be for good

If the U.S. continues on its current path, we may see problems like Greece’s.

Malaria and HIV are increasingly prevalent among its citizens. Stray dogs and criminals wander the streets with violence never too far behind. Furthermore, the currency is coming to be all but meaningless, as people have started experimenting with a bartering economy.

This isn’t the scene in a Third World country, so don’t expect any Kony 2012-esque videos about this place. This is in the birthplace of democracy and the origin of much of Western culture: Athens, Greece. Hopefully Greece won’t soon be the origin of its downfall either.

For the past few years, Greece has been burdened with what is essentially bottomless debt at this point, brought on by unsound spending and poor top-down management, and its citizens are now bearing the brunt of it. Austerity measures have tried to rescue the crumbling economy, but a spoiled public refuses to accept them, fiercely demonstrating against their own interests and more importantly, their country’s future.

The Greek higher education system is not immune to the nation’s woes either. Athens was once like a fountain of intellect for the world: Knowledge in areas so central to our educational foundation flowed out of it, ranging from philosophy to architecture to theatre. Now, Greeks find their way of thinking flawed, their historic buildings vandalized and their hardly enduring capital city the stage for a tragedy that rivals the works of Sophocles.

In the United States, setting Greece’s troubles aside is easy to do. I mean, it’s at least two Olympic Airlines flights away so relating to their problems appears about as distant culturally as they do geographically. Yet Greece’s current state is not a far cry from where we may be headed, and the parallels suggest more than a just a scary premonition. With the citizenry’s lofty expectations and reluctance for addressing the problems, similarities between the U.S. and Greece keep arising. As students, we’ve spent so long looking to the Greek tradition as foremost examples; now, it is time we stop.

In Greece, students can go to school for free. As affirmed in the Greek constitution, they don’t pay a dime — or the Euro equivalent of a dime — for tuition. Implementing a similar structure in the U.S., along with abolishing student debt, has been proposed more than once within these very pages. Also, free college education was fourth on Occupy Wall Street’s list of demands, reasoning that simply enrolling in college will automatically benefit not just the individual but the entire society.

Think again, and Greeks are seeing that they have plenty of time to sit around and do so. With no incentive to leave college or make the most of their time there, only 18 percent of the population graduates, while more than twice that is enrolled. No wonder the Greek government finds itself in a financial disaster; they’re paying the price of two college graduates and only getting one in return. One expert told Bloomberg  that “[t]he state is not getting a return on investment,” but it’s not the state that’s seeing their Euros go to waste but Greek citizens too. Let’s say you somehow muster up enough motivation to graduate; there’s about a 50-50 chance you won’t get a job (if you’re an urn half-full kind of person, than a 50-50 chance you will get one).

There’s a Greek expression that says, “A sweet thing tasted too often is no longer sweet.” As students in Greece fail to appreciate college because of its effortless availability, they cease to value it. However, when its government is hundreds of billions of Euros in debt, cuts come from somewhere, and it’s hard to make a case that the universities are worth the continued investment given the aforesaid rates.

But too reluctant or too dependent, if not both, to accept the reality of the situation, students are repeatedly protesting against any measures to scale back this spending. On some occasions, students have even physically blocked voters from casting ballots that may endanger this self-satisfied way of life; their Athenian ancestors can’t be proud with this obstruction to the democratic process. Nevertheless, students violently act out, burn cars, harass police, threaten the press and graffiti millennia-old structures, all because they’re being asked to give up something that was never theirs to begin with.

While to a lesser degree, consider comparing Greece’s events to the Madison protests last year, where demonstrators not only cluttered the state Capitol grounds but forcefully broke into the building itself. While having none themselves, dissenters viciously yelled “shame” over and over as legislators passed a budget reform bill in an attempt to help the state’s economy. A recent survey by the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators found the reforms have worked on several levels, resulting in increases in faculty hiring, course offerings and attention to students. These details were largely ignored at the time and continue to be, as the special interests — the teachers — considered their wants more important than the well-being of the society, much like the Greek students are doing. While Wisconsin may not carry the same global magnitude as Greece, unrests like these are growing increasingly common in the U.S. as people look to satisfy themselves at the expense of others. 

Protesters in Madison chanted, “This is what democracy looks like!” in the state Capitol. If they’re looking to contemporary Greece as the model for not just democracy but as the standard of a secure and lasting society worth emulating, then yes, sadly enough, that is what these now look like. We can expect more disorder unless we let go of an ethos we’ve grown overly accustomed to and address the matters that got us in this position in the first place.


Andrew Johnson welcomes comments at

[email protected].

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