By Savvas Sfairopoulos
Whoever has read Plato’s “The Republic,” basically every Lawrence student of the past 70 years, should know very well by now that one’s greatest asset is their mind. Plato argues that knowledge is attainable by all, but very few are actually bright enough to realize it. That is the reason why, according to Plato, so few people ever choose to leave the cave. As Lawrentians, however, we are given an opportunity to escape the cave and to go out into the world in search of true knowledge. As an international student from Greece, I come from a country whose educational system was once praised for its open-mindedness, but which has now become a shadow of its former self.
I was born and raised in Greece, and for the greater part of my life, I attended a Greek school. As middle schoolers, my fellow classmates and I had the opportunity to explore the works of Homer and Plato, and study Greek history. Being exposed to great, timeless ideas was incredibly valuable for me as a young individual, but only to a certain extent. I had to read the Odyssey and then memorize what the translator’s views were on it. I had to read stories of the fierce Greek rebels who fought the Ottomans and then memorize all of their stories for the big, spooky exam that was coming up the next month.
As you have probably realized by now, the content of what we were being taught might have actually been exceptionally good, but there was no room whatsoever for us, as students, to think about what we were learning or even express our own opinions. We just had to follow this dull system of endless memorization which was unbalanced by critical thinking of any kind.
I may come from the country which once served as the center of knowledge and education, but years later, its politicians have managed to create a sterile system that seems to delegitimize any kind of creative thinking. When I was presented with the opportunity of attending a liberal arts college outside of my country, I did not hesitate for a second in making my decision.
Coming to Lawrence was a way for me to escape the harsh realities of the Greek educational system by getting a liberal arts education. This meant, essentially, that I would have the chance to become a free-thinking individual by exploring multiple subject areas and becoming a well-rounded person. Coming here, I realized that Lawrence is an environment that fosters creativity and critical thinking instead of suppressing them. I finally got to read and give my own opinion on a plethora of topics that were initially foreign to me. It was, and still is, like a dream come true. My professors are not my dictators, but my mentors. My classmates are not my rivals, but my colleagues. Our class is not a lecture, it is a symposium without the drinking part, of course.
A liberal arts-based education is a system that, like all others, has many flaws, both short-term and long-term. It is, however, a life-changing experience that gives birth to better critical thinkers and independent learners by giving students the tools and the space they need to develop their ideas and voice their opinions about what they are being taught.
I wake up every day thinking of how grateful I am for being here, learning all these new things and meeting people whose thoughts are so intriguing and so incredibly unique. I am here now, out in the real world, looking at the sun for the first time, and everything I see and touch is something new and exciting. Like the late great Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis once said, “Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality.”
It may be hard for us Greeks to see a positive future through the membrane of our debt crisis, but I consider it to be my duty and primary purpose in life to one day return to my country and share my views on education with my compatriots, so that they can see the world from an entirely new perspective.