New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias.
Princeton University has been an international leader in the study of Greek culture for a long time, but the creation of the new Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies promises to bring up more blooms in that already flowering garden.
“Princeton is now one of the world’s great centers for the study of Greece and the transformative influence of Greek ideas across times and cultures”, said Princeton president Shirley M. Tilghman when she and her colleagues on the Academic Planning Group approved the creation of the Center in May 2011.
Princeton’s Program in Hellenic Studies was founded in 1981 with a two million dollar gift presented to the University by the passionate philhellene Stanley J. Seeger Jr., in 1979. The Stanley J. Seeger Hellenic Fund continued to contribute additional monies over the years, and now that gift is the primary support of the new Center named in his honor. Seeger, a 52 (and ’56) Princeton alumnus who out of love for the country became a citizen of Greece, died in July 2011.
Lecturer in Classics, Dimitri Gondicas, previously the Executive Director of the Program in Hellenic Studies and now the first Director of the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies, believes that Princeton’s principal and lasting contribution to Hellenism in America is its deep commitment to academic excellence in teaching, in high-level research, and in international academic exchanges, rather than large-scale cultural events.
Noting that the Greek crisis will shape perceptions of Greece in the years ahead.
Gondicas points out that while the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies is an academic entity, it also provides a space for intellectual discourse, which, in turn, may inform public debates. “This presents new challenges for scholars who seek to understand what happened, and for Greek citizens who want to shape a new future for their country”. Toward this end, the call for papers for the annual graduate student conference is on the theme of “Crisis and Innovation in Modern Greece”.
To illustrate his point, Gondicas names three of the Program’s new developing projects. One focuses on the study of Eastern Orthodox Christianity from medieval to modern times, and builds on Princeton’s longstanding efforts in this area that have included courses, exhibitions, and conferences on various aspects of Orthodoxy. “As the intersection of religion and society is currently an important theme at American universities and Princeton wants to participate in these dialogues,” says Gondicas.
Another new project revolves around another key area, Hellenism and Public Service. This initiative is being developed in cooperation with the Woodrow Wilson School and is to be supported by a new fund named in honor of former U.S. Senator Paul Sarbanes. Senator Sarbanes is a Princeton alumnus, as is his son, Congressman John Sarbanes, who was one of the first undergraduates in Princeton’s Program for Hellenic Studies.
A third major project, coming up in Fall 2012, highlights the University’s commitment to Cyprus studies. It is what promises to be a stunning exhibition, City of Gold: The Archaeology of Polis Chrysochous, Cyprus. Based on Princeton’s excavations on the island over the past 30 years, the show will include artifacts from the island and other major museums around the world.
Gondicas points out that while Princeton has the benefit of very substantial resources for Hellenic Studies, the new initiatives being developed at Princeton would benefit greatly from the support of the Greek-American community, which he hopes will recognize the importance of these efforts and help assemble the necessary resources to support them.
The Seeger Center’s most recent collaboration with another major institution active in the United States was to provide academic support for the Onassis Cultural Center’s current exhibition, Transition to Christianity: The Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd– 7th Century AD–focuses on research, broadly defined, and has a wider horizon as one of the University’s windows to the outside world.
Looking forward, the exceptional young scholars being recruited into Princeton’s Program in Hellenic Studies will be the next generation of Hellenists in the study of the Classical tradition, Late Antiquity, Byzantium, and Modern Greece, as the Program, whose Director is now Classics Professor Christian Wildberg, will continue to function as an integral part of the Center, its focus being the teaching of undergraduate and graduate students.
While Princeton plays a central role of in the national and international academic world, Gondicas stresses that Hellenic studies in America enjoys exciting diversity among a number of other thriving Programs, as well, “Each institution strives to excel in what they can do best, while we all share and collaborate through academic networks and our professional society, the Modern Greek Studies Association”.
The Modern Greek Studies association was founded at Princeton with Edmund Keeley (now Emeritus Professor of English) as its first President. Keeley’s acclaimed translations of the works of C.P. Cavafy and Greek Nobel Laureates George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis (all published by Princeton University Press) brought world attention to modern Greek poetry. As well, the late Professor of Comparative Literature, Robert Fagles, is internationally known for his translations of Homer.
As previously mentioned, the new Center aims to stimulate creative expression and thought regarding modern Greece, as it continues to advance the understanding of the culture of ancient Greece and its influence. After all, Princeton University (founded in 1746) has had a longtime love affair with the Hellenic world; its intimate and continuous engagement with Greece has already stretched over more than two and a half centuries. Princeton students were required to learn Ancient Greek up until 1917, and in the late 19th century, Princeton University was one of the first American universities to establish the teaching of Classical Archaeology.
To name just a few seminal individuals in Princeton’s history who were dedicated to Greek culture, Nicholas Biddle, Class of 1801, was only the second American citizen of the independent United States to travel to Greece, a precursor of the American philhellenic movement that aided Greece’s War of Independence, and Classics Professor William Sloane, the leader of the American Olympic movement that successfully revived the Olympic game in Athens in 1896. And Edward Capps, Classics Professor from 1907-1936, left his mark on Greek education by chairing the boards of American-sponsored Athens College and the American School of Classical Studies.
Later in the 20th century a few of the top examples of individuals who contributed to Princeton’s distinctive leading role among American universities in the development of ancient, medieval, and Modern Greek studies were the renowned Kurt Weitzmann, and Gregory Vlastos, who made Princeton the first American institution to establish academic programs in Byzantine art and Classical philosophy, respectively.
While Seeger’s gift, the Stanley J. Seeger Hellenic Fund, has enriched the minds and broadened the horizons of countless students and advanced the work of hundreds of scholars and teachers at critical points in their careers, it also has made it possible for the University library and the Princeton Art Museum to build a world-class collection of Hellenic research resources–rare and unique books, manuscripts, photographs, modern Greek literary archives, US-Greek diplomatic archives, art objects, and coins–and to preserve and present these collections to support scholarship and teaching, as well as to draw leading international researchers and artists to Princeton.
His gift has also funded faculty and student travel to Greece, which Seeger considered crucial to the study of Hellenic culture. “Greece was the country Stanley Seeger really loved and the culture he cherished,” says Gondicas, noting that at a time when there were no such programs, Seeger set the academic parameter that culture and country should be studied in context. Derived from his experience of self-discovery in Greece, Seeger insisted that the study of Hellenic culture should not just take place in the classroom and library; it should go hand-in-hand with travel to Greece.
Gondicas, who is now finishing the editing of the book based on the conference titled Renaissance Encounters, Greek East and Latin West, which marked the Fund’s 30th anniversary of Hellenic Studies at Princeton, says, “Stanley’s legacy is legendary. Through his gifts to Hellenic Studies, he has touched the lives of thousands of students and scholars, Princetonians as well their counterparts from Greece and all over the world. He has made possible many unique academic and cultural opportunities. The range and impact of his generosity are truly extraordinary.”
The new Center will promote exchanges with Greek academic and cultural institutions, expanding opportunities for study in Greece and the Hellenic Mediterranean, and promoting international collaboration. It has already taken a major step in furthering Princeton’s presence in Greece with its recently signed collaboration with the Benaki Museum in Athens.
This collaboration with the Benaki Museum, which is led by the Center and the Princeton University Art Museum, will provide opportunities for international exchanges in the art and museum worlds, including long-term loans and exhibitions, says Gondicas, explaining that the focus will be on the ethical management of cultural property, a much-discussed topic today.
This partnership also will bring artists from abroad to the Princeton campus while showcasing Princeton’s collections and the best of contemporary American culture and the arts in Greece and the broader region.
While funds are undeniably necessary, Gondicas named another vital element in Princeton’s successful Program for Hellenic Studies without hesitation; “It took focused effort, systematic work from the ground up, and institutional continuity to build the thriving Program and its vibrant, interdisciplinary academic community. Over the last thirty years I have had the privilege and honor to serve with and learn so much from a number of eminent scholars who have chaired the Hellenic Studies Program: W.R. Connor, Edmund (Mike) Keeley, Alexander Nehamas, Slobodan Ćurčić, and Peter Brown. Their selfless dedication to our field and their highest scholarly standards have been a source of inspiration for all of us–faculty, students, and staff–involved in Hellenic Studies.”