February 21, 2011

A Singular Effort

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At an institution as large and varied as Cornell, individual efforts hold value for campus morale and educational integrity.

When the University denied Greek lecturer Matoula Halkiopoulos’ offer to teach her language class for free, it missed an opportunity to become an advocate for a true liberal arts value — learning for the sake of learning.

As volunteers are not allowed to teach classes at Cornell, the decision is based on a technicality. But the outright refusal of the offer, with no conciliatory options or responses, shows a close-mindedness disturbing for an administration that promised a commitment to the humanities just this past fall.

A recent petition, signed by more than 140 students, demonstrates there is still an interest in Greek. The University is in the business of providing education; if students want to learn a subject, it behooves the University to provide a means for them to explore the knowledge.

The University makes a fair point that having a single unpaid teacher host a class is not a sustainable method for keeping a department alive. But the outright rejection of Halkiopoulos’ offer shows an ignorance of the significance of one teacher’s ability to ignite passion in students.  Inciting interest in any subject — be it English or electrical engineering — is a top-down process. If a teacher demonstrates a love of an academic field in all its nuances, students are inspired to carry the torch.

The University must avoid becoming an institution of rote memorization and sterile productivity. Studies of classical languages like Greek expand the mind’s capacities not only in the pure learning of the language, but in the rich history and culture that accompany. When teachers are discouraged from continuing this tradition of learning — indeed, from even stepping foot in a classroom to express their knowledge free of cost — a disconcerting air of bureaucracy and rigid educational structure become prevalent.

Halkiopoulos’ commitment to her subject is admirable and deserves to be examined and considered with more than just an automatic dismissal. Her fervent push for the subject’s continuation sets an example for other instructors — not that more may volunteer to teach for free, but that they would demonstrate such a commitment to their students and their areas of academia.

Cutting Modern Greek classes was a regrettable decision — but disallowing its faculty from bestowing their knowledge upon the campus is simply short-sighted. The University must reconsider Halkiopoulos’ offer, allowing itself to be flexible and take into account all available options to accommodate.  If Halkiopoulos is willing to teach for free, providing her with any kind of outlet for her knowledge would maintain an important part of the Arts and Sciences curriculum.