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History & Background

The Hellenic Republic (Elliniki Dhimocratia), the southernmost country in Europe, lies at the juncture of Europe, Asia, and Africa. A land of mountains and sea, it is simultaneously European, Balkan, and Mediterranean. Mountains occupy about 80 percent of the country and have, at times, restricted internal communications. But the sea opened wider horizons, and Greece has had a naval tradition throughout history.

Greece occupies 131,957 square miles (50,949 square kilometers), approximately the size of Alabama. The Greek Islands make up one-fifth of this territory. Although there are about 2,000 islands, only 170 are inhabited; the largest is Crete. To the east is the Aegean Sea, to the south the Mediterranean, to the west the Ionian. To the north, Greece's continental frontier borders Albania, the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Turkey.

Geography has had a big influence on the country's economic, historical, and political development. The landscape has been a strong factor for Greek migration, both internally—from rural to urban areas—and to other countries for employment and a better life. The result over centuries was depopulation of certain areas. In the 1980s, some repatriation occurred.

As of the 1991 census, the population was 10,2590,000, excluding Greeks living in Australia, Canada, and the United States. Of these, 5,055,408 were males and 5,204,492 were females; 58.8 percent lived in urban areas, 12.8 percent in semi-urban, and 28.4 percent in rural. Nineteen percent of the population was 14 years or younger, 67 percent were between 15 and 64, and 14 percent were older than 65.

Between 1991 and 1996, births decreased from 10 per thousand to 9.6, while deaths for the same period increased from 9.3 per thousand to 9.6 (NSSG 1998).

As of the March 18, 2001, census, the population was 10,939,777, an increase of 6.6 percent over 10 years. Women made up 50.4 percent, men 49.6 percent (Hellas Letter April 2001). Approximately 6.8 percent of the population is illiterate; of this figure, 9.8 percent are female, 3.7 percent male (NSSG 2000).

Modern Greece is the heir of classical Greece and the Byzantine Empire (300-1453). From ancient Greece it has inherited a sophisticated culture and language that has been documented for almost three millennia. The language of Periclean Athens in the fifth century B.C. and the present language are almost the same. Few languages can demonstrate such continuity. From Sparta (600 B.C.) and Athens (450-350 B.C.) came group teaching, the humanistic curriculum, and the three levels of education. Primary education was for children 7 through 12 years old; secondary was for those 13 through 17; and tertiary, for those 18 and older. Tertiary education was paid by the State. When a boy reached the age of 18, he spent two years training to be a soldier and a citizen. Until the industrial revolution, preprimary education took place within the family.

The Romans adopted this three-level educational system when they conquered Greece in 146 B.C. It was modified and became bilingual—Greek and Latin. In A.D. 364, the Roman Empire was divided into Eastern and Western Roman Empire. The Eastern became the Byzantine Empire, and the educational system was continued. Eventually it became Greek-Christian from the reconciliation and harmonizing of classical Greek humanism with Christian beliefs.

From the Byzantine Empire, Greece inherited Eastern Orthodox Christianity. There was "one holy catholic and apostolic church" until the Great Schism in 1054, when the church was separated into Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic.

For nearly 400 years (1453-1821), Greece was under Ottoman rule (Tourkokratia). The Ottomans had no provisions to educate their non-Muslim subjects. The Orthodox Church was the only institution where the Greeks could look as a focus. Through the use of Greek in the liturgy and through its modest educational efforts, the church helped to a degree to keep alive a sense of Greek identity. Many times, members of the clergy were executed in reprisal when the Greeks disobeyed orders or tried to revolt.

The most serious disability for the Christian population was the janissary levy (paidomazoma). At irregular intervals, Christian families in the Balkans were required to deliver to the Ottoman authorities a given proportion of their most intelligent and handsome male children to serve as elite troops, after they were forced to convert to Islam.

Ottoman rule prevented Greece from experiencing the important historical movements of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution, which shaped the destinies of the western European countries. The intellectuals who had fled to the West, especially to Italy, established intellectual centers wherever they settled. They began to publish Greek books in the sixteenth century and send them to the enslaved Greeks to educate and enlighten them.

The eighteenth century saw the emergence of a Greek mercantile middle class in the Ottoman Empire. They were also active in southern Russia, in several central European cities, and in the Mediterranean, where they established communities (paroikies), each with its own church. Greeks came in contact with the ordered societies of Western Europe. Their wealth provided for the intellectual revival of the Greeks. Moved by a sense of patriotism they endowed schools and libraries in the occupied mainland and in Asia Minor. They also financed the education of Greek schoolteachers in the universities of Italy and the German states. Influenced by the ideas of the European Enlightenment and the nationalistic beliefs of the French Revolution, these teachers became aware of the reverence in which the language and the culture of ancient Greece were held throughout Europe. This realization sparked an awareness that they were heirs to this same civilization and language.

Greece became a state in 1830, following the War for Independence (1821-1829). The treaty of 1832 between Bavaria and the Great Powers—Britain, Russia, and France—formally recognized Greece's existence as an independent state, although Greece did not participate in the treaty. The Greeks were the first of the subjugated peoples of the Ottoman Empire to gain full independence. Even so, the new state contained only a part of the Greek population, the remaining population in Asia Minor being still under Ottoman rule. The first century of state-hood was dominated by the struggle to expand the nation's boarders. It was in 1947 that Greece's present borders were established, after the incorporation of the Dodecanese Islands.

The Great Powers also decided that Greece should be a monarchy. They chose a 17-year-old Bavarian prince, Otto, as king. Because he was a minor, the Great Powers further decided that three Bavarian regents should rule the country. They imported European models of administration without regard to local conditions, consequently, Greece's educational system is heavily influenced by the German and French models.

The past is somewhat a burden to Greeks, who identify themselves as "modern" to differentiate themselves from the ancients. References to Greece are usually to ancient Greece. Greeks, however, are proud of their cultural heritage and have made every effort throughout the centuries to maintain it. The continuity between past and present is an essential element of the Greek self-image and national identity.

Greece became a member of the European Council in 1949, NATO in 1952, and the European Community in 1961. This last relationship helped modernize and democratize Greece's educational system and stabilize its government.

There was a military dictatorship from 1967 to 1974. Since 1974, Greece has been a parliamentary democracy with a president whose powers are restricted. (A plebiscite in 1975 abolished the monarchy.) The president is elected by the parliament (Vouli) and may hold office for two five-year terms. The Prime Minister, leader of the majority party, has extensive powers. The parliament consists of 300 deputies elected for four-year terms by direct, universal, and secret ballot.

The parliament has the power to revise the constitution. Incumbent governments, regardless of political affiliation, have amended the electoral law to benefit their own party. The judicial system is essentially the Roman law system prevalent in continental Europe.

The 1980s brought about changes: civil marriage was introduced parallel to religious marriage, divorce was made easier, legal equality between the sexes was recognized. The right to vote also was extended to 18-year-olds.

Greece's unification with the European Community in 1981 (renamed European Union in 1994) reaffirmed its orientation toward Europe. It was the first eastern European country to join EU. Its heritage of Orthodox Christianity and Ottoman rule set it apart from the other European member states.

The 1990s brought economic refugees from Albania and other former Communist countries, from Asia, and from Africa. Repatriated Greeks also came from the former Soviet Union.

Religion is an important aspect of Greek life. In spite of the long Ottoman occupation, most Greeks belong to the Orthodox Church of Greece. A Muslim Turkish minority (3 percent) live mostly in the northeastern part of the country, in Thrace. Roman and Greek Catholics are found primarily in Athens and in the Ionian Islands.

Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceGreece - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education