by Aria Socratous.
Ioannis Mylonopoulos is a Professor of Art and Archeology at Columbia University and he talks to The Nationald Herald and Aria Socratous about his fields, his teachings, his writing and his Greek Heritage.
TNH. You are currently teaching Greek art and archaeology at Columbia University and in the past you were Research Associate at the University of Heidelberg, Assistant Professor at the University of Vienna, and Junior Professor at the University of Erfurt. What are the steps that have lead to this notable academic career?
IM.If I had to answer this with one word, I would say: work, hard work. I left Greece already in 1991, finished my studies in Heidelberg and then decided not to return home. The situation for Classical Archaeologists in Greece was never really rosy, and as a complete outsider, my chances at an academic job would have been non-existent. On the other side, I had to work double as much as my German colleagues in Germany, in order to get fellowships and—later—positions, but at least I could tell myself that my dedication to my work would be rewarded. One needs to be absolutely passionate about his profession; half-hearted things are rarely rewarded. However, luck is also a very important factor: I was at the right places at the right times and used in the best possible way the opportunities I was given. At the end of the day, I think that my persistence helped me tremendously: falling, getting up, falling again and finding the strength to get up again.
TNH. In 2011, you were awarded with the Faculty Mentorship Award, in 2011 you were nominated for the Presidential Teaching Award at Columbia University and in 2014 with the Columbia Distinguished Faculty Award, Can you give us some more details about these great honors?
I am extremely proud of the two awards and the nomination. The Faculty Mentorship Award is given every year by the graduate students in Arts and Sciences to only two faculty members across disciplines who have provided exceptional support to their PhD- students. The Presidential Teaching Award honors annually the best of Columbia University’s teachers for the influence they have on the development of their students and their part in maintaining the Columbia’s longstanding reputation for educational excellence. The Distinguished Faculty Award is one of the highest honors one can receive and is meant to acknowledge exceptional faculty in the Arts and Sciences. The award recognizes unusual merit across a range of activities including scholarship, University citizenship, and teaching and mentoring of undergraduate and graduate students. My scholarship has been honored through fellowships by the Onassis Foundation, the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton), the German Research Council, or the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies. However, the awards from my own university honored me for my passion about teaching and my dedication to my students.
TNH. You’ve been directing your own excavations in Greece since 2014 such as the excavation of the amphictyonic sanctuary of Poseidon at Onchestos (Boeotia). In which way do you believe that the revelation of the ancient civilizations can affect the contemporary civilizations? Does it show any link or correlation with our times?
We are supposed to learn from the mistakes and profit from the knowledge of the past, but this is rarely, if ever the case. Religiously motivated violence and wars go back to antiquity, the destruction of religious architecture and imagery has a long tradition that goes well beyond the well-known destructions of pagan monuments by Christians. Today, we point to the others and accuse them of religious intolerance, instead of looking back at our own history in order to learn how did we overcome these dark times and can we use the same or similar strategies today? For those of us dealing with the past, it is often so frustrating to see how history repeats itself over and over again. The promotion of ancient studies should go beyond the empty praise of abstract terms such as democracy or freedom. We need to look at democratic Athens and the imperial way it treated its allies, in order to understand current political developments; we need to ask how free were women in Athens or the slaves at the Laurion mines, and then truly talk about freedom. In times in which Greece is in such a deep crisis (not only financially), taking refuge in a glorified past is not helpful. Several cities in ancient Greece were often in financial crises, why don’t we look at how they dealt with them. The solutions we might find in our sources are not that “ancient.”
TNH. You have published several books and papers. What is the core of your inspiration and on what projects are you currently working?
As a child I used to get on my mother’s nerved with my relentless “why.” This is still what guides me: looking for the reasons behind things. I always had a problem with “authority” that simply required unquestioned acceptance. Very often I see how I might delve into a problem only because everyone else thinks the issue is resolved because Professor X wrote this or that 50 years ago. This is what I teach my students: never stop asking why and never accept an idea just because there is a big name behind it.
TNH. You are managing many and different fields of interest. How do you think that your Greek culture has contributed to your success?
Greeks used to be restless and imaginative. I think these are two of the Greek things that keep me going. Unfortunately, decades in which EU money was thrown into the country without any real control or planning and of course the crisis of the last 8 years are about to destroy the positive restlessness and imagination of the Greek spirit. In all honesty, I am not sure whether I would have been able to preserve these Greek aspects of my character, if I had not left Greece in 1991. There is this proverb: Greece eats its children. I usually comment on this by saying that Greece does not need to eat its children, because they eat each other. Within Columbia, there are important institutions like the Italian Academy or the Deutsches Haus, but nothing comparable that could bring together my countless Greek colleagues. This would be my dream: to create one day something within my university that would help unite the enormous potential that all these Greek scholars in one of the best universities in the world represent.