So Far and Yet so…Close!

This blog aims to look into the past to interpret the present and bridge better the necessity of history with today’s reality and the possibility of tomorrow. It’s about culture, anthropology, history, and geography, and also about continuity, discontinuity, conflict, and reconciliation in our human affairs.

My blog is about connecting dots. Some time ago, in my post “Athens in Gettysburg,” I connected two very distinct and prominent dots across the space-time of our world civilization. I found that connection to be truly fascinating. Despite the many centuries and the thousands of miles that separate the Athenians at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War from the Americans gathered at Gettysburg in the middle of the Civil War, the virtues, values, and ideals that rise triumphantly above the horrors of both wars are essentially the same: the rights and dignity that are inalienable to the citizens of democratic societies.

But this was then.

Now, 159 years after Gettysburg, how has this parallel between Athenians/Greeks and Americans shifted?!

I thought of that when I came across a fascinating presentation about the values people in different countries believe are most important for their children to learn at home.

The data comes from the World Values Survey that is based on interviews with hundreds of thousands of international participants who were asked to pick the top five qualities from a list of eleven that included: good manners, independence, hard work, responsibility, imagination, tolerance/respect, thrift, determination/perseverance, religious faith, unselfishness, and obedience.

The six most popular pics create three contrastive pairs, and it’s interesting to examine how various countries plot against them. Here is where things get truly interesting:

The first of the three contrastive pairs among the six top-rated qualities brings together Independence vs. Obedience.

We see a natural cluster high on Independence and low on Obedience populated mostly by Scandinavian and Northern European countries. Opposite to that is a cluster that rates Obedience much higher than Independence amongst Middle-Eastern and Mid-American respondents.

And how about modern Americans? American respondents still prioritized Independence over Obedience but by a moderate 2:1 ratio. And so did the modern Greeks, scoring alongside the Americans much lower than the lopsided 4:1 ratio registered in the Northern European cluster.

The second contrastive pair brings together Unselfishness vs. Religious Faith. Within it, Denmark anchors the extreme lopsided preference for Unselfishness over Religious Faith, leading a pack of other Western counties,

while Bangladesh placed Religious Faith a great deal higher than Unselfishness. Modern American respondents sit precisely in the middle, valuing both Unselfishness and Religious Faith equally, away from the rest of the Western cluster but very close to the modern… Greeks, who veer just a hair more towards Religious Faith.

The final pair contrasts Imagination vs. Hard Work. Again, while Scandinavian countries anchor the lopsided region that rates Imagination 4:1 over Hard Work, modern Americans, and Greeks cluster close to each other, anchoring the opposing end by valuing Hard Work 2:1 over Imagination. This time U a group of other international respondents joins US and Greece.

The pattern that emerges is truly remarkable!

Despite the many differences between the US and Greece, not to mention the thousands of miles that separate them, their aspirations for their children are closely and consistently parallel across various dimensions but systematically divergent from the values of many other counties. This is even true regarding countries that otherwise are more closely associated with the USA or Greece in various ways, including economically, geographically, geopolitically, linguistically, or historically.

For instance, take England, a country very strongly associated with the US. English respondents score similarly to the Americans and Greeks in valuing Independence over Obedience. However, they break away from both by prioritizing Unselfishness unilaterally over Religious Faith and leaning less decisively towards Hard Work than the American or Greek responders.

So, the parallel that arose a century-and-a-half ago between Lincoln’s USA and Pericles’s Athens remains alive and relevant TODAY!

At the time of the Gettysburg address, this parallel was about the ideal of democracy and every citizen’s inalienable rights and dignity. Today, it is likely still about that, but even more focally about the closely-shared virtues that will best guide their future citizens—the children.

So, the dots of the two cultures seem to connect themselves well. No dissonance. That makes things a little easier for me, as I am an American with Greek roots! 

About the author


My name is Ian Grigorakis and I'm a sophomore at Redwood Highschool in Marin County, California. I'm interested in how the past has shaped the present and how the present foreshadows the future of civic institutions, international relations, and culture in general. I like finding the classic in the modern, and tracing the evolution of national identities.

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