Three weeks ago, the western region of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) announced that it will be closing its AGBU Vatche and Tamar Manoukian High School in Pasadena, California. A flurry of protests and protestations flooded the public Armenian-American square, unanimously condemning the decision and imploring AGBU to reconsider. Unfortunately, many issues central to the Diaspora’s existence in the West that were inherent to the decision to close the school and were unexpectedly thrust into the limelight went largely ignored.
In my estimation, the closure of the AGBU Manoukian High School was the right decision and was precipitated by two main issues – purpose and economics – that haunt Diaspora communities today and will continue to compel them to face uncomfortable and unsavory realities about the future of their communities.
It is likewise my belief that rather than reflexively crying out that such a closure should be objectionable, exploring these factors and having a frank discussion about them will allow the Armenian Diaspora communities of today and the future to soberly and, more important, proactively chart their paths forward.
A popular video from the protests shows AGBU Manoukian students singing a song called “Unite, Armenians!” (Հայե՛ր միացե՛ք), chosen for its noble, if trite, title, which doubles as a lyrical refrain. Rather than inspire, the dissonance between the song’s words and the students’ cause served as an argument about the inefficacy of spending millions of dollars so that students may know not only instruction but wisdom.
The first and most important question is why this or any Armenian school in the Diaspora exists.
The most romantic among us might like to believe that the ultimate purpose of this exercise is the realization of Avedis Aharonian’s hopeful exhortation to Diasporan Armenians: “Believe that you will return to the land of your forefathers, to the land of brave men. We have come here in order to not stay, we have come in order to return…” But, after 25 years of a reemergent Armenian state, this can only be considered wishful thinking.
If not a means of preserving Armenian identity to return to the land of one’s forefathers where that identity and its culture can flourish, then what is the purpose of Armenian school in the Diaspora today?
In the Middle East, Armenian schools traditionally operated in what might be considered autonomous states within host nations. In places like Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, the Ottoman millet system, or some preceding variation of it, that governed these lands for centuries, left its impression: sectarian groups functioned with a degree of autonomy in exchange for some combination of taxes and loyalty to the state; the basic premise has changed little in many formerly Ottoman Middle Eastern countries where several groups coexist.
Schools were not only places where identity was preserved but institutions where culture lived and, as it does when alive, progressed. This was not limited to Armenians: distinct groups, often distinguished by religion, had their own schools, community centers, houses of worship and, in some cases, political institutions. In these self-contained oases, the school wasn’t a way of preserving identity so much as a function of a living identity.
The schools in the Middle East were Armenian because the Armenians in charge of the Armenian millet (or its successor) would open a school staffed by Armenians, attended by Armenians, and that existed almost exclusively among Armenians. That is, the decision was not the conscious opening and operation of an Armenian school tasked with preserving identity, per se, but the opening and operation of a school by Armenians which was Armenian in nature, where Armenian was the primary language of instruction, and its staff and student body were from the largely homogeneous community where it arose.
In the sectarian societies of the Middle East, this was a perfectly normal phenomenon as no member of one group would fathom attending the school of another group, except in rare cases. So, a Shia student in Beirut would not attend a Maronite school, nor would a Greek Orthodox child attend a Jewish one in Jerusalem, nor would an Alawite child attend an Armenian one in Aleppo, and so on.
With this happy confluence of circumstances, schools where Armenian was the primary, if not only, language of both instruction and casual communication flourished and, in the autonomous oases where they existed, produced great writers and poets who composed in the Armenian tongue or created art imbued with Armenian culture.
Serious demographic shifts and internal and geopolitical tumult has since radically reoriented the status of Armenians and other minorities in the Middle East but the model used by communities founded or invigorated by Middle Eastern Armenians – such as the one in Los Angeles – bespeak the Middle Eastern paradigms whence they hail.
Los Angeles, with an estimated 750,000-1,000,000 Armenians, has at least five Armenian high schools, including AGBU Manoukian, located in and around current or former areas of high-density Armenian neighborhoods: Hollywood, Montebello, Pasadena, and the Valley. With such a large population of Armenians and the relatively small size of the schools, there is no obvious reason based on the Middle Eastern model as to why these schools should not thrive.
Only, America is not in the Middle East.
The assumption in the Middle East that Armenian parents will send their children to Armenian schools as a matter of course is null in the American context. In particular, nobody will send their child to an Armenian school in the US for lack of alternatives. Besides the plethora of non-Armenian private school options available to anyone, the US also has free, adequate public education available to everyone.
In the absence of a sectarian system that automatically funnels members of the community through a school’s doors, the model where an Armenian school is self-sustaining because there exists an Armenian community with no alternative becomes invalid.
So, what is the point of an Armenian school education?
There is a running joke in my family that all of our nieces and nephews speak perfect Armenian until they start going to Armenian school, where they instead start to speak English. Although a slight exaggeration, this represents an inevitable trend in Armenian schools in the Diaspora, especially in the West, where not only the primary language of instruction is not Armenian, but the primary language of communication of the faculty, staff and, especially, the students, is not Armenian.
In an op-ed in the Armenian Weekly following AGBU’s announcement, Taleen Nazarian asked, “Are they [the Board of Trustees of the school] even slightly concerned about the risk of assimilation?,” noting, also, that the students held up signs that read, “Can’t afford our education? Well, we can’t afford assimilation.”
The Massis Post, in an editorial contending that the decision to close AGBU Manoukian needs to be reversed, wrote that “preservation of the Armenian identity is a daily struggle and a nightmare” in the United States.
Using these appeals published in the papers of two significant Diaspora organizations – the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (The Armenian Weekly) and the Hnchakian Party (Massis Post) – we can surmise that fear of assimilation and a resulting desire to preserve Armenian identity are foremost on the minds of those interested in keeping AGBU Manoukian and other Armenians schools open.
The fear is often repeated by community elders who regularly lament the decreasing Armenian language skills and cultural awareness of new generations of Armenians growing up in the Diaspora, although they themselves are rarely paragons of linguistic or cultural preservation.
The lamentations about assimilation as a threat, however, are largely pointless for the following reason: assimilation is inevitable. At best, the elements accreted throughout millennia that comprise Armenian – indeed, any – identity, from language to art to literature to religion to tradition will be deconstructed into a self-serve buffet to which Diasporans will help themselves according to their tastes. This is the rule, not the exception, as any Italian-, Polish-, German-, Swedish-, or Mexican-American will tell you.
If there is any lingering doubt about the likelihood of this future, one need only note the primary language used to protest the closure of AGBU Manoukian and to complain against the threat of assimilation. The Armenian language, a marker of identity that has persisted most obstinately among its users over the centuries, appears only as an accoutrement to the main language used by Los Angeles Armenians: English.
In the free and non-sectarian societies of the West, but also in the increasingly osmotic communities of the Middle East, assimilation is not an option but an eventuality.
The main question, really, is about how much assimilation the community is willing to accept. Does the ability to recite Armenian poetry for concert audiences and dinner guests with nary an understanding of the words nor, dare I suggest, the actual meaning of those strings of words count as a victory against assimilation any more than the ability to recount the words of a Charles Aznavour song would designate the reciter a francophone?
Or is assimilation a question of how much ethnic Armenians self-identify with their ancestry? In this case, what is an acceptable level of self-identification to allay charges of assimilation? Cruising and honking in cars adorned with Armenian flags on April 24 is annually lambasted as a mockery of the memory of the Armenian Genocide by Diasporans who readily dance to Armenian lyrics set to Turkish tunes and sung in the Azerbaijani mugham style.
I would posit that the reason contradictory and self-aggrandizing attitudes of Diasporan Armenian identity prevail is that there is no public discourse about what that identity is supposed to be.
Once there is some understanding about what kind of assimilation is acceptable, and how much, the question becomes whether Armenian schools are the best way of securing these objectives or whether other endeavors by the Diaspora community will better serve those objectives.
The other issue is economics.
Armenian school is expensive, especially when it is compared to the cost of a (mostly) free public education. In addition to the tuition, parents have several other unstated but implied expenses they must account for, including school carnivals, performances, pictures, and other miscellany devised by school administrators to add streams of income.
Given the huge expense, families must answer for themselves why they should send their children to Armenian school. The most common answer is some variation of avoiding assimilation. But if the child is only going to gain only the most basic Armenian language skills and is only going to have a cursory knowledge of Armenian history, this argument holds little water.
Then the argument becomes emotional, often focusing on the sentimentality of having friends with a common cultural background. Although this is admittedly important, though not integral, for anyone who values the maintenance of Armenian identity, the question is whether the family is ready to invest a considerable portion of their income so their kids can have Armenian friends, something that can be as easily accomplished with the child’s participation in a variety of after-school and weekend activities, especially in a place like Los Angeles.
For many, the cost of Armenian school is not significant enough to warrant asking or answering any of these questions. In the case of these parents, the decision to send their children to an Armenian school where they will learn a bit of Armenian and a bit of history while being surrounded by members of the same community in a more placid and congenial setting than public school is sufficient reason for the indulgence.
But lest we forget, and with all due respect to Mark Twain, the primary purpose of schooling is getting an education. So, what if these more affluent Diaspora Armenians who haven’t a care for what they’re spending want to secure the best education for their children? These are the parents for whom their child’s knowledge of 1215, 1453, and 1776 is as important as their knowledge of 301, 405, and 451. Is it then worth paying for an Armenian private school when a non-Armenian private one will produce a better educated, better read, more worldly youth?
The point of these questions is not to suggest that all Armenian schools are inadequate on all counts. They’re not. Rather, the purpose is to ventilate the sundry consideration of any Diaspora Armenian parent deciding to what school they will send their child and to posit reasons as to why Armenian schools, especially high schools like AGBU Manoukian, have the difficulties they do in attracting students and the accompanying resources necessary to operate a school, much less a good one.
WHAT TO DO
The limited resources of the community – $2 million in the case of AGBU Manoukian, plus the thousands invested by the students’ families – need to be more intelligently distributed. My proposal is that the resources should be directed to two distinct areas: low-cost alternatives to school that preserve elements of Armenian identity and high-cost educational investments with a high return.
The social component of Armenian primary and secondary school, while mildly compelling, are insufficient to justify the existence of a whole school with its attendant staff, faculty, and facility costs. This is especially true when one considers the availability and vastly lower cost of participating in and maintaining cultural organizations, as well as creating new ones.
Community organizations and benefactors can continue to fund youth groups, musical and theatrical groups, scout troops, sports teams, professional organizations, and dance ensembles. These can be joined by book clubs, debate societies, and language exchanges as a way of preserving elements of Armenian identity while partaking of the culture’s kaleidoscopic beauty.
Any Armenian school that exists should serve the purpose of offering an Armenian education par excellence. That is, the core elements of identity should not only be a part of the curriculum, there should be an unapologetic expectation that students assimilate the lessons taught or risk being removed, as is the case with any self-respecting private school. All schools that do not serve this purpose and that deign to operate on the basis of providing services that can be offered by low-cost alternatives should be proactively closed, lest they protract their march into obsolescence while diluting the resources of the community.
Those resources should be concentrated in fewer schools of higher quality where there are unambiguous and challenging goals like producing alumni who speak, read, and write Armenian fluently and who are deeply versed in Armenian history and culture. With these objectives in mind, the students of these more resource-rich schools could be offered educational experiences that would amplify their learning, like scholarly trips to the Republic of Armenia, Western Armenia, Artsakh, and Javakhk, and even years or summers abroad in Armenia or at storied Armenian schools like Djemaran in Lebanon.
The other high-cost focus area should be the university.
First, and most important, is making an education in Armenian language, history, and culture available. The currently decrepit state of Armenian studies at universities in the United States, even at most schools with endowed chairs (with a few notable exceptions), suggests a want for investment that has not yet been met by the community. Offering specialization in Armenian studies and allowing the field to develop by producing academics fluent in Armenian languages, histories, literatures, and traditions will require an investment of funds currently squandered on well-meaning but ultimately unproductive endeavors like the costly schools that are the subject of this discussion.
The second issue would be to address the woefully few scholarships available to Armenian university students, especially with the recent and unfortunate shuttering of the Luys Scholarship program. However, the scholarships in question here should be directed toward the study, research, and production of works with pertinence to Armenian identity. That is, while these scholarships should cover history, language, and literature, they should also fund educational endeavors that contribute vibrancy to the culture like for writing, theater, and musical programs.
This experience with the AGBU Vatche and Tamar Manoukian School should be a moment of reckoning and reflection for the Los Angeles Armenian community. Rather than respond reflexively and negatively, it should be seen as an opportunity to readjust the structure of the community in a way that acquiesces to the realities of living in the United States while soberly determining what the ultimate objectives of preserving an Armenian identity outside of the homeland are and accordingly directing the community’s resources toward more fruitful ends.
Alternatively, the community can take its cue from the lyrics that explain the title of the song the protesting students were singing: “Artsakh is calling, go and help…the land of the brave [Armenia] awaits us.” An auspicious, if fortuitous, entreaty as an Armenian school closes in the Diaspora.