Monday, May 19, 2008

Education in the Turkish Republic

Not having grown up in the Turkish educational system, I can say little about the many claims I have heard asserting that Turkish education discourages critical thinking. The general characterizations of Turkish education are centered on its use of rote learning and rigid demands for factual regurgitation. Many Turks my age have told me that public education even at the university level largely conists of memorizing great amounts of material and being able to spit out the information you were given on highly-weighted exams. Mustafa Akyol touches on some of these claims in what is a very polemical column in today's Turkish Daily News.

One of the great benefits of Turkey’s EU adventure is that it unveils some crucial yet often unnoticed facts about this country. Thanks to the accession process, Europeans are taking a closer look at Turkish society, and realizing who is really who in this very complex and often confusing nation.

One particular discovery of Europeans has been that the secularist Turkish elite is not sharing some of their fundamental values, such as democracy and individual freedom. These European-looking Turks are also quite militarist and nationalist according to Western standards.

The curious point is that this illiberal elite of Turkey is also the relatively better educated part of the society. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) is often the political choice of such Turks, and, interestingly enough, study after study shows that the CHP gets tons of votes from university graduates and urban professionals. The incumbent AKP (Justice and Development Party), on the other hand, whose political base is relatively less “educated,” is less nationalist and more pro-EU.

Why is that? Or, why, one might ask, are educated Turks more close-minded?

Indoctrination via education:

To find the answer, you need to realize what “education” really means in the Turkish context.

It actually means indoctrination. In others words, the education system is not designed to raise individuals who believe in democracy, freedom, pluralism or critical thinking. It is rather designed to inculcate all students with the “state ideology.”

Just spend some time in a Turkish primary or high school, and you will see what I mean. Students start and end every week by swearing an oath of allegiance to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, around whom our state ideology has built a cult of personality. “O mighty Atatürk who has given us this day,” all students recite, “I swear that I will walk relentlessly on your path.” The oath ends with a collectivist promise of sacrifice: “Let my existence be a gift to Turkish existence!”

The education system, which constantly praises the “Turkish existence,” curiously says nothing about the existence of other ethnic identities in Turkey. The society is portrayed as a homogenous entity. The Kurds and other groups are never mentioned, and when you finish your education, you simply know nothing about them.

Ah, sorry, actually the term “Kurd” exists in Turkish textbooks at least only once: You are told about the Kürt Teali Cemiyeti (Society for the Advancement of Kurdistan), which, supposedly, collaborated with our enemies during the War of Liberation. So, when you graduate from high school, the only image you have in mind about Kurds is that they are a shadowy group of “traitors.”

Actually the whole education system gives you the impression that everybody except the Kemalists are traitors. The War of Liberation, which was in fact a popular national resistance against occupation, is portrayed as if it were only carried out by the ancestors of today’s CHP. Sufi orders – let alone the Kurds and “the Arabs” – are depicted as internal enemies bought by the British and other allies. This propaganda is carried out by a conventional method: Selective usage of facts. There were just a few Sufi leaders, Kurdish groups or Arab tribes who indeed collaborated with the occupiers. But the students are told only about these ones, not the others who constituted the majority.

The system is very proud of itself. The Ministry of National Education officially notes that its aim is to “raise generations who are loyal to principles and revolutions of Atatürk.” The Higher Education Board (YÖK), which runs all universities, just reiterates the same goal. But among these “principles and revolutions,” concepts such as democracy or individual freedom simply do not exist. You can’t blame Atatürk for that, because in his time, other ideas such as “statism” were popular and he naturally embraced them. Yet, times have changed, whereas the system stays untouched.

The lack of individual freedom as a value in this whole doctrine is really interesting. I actually recall that when I was a kid, I could not make a distinction between the terms “independence” (bağımsızlık) and “freedom” (hürriyet), and rather used them interchangeably. The reason was that the education system had told me that we all became free with the founding of the independent Turkish Republic in 1923. Whether that republic has granted us the citizens freedom was a question that was remarkably ignored. What really mattered was the freedom of our state from foreign powers. Our own freedom was not a value worth mentioning.

Just another brick in the wall:

Now, this is how the Turkish system “educates” its people. Citizens, as Pink Floyd once put it, are supposed to be just another brick in the wall. And many of them do become so. Or at least they carry the traces of the decades-long indoctrination. That's why quite many Turks, who are otherwise smart and reasonable people, will go irrational when you start to question the national myths of nationalism or ultra-secularism.

Of course, there are also many people who have gone outside the box. There are, first of all, the self-declared liberals who have realized that the system is authoritarian and it needs to be liberalized. They are influential, but very tiny. Moreover, other elites, the Kemalist ones, see them as either naïve or treacherous.

The much larger parts of society who have not bought into the Big Lie are those whose very identities were suppressed by it: The conservative Muslims and the Kurds. It is no accident that the political parties which represent these groups, the AKP and the DTP, are much more reformist and pro-EU than others. And, again, it is no accident that these two parties are right now on the death row of the Constitutional Court, whose mission is to protect “the regime.”

One problem with the Kurdish side here, of course, is the terrorism of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which creates yet another obstacle to democratization. The conservative side, on the other hand, is not only free from such a violent tradition, but is also growingly moderate, democratic and globalist.

Therefore, the only way out for Turkey remains what it has been since the times of Turgut Özal and the first period of the AKP: Liberal democracy promoted by the EU, articulated by the liberals, and supported by the conservatives. Even if the AKP is closed, this momentum will go on under another party. And the Kurds will be much better off if they jump onto this train instead of playing Che Guevara in the mountains of the southeast.

As the potential of the illiberal elite to accept liberal democracy, though, I am not very optimistic. As evidenced by their unbelievably reactionary stance, their minds are just too “educated” to breach.
For more on Turkish education, see Nicole Pope's recent columns in Today's Zaman:

"A Window of Opportunity" (25.3.08)

"Changing Perceptions" (28.3.08)

See also my thoughts last week on political participation (May 13 post).

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