Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Democracy and Education (And An Evermore Divided Turkey)

PHOTO from Vatan

The parliament took up the proposed education law (see past post for background) yesterday just hours after 20,000 demonstrators gathered in Ankara's Tandogan Square to protest what opposition groups view as a unilateral attempt by the ruling AKP to overhaul the education system.

The law the AKP is trying to pass is publicly referred to as "4+4+4" because it seeks to make 12-year education mandatory for all children. Yet that is not the full story. Under the current system, public education is mandatory for the first eight years, after which students may opt to attend imam-hatip, or religious high schools that teach a mixture of standard education and theology, and which are subject to different standards -- and, naturally -- a different ideological/pedagogical atmosphere. The proposed law, which has been amended since my last post, also includes provisions that would pave the way for children to opt to attend imam-hatip  as early as 10 years of age, as well as enter special vocational schools. The original law had included a measure that would allow children to opt into "open education," or home schooling, as early as 10 years of age. That provision has since been amended under pressure from women's another groups that introducing open education at such an early age would lead to an increase in child labor and young girls being kept from school to work at home -- a problem in conservative communities that activist groups have long sought to remedy.

The proposed system seeks to effectively divide education into three tiers -- first, middle, and high school. The government also plans to introduce a year before primary education akin to what in the United States is known as "pre-school," and which AKP politicians have haled as a major selling point of the new law. Under the proposal, children would also be able to join private religious education courses, often held during the summer, after their fourth year in school.

For AKP policymakers, the new system is to be celebrated not only as a means to further the quality of public education but also "democracy" -- a word much heralded by AKP politicians, but which for all intents and purposes, seems simply to mean rule by the majority, and a majority as the ruling party interprets it (for more on this, see this past post he AKP's sparring with TUSIAD, the leading business association in Turkey which has puts itself squarely in opposition to the new arrangements).

Much at the heart of the AKP's framing the issue is the fact that the current system is largely the product of the 1997 "postmodern coup" that toppled the country's former Islamist-led coalition, in which the AKP has its roots. Under military tutelage in the years after the coup, the government sought to guard secularism against what the generals saw as the rising tide of political Islam and the current education system was a major concern, in particular the increasing popularity of imam-hatip. The system prior to the coup allowed parents to place their children in imam-hatip at the age of 10, a policy to which the AKP is returning. It also forbade children to take private religious courses (for example, during summer vacation) before completing five years in school.

Though the reform process at the time was far from democratic and involved a major abuse of power by the military, as well as persecution of numerous educators and students haling from conservative Muslim backgrounds, the new policy did yield some positive results, including an increase in the enrollment rate of girls in the first eight years of public education (from 34% to 65%). While the coup-driven education reform of the late 1990s should in no way be celebrated, the AKP should at the least explain how its new policy will not seek to imperil the success of the past decade in this regard. Yet rather than explaining how the new system (or devising one alternative to that proposed) might build on increased enrollment rates while adopting a more sensitive approach to religion, the party has instead simply decried opponents of the law to be against "democracy."

Polarization over the new law reached a new high two weeks ago when the parliamentary commission responsible for education policy ramrodded the proposal through the commission amidst fistfights between the ruling party and the opposition. Knowing that debate could delay the law's passage through the commission, the AKP blockaded opposition party members' attendance in attempt to forestall efforts to frustrate passage to the parliament's general assembly.

Soon after the brawl, the opposition CHP petitioned to annul the commission's vote, arguing that procedural rules had been violated. Yet parliament speaker Cemil Cicek seems to have no intention of returning the law to commission, and the party's plans at this point are to pass the law in the general assembly by the end of the week.

The protests yesterday reveal just how divided Turkey is becoming. Speaking at Tandogan, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said the law is not "4+4+4," but "8/2." Kilicdaroglu was referring to the two different standards of education children would be receiving after the first eight years (and, in reality, after the age of 10 given the planned introduction of vocational schools and imam-hatip at so young an age). Yet there is another element to the leader's words worth exploring.

Though some of the AKP's policies have aimed to strip national education of some of the more distressing nationalist/ideological aspects of public education (for example, military-designed national security education courses and celebrations of national youth day, which liberals have long considered quasi-fascist), the fact that the government's most recent effort seems to setup a system parallel to that of national education (that is, imam-hatip and vocational education), there is real concern that the secular/conservative divide could grow deeper.Further, there is the very real possibility that a large number of Turks (future voting citizens) as early as age 10 could receive an education that is sub-par when compared to their counterparts that finish 12 years of public eduction. While these students might be more likely to constitute the "pious generation" Erdogan envisioned a few weeks before the education debate started in full, it is highly unlikely that they would demonstrate the same level of political efficacy and sophistication as their more educated counterparts.

Among the groups protesting the new legislation at Tandogan is Egitem-Sen, the left-leaning teachers' union, as well as the Rightful Women's Platform and the Federation of Turkish Women's Associations. The Confederation of Public Sector Workers (KESK), of which Egitem-Sen is a part, is also present. Egitem-Sen has called for two days of teachers' strikes to demonstrate against the proposed law, and is the chief organizer of the demonstrations alongside the CHP.

Ankara's governor, who is a member of the AKP, has questioned the legality of the assembly, and though he has yet to break up the gathering, he has threatened to do so. The municipality has removed banners and placards put up in the environs -- a move CHP parliamentarian and women's rights defender Binnaz Toprak described as a violation of freedom of expression. And so it seems there is potential for the fighting in parliament to soon bleed onto the streets -- a country divided indeed, and with neither liberal nor consensual democracy anywhere in sight at the moment. For more coverage in English of yesterday's protests, click here.

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