When the principal of one of Turkey’s top high schools took to the stage last month to address its graduating class, he faced an unexpected rebellion.
As Hikmet Konar began to speak, almost all the final-year pupils at Istanbul High School stood up one after another and turned their backs to him.
“It was spontaneous,” says one of the students. “We don’t know who did it first, but then it just spread like a domino effect.”
Before the failed military coup over the weekend and the ensuing purge by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of thousands of personnel in the military, police, and judiciary, the country’s political climate had become increasingly authoritarian and toxic.
That isolated act of student defiance at Istanbul High School triggered a nationwide protest by school pupils that revealed how that climate had entered classrooms.
Since the June 4 graduation ceremony, students representing more than 400 schools had signed a petition protesting President Erdoğan and the alleged efforts by his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) to impose Islamic and pro-government ideology.
Their complaints included the replacement of critical teachers and principals with government loyalists, the expansion of specialized religious schools, and an increase in the moral policing of classrooms.
“The government is using education as a political tool,” says Bora Çelik, head of the Turkish High Schools Union, which oversaw the petition. “They want to create new generations that obey, whereas the current generation wants to be one that thinks freely.”
A senior Turkish official told the Monitor that the government was not indoctrinating students, but merely stripping out the rigidly secular and nationalist ideology that has hitherto dominated Turkey’s school system.
“Some teachers want to make our children anti-Islam and anti- our national values,” he said. “The government would like students to have standard national values and religion.”
“For 100 years the other kind of guys were principals, so what’s wrong if for five years it’s us?”
Religious school revival
The roles of politics and religion in the classroom have been emotive issues in Turkey for decades. The debate has often focused on Imam Hatips: religious schools that are the preferred choice for pious parents who want their children to receive a higher-than-usual dose of Sunni Islamic teaching. In the mid-1990s, around 10 percent of all high school pupils attended Imam Hatips, but that proportion fell dramatically after a crackdown on religious education in 1998.
In the past six years, the schools have made a dramatic comeback under the AKP. Several hundred public high schools have been converted into Imam Hatips, and they are now close to surpassing their peak in the 1990s.
However, the latest protests take the debate into new territory, since the schools affected comprise the cream of the education system: the elite high schools that provide free education to the brightest children and have produced a large proportion of its political, intellectual, and cultural leaders.
In March 2015, 44 of these schools were placed under tighter supervision as part of the new Project Schools initiative, which officials say is intended to boost excellence.
Istanbul High School is among them. Its famous alumni run the gamut, from academics and poets to pop stars and three former prime ministers, including Necmettin Erbakan, the country’s first Islamist premier.
“You couldn’t have a better example of what Turkey should aim for,” says Batuhan Aydagül, director of the Education Reform Initiative at Istanbul’s Sabancı University. “We should provide a critical-thinking foundation to all students, and ensure a pluralistic environment for every student to pursue his or her own political or otherwise beliefs.”
Poet's appearance canceled
Immediately after Istanbul High School was designated a Project School, Mr. Konar was appointed principal. Unlike his predecessors, who were selected through an internal process involving several examinations, he was put in place directly by the Education Ministry.
Discontent among students quickly grew. At the school’s culture week, the new principal canceled an appearance by Küçük İskender, a poet controversial for his outspoken homosexuality who had been invited by student organizers.
At a concert, female performing students were for the first time forced to wear pants instead of skirts, and an Islamic organization handed out religious pamphlets. And an anti-Darwinist sociologist was invited to speak at the science fair.
“If you look at Turkey, we’re a majority Muslim country, but I think education and religion should be separated from each other for the sake of secularism,” says the graduating student from the school, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of official retribution.
Her complaints echo those of students at hundreds of other high schools that signed the recent petition.
Erdoğan has dismissed the protests and petition as the work of fringe groups hoping to revive the mass antigovernment protests that shook the country in 2013.
“We are seeing that some forces that have still not learned from the past are now provoking university and high school students,” he said in a speech on July 16.
'Like a little Turkey'
The Turkish official pointed out that the organization behind the petition – Mr. Çelik’s Turkish High Schools Union – is linked to a fringe political group that espouses hard-line secular nationalist values.
Istanbul High School is not among its signatories. The student says she and fellow pupils had not signed because they regarded its text as too political.
“Our protest was not a political protest,” she says. “In our school cultural diversity is very important, and we need to make sure that no group’s voice is louder than others.”
“We are like a little Turkey. We come from different cities, different families, different cultures, and have different political views.… We can talk about political issues in our daily lives, and no one gets hurt because of this.”
However, they have begun to sense a change. While a poem in the school’s literature magazine was censored on moral grounds, a recently launched Islamic magazine was allowed to include an editorial condemning non-religious students that many pupils found inflammatory.
“Lately we feel that people who do not support the political administration are being turned into outsiders.”
'Not the place' for critical thinking
The school’s history both predates and is entwined with that of the modern Turkish Republic. An entire graduating class died fighting the British at Gallipoli – a victory overseen by modern Turkey’s future founder and arch-secularist, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
In spite of this heritage, the school was no mere factory for the secular nationalism espoused by Ataturk’s successors, and the ideology that dominated Turkey’s elites before the rise of Erdoğan’s AKP. Mr. Aydagül of the Education Reform Initiative had cheered early reform efforts by the AKP, issuing a report in 2005 praising curriculum changes that it said encouraged “critical thinking, communication … and respecting the individual and social boundaries.”
“Critical thinking as well as individual and school autonomy are much needed in this century and not just for a labor force, but for the creation of active citizens,” Aydagul says.
These days, however, the government seems increasingly unwilling to allow children to be educated in an atmosphere in which they might be exposed to politically oppositional or controversial ideas, out of fear that this could damage Turkey’s stability and growth.
“When they graduate and are over 18, of course they should have critical thinking, but high school is not the place to do that,” says the Turkish official. “They should be thinking about what profession they want to do, and what university they should go to.… If you poison them like this they will fall behind.”
The jury is still out on the impact of the sweeping educational reforms enacted in the past four years. In November the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is due to release a new analysis of education levels across more than 60 countries, including Turkey, based on data from 2015. The last such report was related to data collected in 2012.
Aydagul is not optimistic. “Each of these small cases makes me believe that, whether explicitly or not, the government is driving this whole country’s educational system towards mediocrity.”
How Erdoğan's post-coup crackdown impacts the clash over school curriculum and administration remains to be seen.