What debate over modern education tells us about a divided Turkey

Why We Wrote This

There may be no more telling barometer of a society’s values than education policy. In Turkey, attitudes toward national identity – and education – are colored by a deep religious-secular divide.

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History teacher Ayşe Alan, dean of the prestigious Koç School on the eastern outskirts of Istanbul, with student sculptures in the school's cafeteria, June 17, 2019. Educators are grappling with reforms set down by the ruling, Islam-leaning Justice and Development Party.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has in the past called for the creation of a “pious generation,” and presented a strong education system as a “must have” for a secure national future. But educational reforms underway in Turkey are being criticized on both sides of the religious-secular divide.

Educators praise some aspects of the reforms, which are meant to transition Turkey from an agrarian to urban society, boost technical prowess, and sharpen critical thinking. But they come as Turkey’s education system is still reeling from purges of tens of thousands of teachers following a failed coup attempt in July 2016.

“Every ideology is trying to form their own citizens, that’s normal,” says Ayşe Alan, a history teacher and dean of the prestigious Koç School, speaking in a personal capacity. “Now they are playing with history courses, which is an old story. They always do that. Every government changes something.”

Ms. Alan has written against the new religious “militarism” in schools, just as she once wrote against the secular “militarism” that long dominated Turkish classrooms. “Now the danger is we have both: We have militarism, and a religious system at the same time. This really scares me.”

At one of the most expensive and renowned private high schools in Turkey, on the eastern outskirts of Istanbul, the impressive results of the graduating seniors of the Koç School are celebrated.

This fall several of them will begin attending top universities around the world, including at least three at Harvard and two at Yale, among many others. All their names and destinations are posted on a wall in the entrance hall, the pride of students and teachers alike.

But controversial new educational reforms are underway in Turkey, designed by the ruling Islam-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP), with the stated aim of training “science-loving, skilled and ethical individuals” who draw on their own culture and civilization to aid “the well-being of humanity.”

The reforms have been criticized on both sides of Turkey’s secular-religious divide, and are open to wide interpretation. But the fact that courses in religion are among the few to remain mandatory ­– even as history and geography become electives – have some questioning whether the new raft of reforms is an example of anti-secular, pro-religious social engineering by the AKP that reflects a broader, decadeslong transformation of Turkish society.

Previous reforms have expanded religious study at the expense of other areas of the curriculum, while the latest reforms have curtailed some religious subjects and been criticized for valuing skills over morals. The across-the-board criticism closely follows the key social fault line in Turkey, such that Turks wedded to the republic’s founding secular traditions charge that there is too much religion, while conservative Turks who often support the AKP argue the exact opposite, that the new reforms offer too little religion.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has in the past called for the creation of a “pious generation,” and presented a strong education system as a “must have” for a secure national future.

And educators praise some aspects of the reforms, which are meant to transition Turkey from an agrarian to urban society, boost problem-solving and technical prowess, and sharpen critical thinking.

But for the Koç School, the retooling of Turkey’s education system may determine how prepared its students will be in the future for the best higher education in the world – and therefore how many of its students’ names will hang with pride on the admissions wall.

“Every ideology is trying to form their own citizens, that’s normal,” says Ayşe Alan, a history teacher and dean of the Koç School, speaking in a personal capacity. “Now they are playing with history courses, which is an old story. They always do that. Every government changes something.

“But the religion course, I think it is the most important course, at least for the government, because they want to keep it. They are very serious about that,” says Ms. Alan, a well-known educator in Turkey who has written against the new religious “militarism” in schools, just as she once wrote against the secular “militarism” that long dominated Turkish classrooms.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Talat Yavuz, director of Istanbul's 4th District of the pro-government teachers union Eğitim-Bir-Sen, at his desk on June 19, 2019. Critics from both sides of Turkey's social divide charge that the new education reforms require either too much religious teaching or too little.

The modern Turkish state was founded in 1923 by the secular Mustafa Kemal Atatürk from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, defeated during World War I. For decades afterward, the Turkish military saw its role as protecting that secular tradition and conducted several coups to do so.

Axing Darwin, adding religious classes

Still, the changes have been profound since the AKP was first elected in 2002. The military’s role in politics has been neutered, while Islam’s increased political stature has driven deep changes in society.

AKP changes to the national curriculum in 2017 doubled religious teaching in high schools to two hours each week and cut Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution from science classes.

“You can in Turkey now easily send your child to a religious kindergarten school [where] they teach Quran and pupils are just 5 years old,” says Ms. Alan. “They teach students to be soldiers of the new system.

“They don’t say ‘system,’ but militarism is something important for us, because if you check the history of Turkey, militarism is part of our history,” continues Ms. Alan. “Now the danger is we have both: We have militarism, and a religious system at the same time. This really scares me.”

The first batch of education reforms were rolled out last October, in an “Education Vision 2023” document. Then in May, a separate set of reforms specific to high schools was published. Though short on details, it appears modeled on the International Baccalaureate program.

Educators agree that there are many positive aspects. But it comes as Turkey’s education system is still reeling from purges of tens of thousands of teachers following a failed coup attempt in July 2016.

Turkey has also seen a surge in religious schools, known as Imam Hatip schools, that once were designed to produce clerics and today have a curriculum dominated by religious studies. By one count, the number of students at Imam Hatip middle schools jumped from just under 100,000 in 2012-2013 to nearly 750,000 today.

And yet even though Turkey spends a sizable portion of its budget on education – 11.9% last year, nearly double the percentage when the AKP first came to power – nationwide test results published in July were low.

The local equivalent of the global Program for International Student Assessment test found that in math, 86% of eighth graders scored at intermediate or lower levels on a five-level grading scale, with 53% scoring in the lowest two categories. For the Turkish language, some 66% of eighth graders were at intermediate or lower levels, which meant they struggled to understand idioms and satire.

Emphasis on a ‘pious generation’ or marketable careers?

In the midst of this maelstrom, it is not just secular educators who have complained about the new reforms.

“If anything, it looks like this new program has abandoned the project of raising a ‘pious generation,’” says Talat Yavuz, director for the Istanbul 4th District of Eğitim-Bir-Sen, a conservative pro-government teachers union.

“The AKP has really invested a lot in the education system, building schools,” says Mr. Yavuz. “But still there is this widespread view that we have not been able to achieve the kind of success we want in education.”

“The new program puts the onus not on issues like ethics, values, and morality, but it seems career-driven, which doesn’t encourage students to ask who we are, why we are here, but focuses instead on marketable skills,” he says.

Among a host of complaints, Eğitim-Bir-Sen’s official response said the new proposal “risks wiping out the social satisfaction achieved on the matter of religious education,” which it said was a “popular demand,” by sidelining classes on the Quran, the life of the prophet Muhammad, and basic religious knowledge.

In an outright denunciation of the reform program, Zekeriya Erdim, a longtime adviser to senior AKP officials in Istanbul and Ankara, said it “sets aside ... our religion, state, homeland, nation, culture and civilization [in favor of] the ‘world citizenship’ of a dominant culture and civilization [i.e., the West] that makes a hell out of everything it touches.”

Mr. Yavuz nevertheless says the surge in the number of religious schools is a “rebalancing” of Turkey’s education system, after decades of enforced secularism.

“This is a normalization process,” he says. “We’ve made a lot of progress, but 10 years later is there going to be another coup that will pull us in another direction?”

While the details of the reforms have yet to be published, Özgür Bozdoğan, head of the large teachers union Eğitim-Sen, which, unlike its similarly named counterpart, is pro-opposition, condemned them. The lack of mandatory classes in technology, environment, human rights, and democracy means “it will not be possible to meet today’s needs, let alone those of 2040,” he was quoted as saying.

Indeed, educators have seen how some programs, once encouraged by the AKP and lasting for years, have been canceled in recent months. They include student councils – which provided hands-on, local exercises in democracy – and an in-depth gender awareness program.

These steps are “another example of their [AKP] vision, of their ideology,” says Ms. Alan, the educator. A year remains before the new reforms kick in for Turkey’s high schools, to work out the issues and ease the raft of fears.

“The interesting thing is the AKP started these different democratic projects,” says Ms. Alan, referring to the student councils and gender program. “But the AKP knows the culture of Turkey very well. In Turkey, you can change your mind four times a day and it doesn’t matter. You just declare that you change your mind, and [people] accept it.”

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