Young Student and Development in Turkey

It’s something of a cultural and sociological truism that schools in any society function as agents of social control and cultural transmission. In this way, while pursuing their distinctive educational goals, they serve to reproduce the social relations of a society. It is because of this that education also reproduces the contradictions and divisions which exist in a society in its prevailing attitudes, values, and ways of thinking. In the period since the Second World War the social and ideological strains of Turkish society which had been muted during the republican period became much more visible and particularly so in education. 


Atatiirk defined a vital role for young people in building Turkish society. No educational theorist, he none the less grasped clearly that Turkish independence and the development of a modem political culture depended on building a firm foundation for education. The roots of these ideas are traceable, through the writings of Ziya Gokalp to the work of Emile Durkheim with its stress on education as a moral force in society. Ba~goz and Wilson (1968,) summed up the importance of Atatiirk himself in this way: 

Twenty five years after his death, almost every school building in Turkey has a little shrine built around a figure of him. The walls of classrooms, assembly halls and stadiums are all decorated with selected Atatiirk sentences. He came to be regarded by many educators as the special patron saint of education. 

What Atatiirkist symbolism emphasises are the national character of education, its secular foundation, and its scientific basis. The national question was particularly vital; through the language reforms and education republican Turkey sought to root a new national identity in the routine practice of its schools. In the early days of the republic the battle for a distinctive Turkish identity was critical to fend off the force of Kurdish and Armenian nationalism and to transcend the ethnic divisions. More than this, schools had to bolster a national identity among people whose sense oftheir Turkish identity was fixed in their religion. Atatiirk’s aim was to build a Turkish identity freed from a religious frame. 

Lerif Mardin (1978) has detected in Turkish culture what he calls ‘core authoritarianism’ which is the product of socialisation patterns in traditional family life. But it also has a political and cultural dimension which, through the intemalisation of hero images drawn from the past, links the great and folk traditions of classical Ottoman culture. Mardin notes that heroic imagery surrounding the founding fathers of the republic is important in Turkish primary education

But as Turkish society polarised during the 1950s and 1960s under the weight of growing inequalities and rapid urbanization, the emerging factions of both left and right acquired their own epic heroes. The poet, Nazim Hikmet, became an important symbol for the student left and the right could take comfort in crudely patriotic sentiments of the sort expressed in the ideas that ‘one Turk is worth the whole world’ (Mardin, 1978, p. 242). Those migrants from the villages upset by the city could take comfort in symbols evoking their religion and this was something which right-wing parties, such as the National Action Party, could exploit. During the late 1970s, for example, the AtatiirkLise in Ankara was a stronghold of the National Action Party. Gangs of students would stop passers-by and check if they knew the nine principles of the NAP. If they refused to answer or could not reply they would be beaten up. Parents who sought to withdraw their children from the school would be victimised. In some parts of Turkey, it was dangerous to be involved in education particularly if a teacher was thought to have left-wing sympathies. Murder, torture, and beatings were frequent occurrences as the youth of different political factions fought it out. 

These problems were solved by the military coup of 1980 although a strengthening of political control, e.g. through banning teachers from being involved in politics, is of itself no solution to the problems in the society which fuelled the violence and ideological polarisation. Schools in Turkey could not perform their central ideological role of consolidating Kemalist philosophy. 

The new constitution, for instance, makes it illegal for any language other than Turkish to be the main language of education. This is clearly to prevent Kurdish nationalism from striking firm linguistic roots, but it is something which affects other minority groups, too. 

The Churches’ Working Party on Christian minorities in Turkey, for example, expressed concern in 1982 about these policies. Mention was made in particular of the Syriani, a group in southeast Turkey which uses and teaches Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ, who were being persecuted by Kurds. The military regime in Turkey will simply not tolerate forms of instruction or thinking which are not strictly Kemalist or which they cannot directly control.  


The need to modernize Turkish educational institutions has been a constant theme of Turkish politics since the founding of the republic. There is no doubt that there have been substantial strides forward against a background of serious resource constraints and the persistence of traditional attitudes and values, particularly in the villages. In comparison with what the World Bank calls ‘middle-income countries’, Turkey achieves high levels of primary school enrolments and slightly above average levels of secondary school enrolments. 

Assessments of achievements are always, however, dependent on standpoint. Measured against the state of education of the country in the early days of the republic there have been changes so profound they can only be described as revolutionary. The record in the period after the Second World War is, however, mixed and if Turkey is compared to the societies of Western Europe, which it seeks to emulate, then clear deficiencies in education are revealed. The most appropriate comparison, however, is one which measures achievements against goals. In this way, Turkey’s system of primary, secondary and vocational education displays many disappointing features. 

It revolves, as has been shown, around the issues of inequality and economic relevance. Most worrying to the present regime, however, is the failure of the system to become the main scaffold on which an integrated national consciousness and political morality can be built. The violence and terror of the 1970s was a facet of this, but it was by no means its cause. 

As the analysis set out in this chapter shows, education cannot bear the weight of a cultural revolution by itself for social and cultural changes that can overtake it; change in education is inseparable from political change and conflict. Turkish education has been at the centre of the conflicting claims and expectations of different social classes as these groups themselves acquired a distinctive sense of their interests and identity in post-war Turkey. What those expectations were is something to be uncovered against the pattern of development of Turkish society and its state form. This is the purpose of tracing the contours of Turkey underdevelopment and of describing how a changing international framework set the constraints within which Turkish development could evolve. 


The structure of social inequality in both Ottoman Turkey of the nineteenth century and republican Turkey has been described. In essence, the discussion showed that, in contrast to Western capitalist society, the Ottoman Empire was a social formation which lacked a strong entrepreneurial bourgeousie which possessed political power. During the course of the 2nd half of the 19th-century reforms encouraged the growth of a bureaucratic class distinct from the Sultan and religious leaders whose power and status depended largely on their education. During the republic period this class, together with the military had come to constitute a ‘guardian bureaucracy’ dominating the political system and projecting the Kemalist ideology of secularism, populism and etatism. 


Economic underdevelopment and the exchange of populations left republican Turkey with a large population of peasants, a small industrial working class and an almost insignificant class of industrialists or capitalists. Mter the Second World War, however, structural changes in the economy together with political changes in electoral law allowing the formation of political parties, led to the development of new social groups distinct in their outlook and ambitions from the Kemalist elites who dominated the political system. These included industrialists, large farmers, merchants who supported the Democratic Party. The growth of the liberal professions and white-collar workers gave definition to a small but new middle class and economic growth and urban migration fuelled the growth of an urban proletariat. 

The social, historical and politico-economic processes behind these shifts are the themes of a different study, but it is vital to appreciate such changes since it is against this background that data about social inequality in educational opportunity must be interpreted. It is not sufficient to think of the relative life chances of different social groups as being contingent upon the social or cultural characteristics of different groups themselves. It is important, too, to examine the relationship between different groups to see in what way struggles in ‘cultural markets’, e.g. for status, honour and, in this case, for education, both reflect and shape the class chances of different groups of people (see Collins, 1977). 

Patterns of social stratification always reflect the structure of economic life of a society although the relationship is never direct and the subtleties of social hierarchies can never be read off from descriptions of the occupational division of labour. In Turkey, the largest field of employment is in the agricultural sector of the economy. Agriculture contributes about 20 percent of the gross national product (manufacturing 16 per cent, commerce 13 per cent) but accounts for about 62 percent of the labour force. In this respect, Turkey’s economy displays a dualism, a contrast between the agricultural and industrial sector, which is untypical of the more developed economies of Western Europe (Dervis and Robinson, 1980).

The differences between these two major sectors of the economy explains much of the social inequality of Turkish society where, on the whole, people employed in industry and living in urban areas are better off than those in agriculture, particularly in the East and South East of the country. A recent study of income distribution in Turkey-based at Hacettepe University in Ankara and based on a State Planning Organisation population survey classified the Turkish population into eleven socioeconomic groups (Dervis and Robinson, 1980). 

These groups, however, can be recombined into a smaller number of distinctive social categories. In the urban areas, they distinguish the capitalist urban elite, government employees, the urban working classes and the urban traditional sector. Each group occupies a different position with respect to the market for income in Turkey. Capitalists derive their income from the ownership of property and shares while government employees and urban workers are dependent almost entirely on wages and salaries for their incomes. The 1973 data on income distribution indicates a high degree of income inequality with some interesting differences among urban white-collar groups. Independent professionals earn considerably more than government employees. Dervis and Robinson (1980) speculate that the relatively low mean income of this latter group might explain ‘the relatively left-of-centre orientation of the urban middle class’. It might also be the case that this structure of income distribution is what lies behind the very high (and unmet) demand from such groups for university places in Turkey. 

Among the rural groups in this survey, a distinction is drawn between farmers and rural labourers, the latter forming a very small part of the farm population. Dervis and Robinson (1980) note that ‘Turkish agriculture is characterised more by small farmers and small cultivators than by large masses of totally landless labour. Of course, there are also very large landowners – capitalist and market-oriented in some regions, still feudal in other regions.’ These divisions matter since they lie behind the migration of people from rural to urban areas to seek a better life and they explain much of the particular cultural and religious attitudes towards education in the Turkish countryside and through these, the urban-rural, male-female patterns of differentiation in education.

Industrialisation and urbanisation have accelerated and there has been a massive migration from the countryside into the cities. Turkish cities have been ‘peasantised’ (Mardin, 1978; Karpat, 1976) and the growth of shanty town areas (gecekondu) on the periphery of the major cities is a major feature of urban social structure in Turkey with profound implications for many aspects of social planning. 

How best to provide shanty towns with amenities such as piped water, transport, electricity and sewers is a serious problem in Turkey. The same difficulties arise about schools and health care and law enforcement. (Karpat, 1976) .. But the point for the moment is that the categories of workers described earlier will include people who live in gecekondu areas as well as those who have for generations been city dwellers. Similarly, it will include people whose social and cultural roots, religious orientation and, for the purposes of this post, attitudes about education are still firmly part of a rural past. 

Surveying the structure of educational opportunity in Turkey in 1966, Kazamias used the metaphor of the ‘minaret pattern’ to describe it (Kazamias, 1966). This was a reference to the way in which the proportion of the population enrolled in school at the different levels of education declines dramatically at the higher levels of the system. This pattern still persists and can be seen, which draws together the results of the studies by Kazamias (1966) and Hale (1978). The post does not indicate directly the relationship between social class and educational opportunity but it does show how the higher levels of education cater for only a relatively small proportion of the population in the relevant age group. The post illustrates the strong link between education and occupation, a further way of looking at social inequality. 

Another way of reading such data is to see it as measuring wastage in education. Something like 50 per cent of primary-school graduates leaves the system altogether and do not proceed into middle school.

Once people are in the system they tend to complete the secondary school course but over 60 per cent of secondary school graduates leave the system. Turban Oguzkan (1981) has summarised the problem this way: 

Among the several possible reasons behind these two important breaks in the student flow in the Turkish educational system, the most common reason for low entrance to middle school seems to be the lack of access to school facilities in many places, especially in rural areas, while the break at higher educational level is due mainly to the lack of capacity for greater student intake on the part of higher educational institutions. 

Such data point to a field of interlocked influences shaping the careers of Turkish pupils; children in urban areas have better life chances than those in rural areas. Children of the urban administrative and professional elites have educational life chances far superior to those of people from a worker or peasant background (Kazamias, 1966; Ozgediz, 1980). In addition, something not highlighted so far, the educational life chances of males are much greater than those of females (see Abadan-Unat, 1981). This is a reflection of both traditional values concerning the position of women in Turkish society and of the division of labour itself. Ozbay (1978) has noted, for instance, that the great majority of women active in the labour force work on the land. In/urban areas approximately 10 percent of uneducated women are inactive employment compared to 28 per cent among educated women. 

Relevant to the discussion of social inequality but not directly measurable by data on educational and occupational life chances is the question of the cultural meanings attached to education and the kinds of social values and ways of thinking incorporated into the curriculum (formal and ‘hidden’) of Turkish schools. In a society which has changed as rapidly as Turkey and in which the opportunities for employment of one generation are markedly different from those available to older generations, it is hardly surprising that discontinuities emerge between generations, classes and regions of the country in attitudes and outlook (Mardin, 1978). 

In the Ottoman period, the division between the educated and uneducated was clear; it was reinforced by the division of labour and the political system and it was overlaid by differences of culture, language, religion and lifestyle. Between the political elite and the peasantry of a far-flung empire, there were few intermediary groups. Republican Turkey, therefore, faced the problem of building up a national consciousness from the peripheral consciousness of peasants, i.e. people whose social and political outlook was part of a traditional world view in which the values of social equity, science and even nation held little sway. It was a society in which the social distance between the officeholder and the peasant was vast. 

Spectacular social mobility- was ~erifMardin (1969) once called the ‘Aladdin’s Lamp Effect’ -was possible in this society as previous chapters have explained, but neither the Tanzimat reforms of the nineteenth century or the cultural revolution of the early republican period erased the subtly woven ties between the cultural traditions of the elite and Turkish education in a way which would have overcome the cultural divisions of Turkish society. 

Elite culture in Turkey remains distinct from folk cultural traditions; ‘elitism’, argued Mardin (1969) remains ‘the prevailing worldview of the educated.’ In their language, secularism, fashion and lifestyle, the educated of Turkish society, particularly those with higher education, are sharply distinguishable from their compatriots in the rural areas and in the lower socioeconomic groups of the cities. Such differentiation implies ascending levels of cultural and social exclusivity in the society and the very limited data on social mobility in Turkey confirms high levels of occupational self recruitment among the liberal professions and, at the other end of the social scale, farmers (Aral, 1980).