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. 

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