Education systems must be an instrument that provides the conditions which facilitate learning and critical thinking. However, in the Turkish context, the education system turns students into parrots, memorizing everything that they hear rather than learning. In Turkey, the structure and management of mass education constitute an arena of debate wherein many people have conflictual ideas.
Philosopher John Dewey (2007) argued that people tend to think in terms of extreme opposites. This means that they define their beliefs in terms of “either-ors”. Following Dewey, it can be argued that people living in Turkey have a strong tendency to act according to this logic. People’s tendency to think in terms of extreme opposites is clearly manifested in their views concerning national education. Some segments of society praise educational policies adopted by the ruling AK Party while others totally disagree with these policies.
This article is an attempt to analyze the role of the Turkish education system from the lenses of two thinkers: Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser. Althusser (1971) argued that the modern state exercises its authority and control through two main mechanisms: Repressive State Apparatuses and Ideological State Apparatuses. One of the areas concerning the ideological state apparatuses is known as education. Through compulsory education, state elites aim to keep control of and even manipulate the masses.
According to Gramsci (1971) hegemony (“predominance by consent”) is a condition in which political, intellectual, and moral leadership is exercised by a group over others. The condition of hegemony requires “common sense” and moral leadership and this kind of common sense can be seen as a product of national education systems.
Following the teachings of Gramsci and Althusser, this article argues that Turkey’s education system has been functioning as a tool of Kemalist indoctrination since the foundation of the Turkish Republic. However, for almost two decades Turkish education system has engaged in pursuing an “Islamist agenda” in parallel with the ruling AK Party elites’ political orientation.
Schools as Agents of Dominant Ideology (1923-1950)
Historically mass schooling has not only played a significant role in the nation-making and state-building process in Republican Turkey but it also paved the way for the (re)production of the official state ideology, Kemalism. The single-party years between 1923 and 1950 are known as the period of the early Republican era. During this era, the Kemalist elites engaged in producing a Turkish citizenship regime in addition to building a national identity. To this aim, mass schooling was used as an instrument to reproduce the Kemalist state ideology. By using history textbooks and national education, it was aimed to establish national consciousness and an image of modern Turkey. The textbooks such as Medeni Bilgiler (Civic Knowledge) prepared by Afet İnan was published with the aim to disseminate the idea of a ‘good citizen in parallel to Kemalist ideals. Füsun Üstel (2004) in her book, titled Makbul Vatandaşın Peşinde: II. Meşrutiyet’ten Bugüne Vatandaşlık Eğitimi [In pursuit of the acceptable citizen], analyzed the formation of the ‘desired citizen’ through the citizenship textbooks.
The education policies of these years had a progressivist and secular mentality. In addition to this mentality, the teaching of Turkish education – particularly nationalism and history education – had an ethnicist and even racist character. Nazan Maksudyan’s work titled Türkçülüğü Ölçmek: Bilim Kurgusal Antropoloji ve Türk Milliyetçiliğinin Irkçı Çehresi (1925-1939) [Measuring Turkishness: Science Fiction Anthropology and Turkish Nationalism’s Racist Aspect] reveals this character.
After the death of Atatürk, İsmet İnönü was elected as the new president. Under İnönü’s rule, Arabic works and language were banished. The first Educational Council was held in 1939 and following this, the history textbooks of high schools were revised with a more secular and Western outlook. Another feature of education in these years was the increase in military issues in the lessons. Military lessons and physical training were taken much more seriously and expanded to almost all education levels. These moves can also be regarded as steps to make society become more adapted to the official Kemalist ideology.
Schools in Multi-Party Years (1950-1960)
The transition to the multi-party system led to significant changes in the field of education. Critical steps such as the opening of new universities were undertaken. Four new universities were founded in this era. The character of national education started to be shaped with a more inclusionary approach. For instance, the Turkish History Thesis which had an ethnicist character was criticized.
The Democrat Party under the leadership of Adnan Menderes had a different perspective in terms of the relationship between state and religion. With regards to the policies of education, the introduction of religious education at primary schools, the re-opening of the Imam Hatip schools, and the closure of Village Institutes were among the primary policies that were implemented.
It can be said that the education system under DP rule abandoned the strict adherence to Kemalist principles. However, this change did not eliminate the instrumentalization of education by the ruling elites. In this time period, schools started to be seen as spheres for providing legitimacy for Menderes regime.
Schools Under the Shadows of Military Regimes (1960-1980)
The military coup of 1960 had a major impact on Turkey. An important development seen in the educational field after the 1960 coup was the opening of Maarif Colleges. The Maarif Colleges had gained importance in the early 1960s. The opening of Maarif Colleges became possible with the effect of developing relations with the United States.
The intervention of military regimes in 1960 and 1980 had a major impact on education policies. These military coups caused the militarization of state administration. The instability in politics has also shown itself in education. The best example of this was the frequent change of the ministers of national education.
Education Policies in the Post-1980 Period
The 1980 military coup had a major impact on Turkey’s political, administrative, and economic life. In 1982, a new constitution was drafted. New regulations were enacted in higher education. The most critical one was Law No 2547 which established the Council of Higher Education (YÖK). The higher education institutions in Turkey have never been free from political authority despite having been centralized under a so-called autonomous council. The reliance of universities upon political authority makes the instrumentalization of universities for politics.
After 1980, the textbooks included the notion of Turkey’s ‘internal enemies’ as a tool to construct enemies that challenge unity and the principles of national ideology. In addition, compulsory religious education was introduced. The 1982 Constitution obliged all schoolchildren, from the fourth grade to graduation from high school, to take the ‘Religious Culture and Ethics Knowledge’ courses. Turkey’s education system has been functioning as a tool of indoctrination with its mandatory religious courses. In such a way, the students have been taught Sunni Islam through mandatory religious courses.
After 1980, in a similar fashion to Thatcher in the U.K. and Reagan in the U.S., Turgut Özal’s rule in Turkey paved the way for economic and political liberalization. The neo-liberal economic policies not only shaped public affairs but also shaped the content and management of education. The increase in the number of private schools can be seen as a sign of this development. However, this increase had not brought a radical change in the nature of national education. The objective of national education has stayed the same: promoting dominant state ideology.
On the other hand, the 1990s witnessed the rise of political Islam in Turkey with the electoral victory of the Welfare Party. In 1997 a soft military coup known as “February 28 Process” put an end to the Welfare Party-led coalition government. The government was presented with a list of anti-Islamist measures, ranging from bans on private Quran courses to curbs on the donation of sacrificial animal hides to religious organizations. At the top of the list was the demand for the extension of compulsory education to eight years. This clearly aimed at removing the intermediate sections of the İmam Hatip schools.
Education Under AK Party Rule (2002 – Current)
The Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002. Since then, the Turkish education system has undergone a significant change in terms of the philosophical foundations on which it is based. An important development was the abolition of “Andımız” (Our Oath). In 2013, Turkey’s Council of State declared that the recitation of the oath will no longer be part of the daily routine in the schools. According to some Kemalists, the discontinuation of this oath was a sign of abandoning the Kemalist ideology.
In these years, an ultra-conservative and nationalistic approach to education was adopted. The efforts to increase religious themes in education and de-secularization attempts accompanied the steps like the start of “Values Education” (Değerler Eğitimi). A critical development that had an important impact on education has been the military coup attempt of 2016. The military coup attempt of 2016 was followed by a state of emergency. During this period, the Ministry of National Education announced a new draft curriculum presenting new courses at the primary, lower secondary, and upper secondary school levels. The changes made in the curriculum included removing important historical events and founders of the republic (e.g. Atatürk) and replacing them with Islamized ones promoting Muslim scientists, and increasing the religious content in the textbooks. According to Kandiyoti and Emanet (2017) the rhetoric of “The July 15 Victory of Democracy” has been represented as ‘the foundational event’ of the New Turkey.
Discussion and Final Remarks
In Turkey, the national education system has been regarded as an element through which ruling elites can exercise control over society by shaping the worldviews and perceptions of schoolchildren. Thus, schools and universities have most of the time failed to serve their aims of educating people, promoting critical thinking, and raising political and social consciousness.
Not only schools like secondary or high schools but also universities have a bad record among other countries. According to the Global Academic Freedom Report prepared by Scholars at Risk Network, Turkey has only 9.7 points out of 100 and it is in the rank of 135 out of 144 countries. Turkey is at a similar level to Syria and Turkmenistan in terms of education quality.
Schools cannot function without taking into account the individual, society, nature, freedom, and morality. However, it is a well-known fact that Turkish education has a standardizing role. It is not open to different preferences, interpretations, and critical thinking. In the current education system, independent and libertarian ideas cannot arise. By contrast, all individuals are forced to resemble each other. How can such an education system lead to progress and prosperity in society? This is the main question we need to answer for a better society.
Althusser, L. (1971). Lenin and Philosophy. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Dewey, J. (2007). Deneyim ve eğitim (Experience and education). Trans. by S. Akıllı. Ankara: ODTÜ Yay.
Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers.
Kandiyoti, D., & Zühre, E. (2017). Education as battleground: The capture of minds in Turkey. Globalizations.
Maksudyan, N. (2005). Türkçülüğü Ölçmek: Bilimkurgusal Antropoloji ve Türk Milliyetçiliğinin Irkçı Çehresi, 1925-1939 (Measuring Turkishness: Science fiction anthropology and Turkish nationalism’s racist aspect). İstanbul: Metis
Scholars at Risk Report (2020). KinzelbachEtAl_2020_Free_Universities.pdf (gppi.net) (accessed on 14.08.2022).
Üstel, F. (2011). ‘Makbul vatandaş’ ın peşinde: II. Meşrutiyet’ten bugüne Türkiye’de vatandaşlık eğitimi.(In pursuit of the acceptable citizen: Citizenship education from the 2ndconstitutional period until today). İstanbul: İletişim.
Fotoğraf: MChe Lee