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Report from Turkey: Transformation to Ignorance

Necip Kara

Samanyolu High School vice-principal Necip Kara, before posters of recent national science olympiad winners. (A. Kotok)

A visit to a high school for science in Turkey reveals a plan by Turkey’s government to shut down a tutoring program for low-income children, apparently to punish political rivals.

25 November 2014. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pronounced AIR-doo-wan) of Turkey made news this month, when he told a meeting of visiting Islamic clergy from Latin America that he believed Muslim sailors discovered the New World in the 12th century, three centuries before Columbus. Erdogan’s disregard for historical scholarship — evidence backing his claim is sketchy and disputed, at best — appears to reflect a disregard for academic achievement in general, as seen in a recent law passed by Turkey’s parliament that will close inexpensive and successful volunteer tutoring programs for lower-income children.

The tutoring programs help lower-income middle school students at public schools prepare for entrance exams called Transition from Primary to Secondary Education (Turkish acronym TEOG) tests. Entrance exams to these schools in Turkey are often the key step for students to get on a fast academic achievement track. Moreover, getting into top academic high schools and qualifying for financial aid, are based solely on these exam scores. Thus, any help preparing for the TEOG test is universally welcomed, at least up to now.

The tutoring initiative is a key program of private high schools in Turkey sponsored by the Hizmet movement. Hizmet is a Turkish word for service, and calls for students to learn the value of service by helping lower-income middle school children prepare for TEOG exams. The experience, say the schools providing tutors, helps their students build character and develop a habit of giving back to their communities, all at little cost to children getting help.

As reported by the independent English-language newspaper Hurriyet Daily News, Turkey’s parliament at Erdogan’s urging, passed a bill last year to transform exam prep schools called dershanes into full-fledged schools, claiming they helped only “rich families in urban centers.” Most of the controversy is over prep schools for university exams, but the law applies as well to dershanes that help prepare for the TEOG exams. The government prefers the word “transformation” to describe its plan, and extended the timetable for the transformation to September 2015. The replacement schools, however, would likely charge tuition well beyond the means of the children being tutored by Hizmet high school students.

The real reason behind the order may lie in the Erdogan government’s continuing campaign to discredit any initiatives linked to Fethullah Gulen, a one-time ally of Erdogan, now a political opponent. Gulen, who moved to Pennsylvania for medical treatment in 1999 and where he continues to live today, is considered the inspiration for Hizmet. The movement itself is an embodiment of Sufi teaching, a form of Islam that practices religion as a private and civil faith, while encouraging tolerance, love, and acceptance of others, including non-Muslims.

Hizmet, say its followers, embodies Gulen’s teachings by encouraging outreach to Muslims and non-Muslims to build peace and understanding, with education as its cornerstone. In 1982, Gulen started the first Hizmet school in Turkey, a private secondary school. Hizmet schools now number some 2,000 in 160 countries that offer a secular education, with an emphasis on natural and social sciences, taught to international standards and with local teachers.

Gulen supported Erdogan’s first campaign for Prime Minister of Turkey in 2002, as Erdogan staked out a position as a modern, civilian, Islamic alternative to Turkey’s string of military-backed governments that often broke into civil strife, sometimes marked by violence between extremists. As Erdogan amassed political power since his election in 2002, however, he began showing more of an authoritarian streak, clamping down on opposition politicians and harassing journalists, which forced Gulen to break with his former ally.

In July 2014, Erdogan relinquished the Prime Minister post to run for and get elected as Turkey’s president, previously a ceremonial position, but now giving him a way to continue as Turkey’s ruler. (Vladimir Putin did the same thing in Russia.) As president, Erdogan and his associates soon turned up the heat on anything associated with Gulen and the Hizmet movement — including schools, universities, a humanitarian aid organization, and an export promotion group — even if it benefits Turkey as a whole.

High achievement and standards for service

I visited one of those schools in mid-November as part of group of Americans on a study tour sponsored by Rumi Forum, an organization in Washington, D.C. fostering intercultural understanding, also inspired by Gulen and Hizmet. Samanyolu High School in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, is a private all-male academy with 850 students, specializing in the natural and social sciences. Samanyolu’s vice-principal Necip Kara says the school enrolls only boys to meet the wishes of the students’ parents.

And parents get their money’s worth at Samanyolu. For visiting Americans, Samanyolu seems like an elite science and technology academy, similar to Bronx High School of Science in New York, combined with DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Maryland that turns out an endless string of college and pro basketball stars. Samanyolu ranked first in the number of medals won at this year’s Turkey national science olympiad. A poster in the lobby portrays the school’s high achievers showing a swagger not usually associated with science and math nerds in the U.S.

At the same time, Samanyolu produces some of Turkey’s best pro basketball players, including Enes Kanter, a 6-11 center in his third NBA season with the Utah Jazz. During our group’s visit to the school, class periods changed, and we were treated to a decibel level similar to a bowling alley, while 850 adolescent students moved through the halls, accompanied by several bouncing basketballs.

Our group of journalists, ex-diplomats, and educators talked with Tuluhan Bozkurt, a gangly 10th-grader who likes math and wants to be a computer engineer. Bozkurt, who lived 10 years in the U.S. and speaks fluent English, told the group he tutors 15 to 20 middle school children in Ankara during one-week tutoring classes the school calls reading camps.

Bozkurt and vice-principal Kara are disappointed by the law closing Samanyolu’s reading camps, but they are seeking alternatives if the government doesn’t change its mind by September 2015, when the order goes into effect. “The program builds moral character in students,” says Kara, adding “We’ll go door-to-door to help students reach their potential.”

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