Eras in Education – Instant Modernization: Ataturk’s Grand Vision for Turkey

Eras in Education – Instant Modernization: Ataturk’s Grand Vision for Turkey

It happens in one of any number of classes: Math, French, English, or Art. A student pipes up: “Aww, when am I ever gonna use this?” Then a debate spins into galactic proportions, as students and their teacher discuss the relative merits of the material being taught.

Of course, perceptions are not the same as reality and many of us now admit that learning to draw our running shoes, or conjugate French verbs, in fact taught us to think in ways that were applicable in the real world. We were learning how to learn, learning to express ourselves using the mode of the dominant society. Although the material itself may be obscure, the method is largely the same be it applied to binomial nomenclature or double-entry accounting. For students in Turkey during the 1920s the education system was revamped so rapidly that students and parents alike must have been utterly bewildered. Leading the charge toward modernization was a statesman named Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. His belief in secular education revolutionized Turkish schooling.

As with many leaders throughout history, Atatürk rose to prominence by way of the military. During WWI, when Turkey led the Islamic Ottoman Empire, part of the German-led Central Powers, he spearheaded a successful defence of the waterways (called the Dardanelles) between Turkey and Greece. The Allies wanted to open up this maritime channel for trade so they could access Russian grain.

As the war ended and the Ottoman Empire dissolved, it became clear that Allied countries wanted to control Turkey. Atatürk concluded that his country ?must give up its ideas of empire and confrontation with Russia, and become a national state in Asia Minor, instead of trying to be a regional empire.? To this end he opposed the Islamic caliphate that tied Turkey to the rest of the Muslim world. For Atatürk, Western-style democracy was the way forward rather than traditional Islamic theocracy.

Taking advantage of his popularity as a wartime hero, Atatürk set out to Westernize the education system of his country. He stated that “We must liberate our concepts of justice, our laws and our legal institutions from the bonds which, even though they are incompatible with the needs of our century, still hold a tight grip on us.” Legal and civil laws were also remade in the image of European models; Koranic law was no longer the basis of Turkish justice.

Instead of being run by mosques, schools were to be run by the state. The Turkish written language was remade using a Westernized alphabet and the Koran was translated into Turkish, a move that strict Islamists considered to be beyond reproach. This turn toward the more developed Western European way of learning would allow students to see the world in a broader way and, Atatürk hoped, strengthen Turkish society as a whole.

He summarized his position with the words “today, our most important and most productive task is the national education [unification and modernization] affairs . . . The liberation of a nation is only achieved through this way.” Atatürk hoped to “win a victory in the field of education” by raising the literacy rate from 10 per cent so that Turkey would be comparable to Europe. To a great extent his reforms succeeded: today 87 per cent of Turks can read and write, with that number pegged at 94 per cent for men.

Women in particular benefited from Atatürk’s education reforms. Under the Islamist caliphate, girls had received little or no instruction in reading and writing, instead being prepared for domestic labour. Atatürk famously declared that “everything we see on Earth is the product of women,” and stated that “there was no logical explanation for the political disenfranchisement of women. Any hesitation and negative mentality on this subject is nothing more than a fading social phenomenon of the past.” These were incredibly strong words for a leader in a culture like Turkey’s during the first part of the 20th century. Unlike Europe, which had experienced a slow yet steady liberalization since the Age of Enlightenment during the 1700s, the Islamic world had remained tradition-bound and unflinchingly opposed to gender equality.

It is interesting to note that as an individual, Atatürk may have held a personal interest in his reforms. After all, people rarely support positions they will not themselves benefit from, even if only in conscience. He was a heavy drinker, which Muslims oppose, and had only a short-lived marriage. In fact, Atatürk may have been gay. Recently, a Belgium school textbook promoting tolerance of sexualities listed him as one of many great leaders of history who were gay or bisexual. The resulting uproar in Turkey led to the website YouTube being banned and was reminiscent of a similar controversy in neighbouring Greece when a movie portrayed the Greek hero Alexander the Great as a homosexual.

From a sociological perspective, the educational reforms bring to mind the works of a theorist named Immanuel Wallerstein. Wallerstein’s theory of “World Systems” outlines how, unlike in Classical times when empires such as that of the Romans were held together by military might, the modern world is one in which economic systems are the basis of power.

Wallerstein called this a “world empire” system. As part of an ever-expanding capitalist order (albeit tempered by the then just-emerging Soviet Union) Atatürk’s Turkey was what Wallerstein called a “periphery” country, characterized by raw materials to be shipped to more developed industrial countries in Western Europe and North America.

In order to become more closely linked to these “core” countries, and thus to make more money for the Turkish business class (bourgeoisie), Atatürk knew that he had to have a citizenry educated in the ways of the core nations. To become closely linked with the dominant “world economy” people needed education that would allow them to fill more valued positions in the division of labour.

Wallerstein’s theories are Marxian and based on the idea that all progress brings with it conflict. In the case of core versus periphery nations, conflict occurs because “the key to capitalism lies in a core dominated by a free labor market for skilled workers and a coercive labor market for less skilled workers in peripheral areas.” Being a proud nationalist, Atatürk wished for his people to occupy the skilled jobs and be part of a skilled workforce; these skills required modern education.

Westernized workers also required a sense of Western fashion and style and so it was that in one of his defining moments, Atatürk donned a panama hat while visiting a particularly conservative village. This was to “demonstrate that the hat was the headgear of civilized nations.” Atatürk meant business; in 1934 a law called “The Law Relating to Prohibited Garments” was passed, making the Western-style business suit mandatory.

Today Turkey is a respected and important part of the world economy. For instance, its cherry exports were so bountiful this year that orchardists in the BC interior noticed an effect on global prices. This is an inevitable outcome of a country becoming a vital part of the “world economy” and is just as Wallerstein’s theory predicts.

Of course, students in 1920s classrooms would have had a hard time believing that they were ever going to need all the strange, seemingly irrelevant material they were suddenly being taught.