Education, a battleground for evolution and revolution

Education, a battleground for evolution and revolution

Nazlan Ertan
Education in general and school curricula in particular have long been at the heart of political debate in Turkey. Turks in their 40s today have witnessed how elective religious classes have become compulsory in high schools after the 1980 military coup. In universities, political science students of the same epoch would also remember that their teachers have only made brief references to Marxism in classes on modern political thought. The Turkish education system has always been the “strong domain” of the state ideology and the Turkish bureaucracy kept a watchful eye and an iron fist of control over just what the young minds could be exposed to – whether it was international classics, “foreign ideologies” or “divisive tendencies” such as locally-bread left-wing literature. And anything that vaguely touched upon sex.

In February, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that culture and education have been the weakest link of the progress of the last 14 years, under the reign of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). This was no mere admission of failure – it was a clear sign that the iron-willed president intended to focus on those two areas in near future. The statement also came right after the Education Ministry launched a new curriculum for elementary, middle and high school students, and, in a rare move, set up an online platform between Jan. 13 and Feb. 10 to get feedback from the public on different classes in the draft curriculum.

The reactions to the draft curriculum mirror the traditional divides in Turkey. Its opponents consider it to be a mix of “more Islam and more Erdoğan” for the new generation.  Some Turkish parents have already been irked by recent changes, such as putting Ottoman language courses in high schools and elective Arabic courses in primary schools.

Similarly, the teacher’s union Eğitim-Sen, a body that has been critical of the government, calls the curriculum “nationalist” and “religious.” According to teachers in this organization, the new system, far from creating an analytical mindset among students and an ability to compare and appreciate different cultures, pushes the students toward Sunni Islam and an over-glorification of Turkish and Muslim figures.

To the supporters, it is high time that the Turkish curriculum taught the Turkish and Islamic contribution to civilization - and to pop culture. After all, if there is a reference to Leonardo da Vinci in the curriculum, shouldn’t there be one to Levni, the 17th century miniature painter? 

The biggest bones of contention are around evolution and revolution, which is, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s reform and revolution movement. At first, academics from top universities in Turkey have urged the Education Ministry this week to maintain the evolution theory in curriculum and make sure that the students were exposed to it early on. “The common route of living beings and the subject of evolution should be included in the curriculum from the very first stages of elementary school. The subjects of science and technology classes in elementary schools should be presented with a perspective that would make students connect it with the subjects they see in future years, and should provide them with an evolutionary point of view,” said the report they submitted to the ministry, as reported by Habertürk.

If academics are worried about evolution, the political circles are more worried about the place given to Atatürk and his second-in-command İsmet İnonu. “You cannot undermine their position in the curriculum,” lashed out main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, “This country has its own saviors. Why do you avoid your own history?”

Indeed, avoiding parts of history is difficult– history events have an unpleasant way of surfacing and re-surfacing. But as any student of history and politics know, it gets tweaked fairly often – from school curricula to parliaments.