Galatasaray high school remains Turkey’s window to the West

Galatasaray high school remains Turkey’s window to the West

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Galatasaray high school remains Turkey’s window to the West

Galatasaray High School remains one of Turkey’s best state schools due to the strong ownership among its alumni, a former graduate has said. While its graduates have made up one of the main pillars of state bureaucracy, it has also raised dissidents, argued writer İzzeddin Çalışlar. With a prominent law faculty in the Galatasaray University, the institution continues to cater to Turkey’s most important needs, according to the curator of an exhibition organized to mark the school’s 150th year.

Q: What does the establishment of Galatasaray High School mean in terms of Turkey’s history?

A: Set up at the end of the 15th century, it is the only institution (apart from religious places) that reached present day while continuing the same function, in the same location.

In the 1820’s, pressure from Europe increased in providing equal education rights to non-Muslim communities.

This pressure overlapped with a period of reforms. In 1838 medical education started in the school, and this was done in French, as during that period medical education was being done in French in the world. It was, in a way, the first transition to modern Western education.

In 1867, Abdülaziz, who became the first sultan to travel abroad, decided on setting up the first modern high school. This is a period when the Ottomans needed state officials to conduct diplomacy. Education to serve this purpose started in Sept. 1, 1868.

Its greatest difference, in comparison to Western missionary schools, was that it accepted students from all religious and ethnic groups. We can see it as the first initiative for secular education.

Q: So, in short, we can say it symbolizes Ottomans’ efforts to modernize.

A: Indeed. But in terms of its historical meaning let me add that the 40 years following 1868, all of Europe and the Balkans were set to change. And the persons to play important roles in these changes were the students in this school. This is a multinational school with a free environment unseen elsewhere in the empire. So, some of the students became actors of their national wars against the Ottomans, for instance.

The school also invited poor but high-performing pupils to study. And this led to the formation of Galatasaray sociology, which continued to develop during the Republican period. Students here do not represent a specific socio-economic class. There is an environment where privileges deriving from the family’s socioeconomic status do not disrupt equality. Currently, enrollment takes place via exams and the key issue is that it is a state school, thus free of charge. And it has become one of the most prominent quality schools in Turkey.

Q: How was that possible?

An alumni association was set up in 1908. The purpose was to secure the continuation of the school by creating an ownership among its alumni. That’s how to this day graduates never break their bonds with the school. Graduating from the school, you end up having a new identity. The fact that the school is administered by a graduate and most teachers are from the school contributes to the consolidation of this sui generis institutionalization.

Another turning point is the establishment of the Education Foundation in 1981.

Facing a major economic crisis, the graduates were mobilized and the school was restructured. This eventually led to the establishment of the primary school and university. What differentiates Galatasaray is that it enshrines a very strong identity; which has been institutionalized and that institutionalization secures the quality of education for free. I think Galatasaray is an institution that solved the education problem in Turkey.

Q: Can we say that Galatasaray graduates make up one of the pillars of the state bureaucracy?

A: We can. It is true especially for the Foreign Ministry. But one should not get the wrong conclusion that it is limited to civilian officials. Many pioneering names like Cemal Reşit Rey, who played a key role in starting the national cultural movement, are graduates of Galatasaray, too.

Q: But it did provide important human capital to the state. Maybe it is the deep state?

A: For a deep state you should have at least an army. But whenever Turkish-French relations take a nosedive and appear hitting the bottom, I am convinced that some graduates interfere and improve the relations.

But the school’s relations were never good with the state; except during (modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal) Atatürk’s period.

Q: Why were they problematic?

A: From outside it might look like a privileged place. And there is also a degree of jealousy.

Also it raises dissidents. Because if you provide a proper education and leave people free, wherever you are in the world the youth takes on a dissenting identity. If one day we will write the history of opposition in Turkey we will see that at least 50 percent of them are from Galatasaray. So both government officials and government opponents came from Galasataray.

Q: Do you think this dissenting identity continued to this day?

A: It did and it still continues. Don’t just think of it as a left-wing opposition. There are famous conservative dissidents among former graduates.

Q: You said Galatarasay provides a separate identity. Maybe this is creating an allergy against what is seen as an elite community.

A: The tradition that was set up 150 years ago continues. Students are not enrolled because they are already privileged. They don’t come because they are “somebody,” but when they graduate they become “somebody.”

I had a classmate who started a month late because as he was living in a remote village the news that he qualified got to him a month later.

Q: The poet Teyfik Fikret said Galatarasay is the country’s window to the West. Is it still so?

A: He said: “The West is a horizon open to the lust for thought and you are the East’s first window opening to this horizon.” It is the first, and today there are several other windows open to the West.

But let me stay that as someone from the community, I have never come across someone who is an admirer of the West or France. We were never raised like that. Actually it is Turkey’s window capable of criticizing the West. If you criticize the West properly equipped with information and rationality then the West listens. If you criticize the West with a loud voice without proper logic and data, it is not their problem if they don’t pay attention.

Galatasaray today is a brand. The Galatasaray sports team was set up by a group of students in 1905, and it was the first professional Turkish football team. It has a tradition of sports not just limited to football. Now it has a university. It is very difficult for a university in its first 25 years to have a law faculty that has acquired prominence among students. Galatasaray has done one of the most important investments to answer one of Turkey’s most important needs. If we are to continue to live integrated in this world, independent of who governs Turkey, he/she will do so through law.

Q: What do you think about French being the education language?

A: Bad luck! (laughter). It is of course unfortunate that French has downgraded so much. France has lost its influence over the global culture. I don’t know if it will ever gain it back. But currently the school’s students are winning competitions in English. French is a plus but does it help sufficiently? That’s debatable.


* Who is İzzeddin Çalışlar?

Born in 1964, İzzeddin Çalışlar graduated from Galatasaray High School in 1984. He then graduated from Istanbul University’s Faculty of Political Science. He is a board member of the Galatasaray Sport Club, as well as a member of Galatasaray Education Foundation.

He is the founding partner of Pan Ajans and has worked as a script writer and creative director between 1986 and 1996 for Pan Ajans, Her Mecra and other PR agencies. He also worked in the film industry as a scenarist. He is the author of several books and curator of several exhibitions. His editorials have appeared in a number of magazines concerning art, travel, fashion and humor.

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