A new threat looming Turkey's horizon: Brain drain

A new threat looming Turkey's horizon: Brain drain

Listening to our colleagues from Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa, we, a group of Turkish journalists and academics, felt we were not alone in our frustration over issues like the lack of public reaction to corruption allegations, politicians’ efforts to cover up corruption allegations (at times on ridiculous grounds), governments’ lust to bypass or erode laws, and state officials’ interference with press freedom.

However, looking at some of these countries’ security and economic challenges, we came back a bit more hopeful for our country’s situation - though we refrained from admitting this to our foreign colleagues.

But when we got on the plane home, whatever optimism we had gathered in Buenos Aires vanished in the air upon reading Turkish newspapers. After completing its annual meetings, the National Education Council had made several decisions that were designed to prepare Turkey’s youth for the challenges of the globalized world: One was introducing compulsory religion classes to the first three years of primary school. Another was increasing the period of compulsory religion classes from one to two hours per week in high schools.

You might think that the government sees religion courses as the panacea of all evil; as if the ruling elites are convinced that knowing Quranic verses by heart will make the Turkish youth more competitive among their peers from other countries.

But I am convinced that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rulers are actually well aware that what separates Turkey - (in their own words) as an "advanced democracy" - from other countries with majority Muslim populations is its secular education system, not the quality of its religious teaching. Most probably they also know that increasing the religious dimension will not solve the real root causes of the problems that the Turkish education system suffers from. But why bother with difficult solutions that will make the lives of state officials more difficult, since they will be forced to work and deliver on solving real problems? It is much easier to spark a debate on religion courses and dismiss all those challenging them as bunch of atheists, secularists, or enemies of Islam. Is there a better way to conceal inaction in the face of growing systemic problems?

Twist the words of the critics and reach the peak of populism - this seems to be the order of the day. Look at the discussion on introducing teaching the Ottoman language in high schools. Indeed, one of the negative consequences of the early Republican decision to abruptly pass from using the Ottoman language to Turkish was a cultural break with the Ottoman past; a more transitionary approach could have been endorsed. But introducing Ottoman teaching today is not going to lead to generations with a better reading of the Ottoman past. “I have been struggling for the past 60 years to learn and totally understand the Ottoman language,” my father, who is one of the few historians in Turkey with a knowledge of Ottoman, told me.

Then again, let alone the merits of introducing Ottoman courses in high schools, the real challenge in the Turkish education system is about strengthening more basic education. “My secretary does not know that a sentence starts with a capital letter,” a doctor friend of mine told me.

I used to criticize those who left Turkey for better lives abroad. I always thought it is much better to stay and struggle for your values. But I can now better understand how unnecessary polemics work like a downward spiral and take away your intellectual capital. I can understand why some people want to leave this country and talk about rocket science, while those staying behind are simply delighted to compete for mediocrity, even ignorance.

“Three friends of mine left Turkey for other countries,” an academic recently told me. I feel that a brain drain could be an important danger looming on the Turkish horizon.