Turkish youth suffering from knowledge deficit: Sociologist

Turkish youth suffering from knowledge deficit: Sociologist

ISTANBUL-Hürriyet Daily News
Turkish youth suffering from knowledge deficit: Sociologist

Turkish people, including the young, prefer to watch TV than sit alone with a book, says Nilüfer Narlı (R), speaking at the campus coffeshop of Bahçeşehir University, as some students are busy playing backgammon. Daily News Photo, Emrah Gürel

The findings of a recent poll on Turkish youth have begun to ring alarm bills amid an acrimonious societal debate over a controversial education bill that will affect the learning of future generations.

“The poll tells us that Turkish young people are still very inward-looking,” a sociologist said of the poll conducted by SETA, according to which only 10 percent of Turkey’s youth have ever been abroad, and only 41 percent speak a second language.

The idea of “inward-looking” youth does not coincide with Turkey’s vision of itself as a global player, according to Professor Nilüfer Narlı of Bahçeşehir University. “Turkish youth lack knowledge,” she told the Daily News in a recent interview.

What do the poll’s findings tell us?

The most striking finding is that only 10 percent of those polled have been abroad. This shows that Turkish youth are still very inward-looking. A person may not have been abroad, but can speak a foreign language, can communicate with those in other countries via social media, can read the foreign press and become familiar with foreign culture. But the problem there is that only 41 percent say they speak a second language, and this figure may in fact be lower, since in certain parts of Turkey, Kurdish or Arabic [which are local languages] could be cited as a second language. In research about the use of the Internet, we found out that many people cannot use the Internet because they cannot read English. There are more people in Egypt who have been to America than there are in Turkey.
Turkey has a young population and this is an asset. But for it to be a real asset, the youth need to be equipped with the information, capabilities and vision required by the dynamics of the global economy.

We need a young population that can contribute to knowledge-based production, but our young people are not equipped for knowledge-based production.

Looking at macroeconomic trends, Turkey is in a phase of agricultural and industrial revolution, while at the same time moving toward becoming an information-based society. That brings with it many contradictions.

What you say agrees with the poll’s findings, according to which one-fifth of respondents said they don’t use the Internet. Your observation that Turkish youth are “inward-looking” does not, on the other hand, agree with Turkey’s vision of itself as becoming a regional power as well as a global actor.

It does not. As a regional power, Turkey’s soft power is increasing. It is using this soft power for instance through television series (that are broadcast abroad). In order to use its soft power in a more effective way, it needs young people to be involved, but the poll’s findings about Internet usage are really worrying. Let me add that there is also a gender gap issue: Girls cannot go to Internet cafes everywhere in Turkey, and even at home, girls can use the computer and the Internet only after the boys do. Schools need to provide computer and Internet services. There has been some progress made on that front, but much more needs to be done.

Watching TV heads the list of activities Turkish youth pursue in their spare time, and TV series top the list, with “Kurtlar Vadisi” (Valley of the Wolves) being the most-watched series. What does this tell us?

“Kurtlar Vadisi” harbors ultranationalist messages and conspiracy theories. If Turkish youth view the world through the lens of “Kurtlar Vadisi,” and if they do not know a foreign language so they can read different sources, then their assessments about Turkey and the world will be very local, as well as superficial, because they are based on distorted input. I came across youngsters who would tell me, “Oh, this subject was covered on ‘Kurtlar Vadisi.’” Based on that TV series, on fiction, a student develops an opinion of Turkey’s relationship with the United States, Israel or the European Union, when he or she should form an opinion based on reading newspapers or academic articles.

What are some other consequences of having an “inward-looking” young population?

Global competition requires global vision, but Turkish youth are not even in command of the local culture. They should read history and Turkish authors. But Turkish young people do not have a habit of reading. We can only prepare to compete globally when we combine the richness of local culture with universal knowledge.

It must have internal implications as well.

In societies that are inward-looking, it is easier to manipulate people. They lack the comparative outlook when they face a social or political issue. Radical trends find fertile ground in these societies. In addition, they become ethnocentric. The tendency toward xenophobia becomes stronger, and the society becomes less tolerant of differences.

The ratio of youth participating in sports is low as well.

But do places exist where young people can play sports? Especially for those from lower socioeconomic groups, there is no means to support hobbies. All they can do is stay at home and watch TV. When girls are unemployed, they especially stay at home. Interestingly, men that go to coffee shops watch TV, and they watch series or women’s programs. I came across that phenomenon many times.

Is there a huge gap between different socioeconomic groups?

In certain ways there are huge gaps. Obviously those coming from higher-income families have more means to enjoy a better education and learn foreign languages. But the common ground is watching TV series. In Turkey in general, people don’t want to be alone with a book, they just want to watch TV series.

It seems as if youngsters from higher-income levels are devoid of ambitions and ideals.

We saw very bright kids, but also kids who, despite all the means they have at their disposal, restrict their worlds to their iPhones. I came across a student whose family supported her in going to Paris through an EU student exchange program. I asked her enthusiastically which museums she visited, and which French movies she saw. “I did not have much time. At night I was usually busy catching up with Turkish TV series on the Internet,” she said.

In the past only a very small minority had the chance to go abroad. Young people are not making use of all the opportunities they are being provided with. But this is an international phenomenon. Youth are in a period of cultural stagnation.

Recently a student of political science did not know the correct answer when she was asked on a TV quiz show what else the Turkish Grand National Assembly is called. She chose “Yüce Divan” (Supreme Council) rather than “Parliament,” from among the options. Turkish youth appear to be very ignorant.

Their knowledge of general culture is very low. Some don’t know anything about very essential issues. Some have never learned about some prominent Turkish thinkers. I was told that a student who was interning at a newspaper was told to go to the archives and find information on a Turkish thinker who had passed away – that is, that she should find a book on the person. The student went asking for the person himself, ignorant of the fact that he was dead. In Turkey people receive an average of 6.5 years of schooling. Ours cannot become an information society at that rate.


Turkish youth underwent an apoliticization after the 1980 military coup, but the youth have become more politicized since the mid-2000s, sociologist Nilüfer Narlı said.

“The youth are back on the street. They are organizing opinion groups among themselves,” she said.

In contrast to the clear ideological lines between the right and left that characterized pre-1980 youth politics, however, Narlı said the present-day divisions were not so sharp.

“In the research that I conducted with Professor Selçuk Şirin, released in 2011, we observed the appearance of hybrid identities and ideologies. One student may say, ‘I am an Islamic person, but I vote for the Republican People’s Party [CHP],’ while another one may say, ‘I am a Kemalist but I am also Muslim.’ We observed the bridging of different identities and values, which is an important and healthy process for reconciling conflicting values,” Narlı said.

Who is Nilüfer Narlı?


Nilüfer Narlı chairs the Department of Sociology and is a professor of political sociology at Bahçeşehir University.

Narlı’s research and teaching interests include Islamist movements, political participation among Muslim women, irregular patterns of migration in the Balkans, the European Union’s harmonization reforms, the military and good governance in Turkey. She has undertaken several research projects on issues including the impact of computer teaching and learning, and a project called “Governance and the Military: Perspectives for Change in Turkey,” for the Centre for European Security Studies.

She served as a conflict resolution trainer at seminars held by the Southeast Europe Leadership Initiatives for Women in the Balkans in 2000 and 2001. She was a member of the Turkish delegation to the 50th and 51st Sessions of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women in 2009 and 2010.

She is the author of several publications, including the 1991 book “Unveiling the Fundamentalist Woman: A Case Study of Malay Undergraduates.”