Camel greeting

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Corruption in High Places

Turkey’s political, business and banking establishments are currently being shaken by accusations and investigations of high-level bribery and corruption. Senior police officers are being removed from their jobs; cabinet ministers whose sons were allegedly involved in the scandal are resigning; well-known construction magnates are being arrested and held in custody; stars of the music industry are tearfully protesting the innocence of their accused husbands; the coalition of Islamic interests that brought the ruling AK Party to power in 2002 seems to be falling apart . . . Where will it all end?

Such is the public indignation that an unlikely new hero seems to have emerged. For ten years, the bogeyman of secular Kemalist Turks has been a reclusive Islamic scholar, Fethullah Gülen. The shadowy Hizmet movement of which he is the putative leader was said to have extended its tentacles into every sector of Turkish society, state and private. Mere mention of his name was sufficient to evoke visions of the collapse of the secular Republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and a return to the bad old days of shariah religious law and government by the mullahs. This was believed by many to be all along the ‘hidden agenda’ of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party government.

Now it seems that Fethullah Hodja has become a major source of hope for the salvation of the republic. Those same tentacles that extended their reach into positions of influence in the police force and law courts are now, it is said, seeking to strangle the politicians who empowered them. The name that was formerly anathema to Kemalist republicans is suddenly being uttered as the potential nemesis of Mr Erdoğan’s government.

How corrupt is your lot?
These are difficult days for Turkey, coming not long after the ‘pro-democracy’ disturbances of last summer – and with the influx of more than a million refugees in flight from the mayhem of Syria’s civil war. After ten years of AK Party government, conditions are ripe, one might think, for an opposition political party to step into the breach and offer a credible alternative to an electorate desperate for new directions.

Sad to say, the two major opposition parties represented in Turkey’s parliament seem totally incapable of offering such an alternative. With the reins of power being virtually handed to them on a plate, the leaders of the CHP and MHP parties are not seen, even by many of their own supporters, as having what it takes to lead the country. In the absence of effective organised opposition, and in spite of the voices raised against it, the AK Party may yet find itself ruling the country for another term.

Well I’m not here to defend politicians, financial wheelers-and-dealers and unscrupulous property magnates. I echo the words of the President of the Republic, Abdullah Gül, who expressed his wish for justice to take its course and wrong-doers to be punished. Only recently the nephew of a former President was convicted of serious white-collar crimes – and that is as it should be. High social standing, far from conferring immunity from prosecution, should rather require higher standards of moral rectitude.

Sad to say, this is not always the case, and not only in Turkey. I’ve written elsewhere of Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, Wikileaks and the questionable transparency of business and government in the United States. I’ve mentioned, in passing, the dubious career of Britain’s Tony Blah and his be-knighted big brother. Even my own country New Zealand, far from the main arteries of international affairs, is by no means squeaky-clean.

High profile politician John Banks was recently obliged to resign his ministerial responsibilities in the face of a court case charging him with accepting large campaign donations and making fraudulent statements regarding his knowledge of who they were from. Apparently the anonymous donors were a certain Kim Dotcom, resident in New Zealand but wanted by the US government on charges relating to his Internet business Megaupload; and Skycity, the outfit that runs the county’s largest casino.

Interestingly, there seems to be a Skycity connection to the current Mayor of Auckland, Len Brown, who is also embroiled in a controversy over his fitness to manage New Zealand’s most populous city. Most of the debate seems to be centring on a two-year extra-marital affair the mayor engaged in with an fascinating lady by the name of Bevan Chuang. Admittedly the details have some titillation value in a country short on big local news – but they do seem to be attracting attention away from the question of Mr Brown’s perks, which apparently included the free or cheap use of VIP suites in some of the city’s top hotels, among them Skycity.

Legislation has been recently passed by New Zealand’s right wing National government allowing the Skycity casino to expand its gambling activities under the guise of a law innocuously labelled the International Convention Centre Act. Passage of the legislation was accompanied by considerable public debate over the desirability of large-scale state-sanctioned gambling amid accusations of money-laundering and negative social impact, including documented cases of extreme child neglect.

As I noted above, New Zealand is a small nation far from the fast lanes of world affairs, and these activities would be scarcely worth a mention if it weren’t for another news item I came across the other day. Apparently the OECD people have released a report assessing how its 30 member nations have been working to help curb to nearly $1 trillion of illicit cash that’s being smuggled out of developing countries each year.’ The article expressed some surprise that, according to the report, New Zealand rated highest of the thirty OECD countries for non-compliance with forty-nine different recommendations for fighting illegal flows of money. This, the writer pointed out, is somewhat in conflict with the country’s 1st equal ranking (with Denmark) on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Turkey, incidentally, ranked 53rd.

Well, it’s a dodgy world we live in, that’s for sure. The Turkish phrase Yalan Dünya suggests that you can’t rely on much in life apart from the certainty of death. Even taxes seem to strike with a measure of inequity. The bright spot in this web of lies, deceit and self-seeking corruption is that these people do sometimes get caught. One measure of a healthy democracy must surely be the existence of systems and processes for calling wrong-doers to account, regardless of who their father is, or how much money they donated to the President’s re-election campaign fund. It is not many years ago in Turkey that these kinds of people were conducting their dirty activities with impunity. Ordinary citizens tended to shrug and say, ‘This is Turkey’. I have hopes that the new Turkey is moving towards a higher placing on that TI index.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Santa Claus, Mevlana Rumi and the Spirit of Christmas

Of the numerous debates ongoing in Turkey these days, one of the less headline-grabbing, but nonetheless significant, is on the question of whether citizens should (or should not) celebrate New Year.

For me personally, it’s not a big deal. I have lived in the country long enough to give up missing the festive brouhaha of Yuletide. For the majority Muslim population, life goes on as normal without holidays and the associated partying. In addition, I have the antipodean’s difficulty of coming to terms with a mid-winter Christmas/New Year halfway through the academic year for schools and universities. It’s just not right!

Of course it’s that Christmas business that’s causing the debate in Turkey. They don’t celebrate it. Muslims may recognize Jesus as a major prophet, but not of sufficient importance to justify closing the country down. That’s a Christian thing. On the other hand, after the Republic came into being in 1923, one of the early modernizing reforms was switching from the Islamic lunar calendar to the Gregorian solar one. As a result, midnight, Tuesday 31 December will see 2013 CE click over to 2014, as it will for most of the global community.

I suspect, however, that’s not the big issue for Turks objecting to New Year celebrations. After all, pretty much the whole world (including a few avowedly Islamic states) explodes fireworks and indulges in extravagant private and public spending sprees at this time. More to the point is that, in Turkey, Father Christmas (Noel Baba in local parlance) seems to have become established as a popular icon, along with the decorative paraphernalia and retail sector feeding-frenzy associated with Christmas in historically Christian countries.

Norse god Odin
painted by Georg von Rosen
Ironically, displays of pyrotechnics and white-bearded old guys dressed in red and white have very little to do with the Christian celebration of Christmas either, which, as you may recall, is somehow related to the birthdate of that religion’s eponymous founder. There are even, and, in fact, there have long been, Christians of a more purist bent, who object to the extravagant feasting, drinking and commercial exploitation of a day supposedly devoted to the instigator of a religion dedicated to the pursuit of a more spiritual agenda.

Despite discussions about the origins of Santa Claus in northern Europe, and links to an earlier Christian worthy, St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (now Demre in modern Turkey), it seems that we owe most of our contemporary Christmas iconography to the United States of America, God bless them. Much of it originated with a 19th century academic by the name of Clement Clarke Moore, who penned (anonymously at the time) a poem entitled ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ (more likely known to you as ‘The Night Before Christmas’) in which he laid out the key principles of a merry old guy dressed in fur dismounting from a sleigh pulled by reindeer, coming down chimneys and filling children’s stockings with presents. The story was taken up and further embellished in 1902 by Lyman Frank Baum, creator of ‘The Wizard of Oz’, with the final touches being added by added by the Coca Cola Company via an advertising campaign in the 1930s.

So there we have it. Not much connection to a poor Jewish woman giving birth to her first child amongst the animals in a stable two thousand years ago, so laying the foundation of a belief system that would eventually encompass one third of the world’s population. Then there’s the problem of the date, even with pretty much universal use of the solar calendar. For a start, the actual date of Jesus’s birthday is unknown. 6 January was initially preferred by the Eastern Orthodox Church, who later decided to go along with 25 December, the date selected by Roman Catholics in the 4th century. The breakaway Armenians, however, preferred to stick with 6 January. The matter was further complicated when Pope Gregory XIII decreed a revision of the calendar in 1582 resulting in a loss of ten days. However, Christians in a number of counties, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Serbia, the Republic of Macedonia, and the Republic of Moldova, while embracing 25 December, steadfastly refuse to accept the disappearance of those ten days, and continue to use the older Julian calendar, celebrating Christmas on what, in the Gregorian system, is January 7.

Confused? Well don’t think those are the only problems. According to Wikipedia, ‘Yule, or Yuletide, is a religious festival observed by the historical Germanic peoples, later being absorbed into and equated with the Christian festival of Christmas.’ This pagan mid-winter event apparently went on for twelve days with much feasting, drinking and sacrifice, and was associated with a rather fascinating supernatural phenomenon known as the Wild Hunt, and with the god Odin, or Woden, after whom Wednesday was named (coincidentally Christmas day this year, so you may want to mention him in your prayers).

So what’s it really all about? Probably you’d have to say, people generally (with the possible exception of those religious puritans) like to find reasons for partying, and Christmas/New Year provides an excellent pretext. Mainstream churches may lament declining congregations making it increasingly difficult to fund the kind of monumental buildings and associated large staff numbers they once took for granted – but if we are honest we will admit that institutionalised Christianity really only latched on to a much older event that was already being celebrated. People were getting together with family and friends, feasting and giving gifts to brighten the depths of winter and look forward with optimism to the beginning of a new year long before bishops, Popes and Holy Roman emperors decreed religious uniformity.

Of course, it is impossible.  "There’s nowt so queer as folk" goes the old saying (from before ‘queer’ took on its current meaning). You can scare people into superficial conformity with threats of torture and incineration, or social ostracism, but as soon as you release the pressure they will begin to reassert their individuality. The internal inconsistencies and hypocrisy of organized state religion are evident from the beginning, as shown by constant splintering and breakaway sects. So, on close inspection, the wailing and hand-wringing over Christmas losing its true meaning sound a little hollow.

Sad to say, if you google ‘Why I hate Christmas’ you will come up with approximately 372 million results – twenty-five percent more than the entire population of the United States! Time constraints at this busy time of the year prevented me from visiting all of them, but one site in particular, Eight Reasons I Hate Christmas, made some points that appealed to me:
  • All the extra waste it produces. All that gift-wrapping ending up at landfills.
  • The awful music – What do you feel like doing when you hear another saccharin rendition of  ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’?
  • Frenzied shopping and burgeoning consumer debt.
  • Negative psychological effects, including increased suicide rate.
  • Tacky Christmas decorations made by desperately poor people in Asian sweatshops. 

Scarier to me, however, than the gross commercial exploitation is the evidence I see that state-sponsored, institutionalized religion is fighting back. And it’s not just the Muslims. I began this post with the observation that some authority figures in Turkey are arguing against the celebration of New Year – we assume for religious reasons. But what are we to make of Time Magazine’s choosing the Roman Catholic Pope as its Person of the Year? Whatever the personal qualities of Jorge Mario Bergoglio (aka Pope Francis I), the fact remains that he is head of a monolithic, multi-zillion dollar institution with a one-and-a-half millennia history of religious intolerance, promoting violence at local and international levels, sponsoring schools and orphanages sanctioning abuse of vulnerable boys and girls, and expounding a doctrine that supports a hierarchical wealth-based status quo condemning millions to lives of poverty and misery. Am I exaggerating? It seems to me that, even if we ignore its past sins, any church accepting New Left plutocrat Tony Blah into its community of faith without administering a hefty dose of penance raises serious doubts about its spiritual credibility.

So party on, dude, at Christmas time, say I! And if you are truly looking for spiritual succour in a world drowning beneath a flood of materialism, you may want to look in less-frequented corners. Fortunately, there are sources to be found. One week before (the Gregorian) Christmas Day, Tuesday 17 December marked the ‘Wedding Night’ of Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, better known in the Western world simply as Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic. Şeb-i Arus (Persian for ‘Wedding Night’) is celebrated throughout the Muslim world, but especially in Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey. His tomb, in the modern Turkish city of Konya, is a place of pilgrimage for people of diverse cultures and religious backgrounds who appreciate his non-denominational message of universal love.

Tomb of Mevlana Rumi, Konya, Turkey
Those who do make the trip to Konya will find queues of respectful visitors waiting to enter a green-tiled mausoleum bearing the inscription, ‘When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men.’ Interestingly, the revered founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is reported to have said something similar: ‘To see me does not necessarily mean to see my face. To understand my thoughts is to have seen me.’ In spite of this, it is difficult to go anywhere in Turkey without seeing images of that gentleman’s face. As human beings we are constantly subjected to the tension between the transformative power of ideas and the siren allure of material wealth. Atatürk himself, sometimes accused of being an enemy of religion, made it clear that what he was opposed to was the perversion of religion by seekers of temporal power. 
According to Atatürk, Mevlana was 'a mighty reformer, who had adapted Islam to the Turkish soul.'

17 December is actually the date of Mevlana Rumi’s death – well, truth to tell it is the nearest Gregorian equivalent given that he died within the borders of the Muslim Seljuk Empire. For Rumi, his death was not an occasion of sadness since it brought about his union with God (hence ‘Wedding’). As a result, there was no need for reincarnation or resurrection. The physical body was the cage that trapped humanity in the world of material unhappiness. To die was to escape to a better, if incomprehensible, other.

At the same time, the Sufi path is not a rejection of physical realities. ‘[Rumi’s] poetry and doctrine advocate unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness and charity, and awareness through love’ as the means to achieve personal fulfilment and build a better world on earth. He summarised his practical philosophy of life in seven pieces of advice, the last line of which is an oft-quoted admonishment against hypocrisy:

Cömertlik ve yardım etmede akarsu gibi ol.
Şefkat ve merhamette güneş gibi ol.
Başkalarının kusurunu örtmede gece gibi ol.
Hiddet ve asabiyette ölü gibi ol.
Tevazu ve alçak gönüllülükte toprak gibi ol.
Hoşgörülükte deniz gibi ol.
Ya olduğun gibi görün, ya göründüğün gibi ol.

In generosity and helping others be like a river.
In compassion and grace be like the sun.
In concealing other’s faults be like the night.
In anger and irritability be like death.
In modesty and humility be like the earth
In tolerance be like the sea.
Either show yourself as you are, or be as you seem.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Denying Armenian 'genocide' is no crime: European court

I'm not going to comment on this item published on Tuesday in the US edition of I'm merely drawing it to your attention in case you missed it:

(Reuters) - Denying that mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey in 1915 were genocide is not a criminal offence, the European Court of Justice ruled on Tuesday in a case involving Switzerland. The court, which upholds the 47-nation European Convention on Human Rights, said a Swiss law against genocide denial violated the principle of freedom of expression.

Armenian Genocide memorial
in Lyons, France
The ruling has implications for other European states such as France which have tried to criminalize the refusal to apply the term "genocide" to the massacres of Armenians during the breakup of the Ottoman empire. A Swiss court had fined the leader of the leftist Turkish Workers' Party, Dogu Perincek, for having branded talk of an Armenian genocide "an international lie" during a 2007 lecture tour in Switzerland.

Turkey accepts that many Armenians died in partisan fighting beginning in 1915 but denies that up to 1.5 million were killed and that it constituted an act of genocide - a term used by many Western historians and foreign parliaments.

The court drew a distinction between the Armenian case and appeals it has rejected against convictions for denying the Nazi German Holocaust against the Jews during World War Two. Read more . . .

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Let’s learn Turkish – Why not?

Further to an earlier discussion about whether learning another language confers a different personality – Here’s an interesting item from the website of the Turkish Cultural Foundation about a middle school in the USA that has started offering its students a course in the Turkish language. According to one student, ‘the course shifted our perspectives about Turkey and its role in the world.’

TCF Supports Turkish Language Education in the U.S.
Billings Middle School

Middle school students from Seattle, USA
visit Aphrodisias, Turkey
In 2012, TCF awarded a grant to Billings Middle School in Seattle, WA to support a pilot year of teaching Turkish as a foreign language. The project was spearheaded by Rebecca Timson, Dean of Faculty of the school and an alumnus (2007) of the TCF Teacher Study Tours to Turkey.

After a successful completion of the pilot year in which sixteen 8th grade students took the class or participated in conversation classes, the school decided to contiue offering Turkish in the 2013-14 academic year, in addition to Spanish. Currently, fourteen students are enrolled in the year-long class and more are anticipated to join for the conversational class next semester. Read more . . .

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Albania – A European Jewel

First of all, an apology to my Albanian friends – I missed your Independence Day! Yes, I know it was 28 November, and I had the date at the back of my mind, but somehow it slipped past. Well, belatedly, let me congratulate you and wish your beautiful country success and prosperity in the future.

But not so much prosperity that it loses its special character. What impressed me most on my brief visit to the country in 2010 was the spectacular natural beauty, Like New Zealand, Albania’s location a little off the main lines of tourism and modernisation gives it an opportunity to follow a slightly different path – where economic development goes hand in hand with a recognition of the need to protect the natural environment.

I want to share an article I came across recently where the writer is extolling the beauties of that  nature:

Cable car from Tirana to Mt Dajti
“Traveling through Albania is an exercise in reliving the past. Gone are the hordes of English-speaking tour guides and long lines for Lonely Planet-rated monuments. In their place are friendly but confused Albanians who hope visitors speak a little Italian, and unmarked hiking trails.

“The capital's geographical and cultural center is Skanderbeg Square. It's a handy place to orient yourself, as most of the city's sights are nearby. The square itself is ringed with municipal and government buildings. In the middle of the square stands a large statue of national hero George Skanderbeg. An Albanian nobleman trained and commissioned by the Ottoman Empire, he facilitated Albanian independence and remains a key figure for the country's nationalist movement.

“The best sight in Tirana, in fact, lies outside the city. Mount Dajti National Park is an easy cable car ride away. Dajti Expres operates the cars throughout the day and a round-trip ticket costs 700 lek. The escape from the city begins as soon as we board the cable car. Aside from the welcome blast of fresh air, the views of Tirana and the approaching mountain range are stunning. Climbing up the side of the mountain, it is surprising to see very little development. The mountain has a smattering of hotels and restaurants, but the majority of Dajti's surface remains clear of the development that marks almost all of İstanbul. It's unusual to see something so close to a major city remain so untouched. Read more . . .

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Educating the New Generation in Turkey

The OECD has just issued a new report on the state of education within member countries, and it seems Turkey has been awarded a failing grade (you can check your own country’s performance here). Well, of course those people have access to a lot more information than I do, so I wouldn’t dream of entering into a debate with them. What I can say is, based on empirical data gathered from personal experience in classrooms in England and New Zealand, I prefer teaching in Turkey. In fifteen years I have never had a student here eyeball me and call me a fxxking wxxker, or a racist cxxt; and in a similar number of years in New Zealand, I never had so many students tell me they love me – in fact I would struggle to remember one L

A chance meeting with students in the old city
Having said that, I would not be understood as suggesting that education in Turkey is without fault. The big topic of discussion in the media here at present is a local phenomenon known as the dershane. It’s not something I’d had any experience of before coming to this country, but according to Wikipedia, they are a fairly common feature of education in many parts of the world, known variously as Cram Schools or Coaching Colleges. The reason for the fuss in Turkey is that the government has announced its intention to ban them, and this is seen as another as yet another nail in the coffin-lid for democracy and the secular way of life.

I’ve had a few years to examine the education business in Turkey, and I have to say, sometimes the plight of young people here brings a tear to my eye. Part of the problem, of course, is that town-planners (and I use the term loosely) have managed to squeeze three times the population of Sydney into an approximately similar area of land. As a result, green areas are in short supply, the expected antipodean norm of grassy football fields and swimming pools in state primary schools is unimaginable, and most kids hone their soccer skills on the asphalt of the street outside or, if they’re lucky, the concrete car park of their apartment building.

Nevertheless, you can’t blame just the town-planners. The population of Turkey was around sixteen million in 1935. By 2012 it had grown to an estimated 76 million – a five-fold increase. The growth rate of Istanbul is even more spectacular; passing the two million mark in 1970, it now stands around fourteen million. In the twenty years from 1980 to 2000 numbers mushroomed from three to eleven million. When I first came to the city in 1995, city fathers were unable to guarantee uninterrupted domestic water and electricity supplies. At least they seem to have those problems sorted out. The availability and standard of health care is also vastly improved. Education will be next on the agenda, inshallah![1] as Muslims are fond of saying.

Whenever that happens, in spite of the foregoing mitigating circumstances, it won’t be too soon. Not so long ago I worked in a private high school in Istanbul run by one of the city’s better known educational foundations. The school was quite well equipped in terms of science and computer laboratories, sports facilities and purpose-built rooms for fine arts and music. Sadly our students had little time or encouragement to benefit from any of these. The school day was divided into nine 45-minute periods, almost all of which were devoted to academic study. Well, by academic study I mean predominantly rote-learning sessions conducted by a teacher with textbook and board marker in hand. The infrequent PE classes seemed to consist largely of the lads being thrown a football and sent off to the pitch to let off some steam. When the school day ended at 4.30pm there was a mass exodus out the school gate, and by 4.45 the campus was pretty much deserted.

It was a far cry from even my own high school days, never mind more recent years when I returned to my alma mater as a teacher. In one of New Zealand’s most prestigious secondary schools, seven periods a day were considered sufficient to cover the curriculum. At 3.15 began what many thought of as the more important part of school life: teams and individuals practised every conceivable sport; there were music lessons, debating teams and dramatic productions. Students developed their creativity in fine arts and technical workshops. There wasn’t one school basketball or football team – there were twenty rugby teams, ten soccer teams, seven hockey teams, as well as tennis, table tennis, weightlifting, cycling, all competing in competitions against other schools.

It was a state school, but parents expected far more than instruction in the three Rs. In such a school, being a teacher of English, mathematics or science was not enough – you were expected to involve yourself in one or more extracurricular activities. In fact, you could not consider yourself a successful member of the teaching staff until your team had won a citywide competition.

It’s not that Turkish people are physical wimps or culturally deficient. Football fans show many of the characteristics of religious mania. A group of Turks will sing and/or dance on the slightest provocation. Middle class parents are as likely as any to haul their project juveniles off to sports coaching, music lessons or ballet classes. The problem seems to be that for the vast majority, it all comes to an end when they hit high school. Then begins the serious, nay, all-enveloping process of preparation for the university entrance examination.

There are two times in a Turkish student’s school life when he/she is subjected to an external public examination. It’s hard to give specifics because the format and organisation seem to change with bewildering frequency – but the essence of it is that, at the end of the eighth year of primary schooling, kids sit a multi-choice exam in a range of subjects and the results determine where they will continue their education at secondary level. High schools, private and state, are ranked according to a strict hierarchy, and have the right to choose students according to the points they gain in that exam. A similar sifting process takes place at the end of four years of high school study. Another multi-choice exam determines entry into the more desirable (and free) state universities, or the plethora of fee-paying private institutions offering greater or less value for money.

It shocked me when I first learnt that students graduating from a high school in Turkey had very little choice about what course they would take if they made it to a university. Students with any claim to academic capability tend to be channelled into mathematics and science-weighted courses at school. High points in the university exam will gain a student admission to one of the top universities in medicine or engineering. Points at the lower end will see the student relegated to studying international relations or translation studies at one of the dodgier private colleges. Individual preference or inclination has little or nothing to do with which faculty or university you find yourself in.

As a result, it’s pretty obvious that gaining a points advantage in those two exams to enter a high school and/or a university has become the dominant focus of the entire education system in Turkey. One or two points can, in fact, make a major difference, so parents exert enormous pressure on their offspring to achieve a high level of success, especially when the better schools and colleges tend to be non-fee-charging state institutions. Private primary and high schools, out of their need to attract students, place their emphasis on results gained in the examinations, a kind of self-imposed league-table system, to the neglect of arts and culture or sporting activities.

Which brings us to the dershane system. In a self-perpetuating cycle of parental and student peer pressure, the need to gain that all-important points advantage over your neighbour has led to the growth of a parallel tier in education where students in primary and secondary schools attend private cram schools or coaching colleges on weekdays after day school finishes, and at weekends. A hypothetical student at my former place of employment might add another ten hours a week to the forty-five required by his/her day school (not counting homework).

A major result of all this academic pressure, as we might expect, is, apart from marginally improved points in the public exam, a problem of student burnout. It is probably true that the most capable students will get to the best schools no matter what system operates. It is also true that, for the majority of adolescents, the human brain has a finite capacity to absorb knowledge, and this is probably reached well before the fifty-fifth hour of weekly study. What we find is that, ironically, many students tend to take their weekend and after-hours programme at the dershane more seriously than their day school programme, and high schools become a place for essential socialising and relaxation.

In short, then, is the government right in suggesting the abolition of the cram schools/dershanes? Probably the answer depends on whether you are taking a long-term or a short-term view. Undoubtedly the dershane system is a blight on the educational landscape of Turkey and is having a negative effect on the nation’s youth. On the other hand, it is equally certain that dershanes are a symptom of an educational system in crisis, and an alternative preferable to banning them is to address the underlying problems.

A university English language class in Turkey
The revered founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is frequently referred to as the First Teacher of his new nation. After winning military victory, he set his mind to building a modern state, and saw education as the way to achieve this. Replacing the Ottoman Arabic alphabet with a Latin-based one was aimed at fostering universal literacy. Atatürk emphasised the importance of the teaching profession and the need for governments to invest in education for the future. At the same time, he concurred with the words of Juvenal – Turkish kids may not have heard of the Roman poet, but all know that Atatürk stressed the need for a healthy body in developing a sound mind. Most present day schools in Turkey pay lip service to the principles of Kemalism while ignoring the true spirit of the great man’s ideas.

Still, I am hopeful. The United States and the United Kingdom may have some of the world’s top universities, but honest citizens of those countries admit that all is not well at grass-roots educational level. Those OECD people see the world through spectacles coloured by their own cultural assumptions. Of the thirty-four ‘developed’ countries in their club, Turkey is awarded the highest Failed State Index, sneaks in ahead of four countries in terms of Perception of Corruption, ranks below even the USA on the Global Peace Index despite never having invaded anyone, gets the worst possible score from ‘Reporters without Borders’ on Freedom of the Press, and another bottom-of-the-class grade for Democracy.

Some of these problems are undoubtedly attributable to the fact that Turkey has the second lowest per capita GDP (slightly ahead of Mexico) of those thirty-four. On the plus side, it has one of the fastest developing economies in the world with a healthy diversity of productive activity. The Education Report quoted above acknowledges that the literacy rate and school attendance are increasing more rapidly than in comparable countries. Again, my personal experience of dealing with state bureaucracy suggests that their services are provided with far greater efficiency and less corruption than was once the case. I have discussed the questionable credentials of those borderless reporters elsewhere; and the Wall St protests of recent memory could be understood to indicate that democracy, as Leonard Cohen sang, is still in the process of coming to the USA. One of Atatürk’s most-quoted lines on education goes (freely translated): ‘Teachers, the new generation is your life’s work!’ A healthy education system will empower teachers to create a positive new future.

[1] God willing!