Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, by using the expression “We will raise a religious generation” during a speech he delivered in Parliament, instantly changed Turkey’s agenda.
Heated debates broke out between those for and against Erdoğan’s speech. While the conservatives spoke and wrote querulously of the insufficiency of religious education in Turkey and the problems it generated, the opponents of his speech argued that the understanding of raising a religious generation was an assertion that takes Turkey down the wrong path. Though the liberals approached the matter with suspicion, they said not too much should be read into Erdoğan’s speech and, just as with every freedom, religious freedom should also be defended. While discussions continued both on an intellectual level and in the media the prime minister clarified what he meant. He said his expression of rearing religious youth had been misunderstood and that his government had no intention whatsoever of making everyone religious, even though he himself was in favor of religious youth anyhow.
As a backdrop to all these discussions, a deputy from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) submitted a bill to Parliament to increase the period of compulsory education to 12 years and split the existing uninterrupted compulsory system of education into three stages. That step added a new dimension to the “religious generation” discussion. The discussion then focused on whether the education should be divided into three four-year segments as expressed in the 4+4+4 formula, which allows students to opt for distance learning if they so wish, or whether it should remain as it is now: eight years of primary compulsory education. Religion and education is an incendiary issue which has occupied Turkey’s agenda since the very beginning of the republic, flaring up from time to time. This debate is, in fact, an issue in the context of Turkey’s modernization of how Turkish citizens’ mental profile should be shaped. There are those on one side championing the cause of an education system based on the state’s ideological understanding, and those on the other who want the kind of system of education developing the people’s religious, linguistic and cultural traditions.
In my opinion this issue should be dealt with not in terms of historical, political or ideological differences, but on the basis of Turkey’s needs as an individual, society and state. I would like to underline three important points, looking at the matter from the perspective of sheer education.
The right to an education consistent with one’s needs
The first is the need for genuine freedom and equality in education. In line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other similar legal charters, an individual should have the right and choice to get the education consistent with his or her religious, political and other needs. The crucial point in this framework is the necessity of introducing alternative institutions catering to the educational needs of the people. Public authorities can offer these opportunities or they can give permission for civil bodies and organizations to meet these needs and support them. Another important point is the necessity of providing everyone an equal and participatory opportunity. It is imperative that citizens, no matter who they are, should be approached equally to fulfill their requirements. Viewed from this perspective, removing the obstacles standing in the way of getting religious or non-religious education and preparing and implementing programs in line with their demands should be inevitable. The common denominator for these two points is to provide for all kinds of educational activities being carried out within the boundaries of law and public order. The second is the necessity that Turkey makes good use of the global education models, the Bologna process in particular. No matter what education model, the institutions of education in Turkey should be of a caliber to compete with their rivals both in Europe and in the rest of the world. That means that not only the conditions of religious education but also those of non-religious education such as science, social studies, technology, linguistics and universal values need to be improved. Turkey has to be supplied with the equipment enabling it to be successful in the Bologna process, which is one aspect of Turkey EU accession.
The overarching aim of the Bologna process is to ensure that youths become creative, participatory, proactive and supportive of their personal development. It takes for granted that the basic purpose of education is not to bring about a unified body of students resembling one another but, on the contrary, to see to it that education contributes to the students’ development in conformity with their capabilities, talents, potentials and objectives. Diversity and pluralism have been ensured in educational institutions. The fact of the matter is that Turkey has made considerable progress in having different models, especially in high school education. Standard lycées, vocational schools and imam-hatip schools (Muslim parochial schools) are only some of those models. If there is such diversity, what is the problem?
The problem in Turkey, which is the third point I want to talk about, is that there is not a healthy working relationship between educational institutions and the employment needs of Turkey. Youths who complete their high school education cannot have their employment aspirations fully fulfilled. One of the important reasons for that is the line of serious bureaucratic and psychological obstacles standing in the way of students getting vocational training and selecting a profession. With the introduction of eight years of primary compulsory education and a set of tough conditions for entry into the desired departments of universities for vocational school graduates, demand for those schools has dwindled. Another reason is the serious shortcomings and deficiencies in the vocational and general educational system in Turkey.
Given these points, the recent days’ discussions may well serve as an opportunity for enacting reforms toward a better educational system in Turkey. If that opportunity were to be used properly, a competitive, free, egalitarian educational system and model open to universal participation and conducive to developing employment opportunities and capabilities can be set up.
*Dr. Ramazan Gözen is an instructor at Yıldırım Bayezıt University.