A Brief History of Schools as Institutions and Armenian Schools in Particular in Turkey

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For this element, as I laid out in my plan for how I would give evidence for Standards 9 and 10 back in Unit 3, I conducted some research on the history of schools in Turkey, especially looking at minority schools and how they are managed by the state. I found many useful sources for this research, which I gathered together in a livebinder on the subject: http://www.livebinders.com/edit?id=2205640#

History of Public Education in Turkey

The geographic area that is now the nation-state of Turkey has fallen under a succession of empires spanning millennia, including the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire most recently. Under the Ottoman Empire, the state undertook the responsibility to provide a compulsory and free education for all citizens for the first time in the mid-19th century, although this goal was never actually realized (Gök, page 1). After WWI and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey was established as a secular republic. With the establishment of the republic in 1923, the education system in Turkey was very centralized under the Ministry of Education (1924), and remains so today. Secular secondary schools modeled after European school systems and especially the French system were established, while the importance of religious schooling was reduced.

Over the years since the establishment of the Turkish Republic, there have been various military coups and power struggles between secular and religious political forces, which have also had an effect on education. While secular governments championed secular education and made moves including banning women from wearing headscarves in public schools, the current government has made moves to undo these reforms. The current regime, which has been characterized as promoting an Islamist agenda, has made changes that have increased the establishment of new Imam-Hatip religious schools, dramatically increased attendance at such schools, and promoted them to parents and students over secular options. Read a New York Times article on this subject here. Especially following the coup attempt last year, the government has also been accused of curtailing academic freedom. After the coup, the government demanded the resignation of all university deans in the country, revoked the teaching licenses of tens of thousands of school teachers, and closed dozens of schools.

It is certainly an interesting and eventful time to be living and working in Turkey. My time as a teacher in Turkey began in 2013, a year of great change to the education system. In 2012 laws were passed expanding compulsory education in Turkey from 8 years to 12 years. The structure of the years of schooling was also altered from an 8 + 4 system to a 4 + 4 + 4 system. You can read more about the changes and what they mean for education in Turkey in this article. The war in Syria has also had a big effect on schools in Turkey. The country has accepted millions of refugees fleeing the war, which has swollen the enrollment in Turkish public schools by 500,000 students over the past several years. The strain has forced some schools to divide the school day in two, with one group of students arriving early in the morning and attending school until lunch, and the other group arriving after lunch and attending classes into the evening. There are many foreign teachers who have been deported and permanently banned from the country in the past year after inadvertently having worked for a school associated in some way with Fetullah Gulen, a cleric who now lives in the US, and whom the government blames for last year’s attempted coup.

Schools in Turkey are subject to strict regulations by the Ministry of Education. The Ministry dictates the academic program that schools are required to teach. Public schools all follow the same curriculum. Private schools, which most foreign teachers like myself are employed in, have more freedom but are still subject to many requirements. For my first two years in Turkey, I worked for Turkish private schools. Although these schools were able to offer part of their curriculum in English and had a greater degree of control over their programs, all schools public or private are required to offer Turkish language as well as religion/ethics and history courses all in Turkish. The only exception is for schools with only foreign national or dual national students.

Two years ago, I began working at an Armenian school. The Armenian community in Turkey is one of only three recognized minorities in the country who are permitted to maintain and operate their own schools. The other two are the Greek and Jewish minorities. While in the final years of the Ottoman Empire there were more than 6,000 minority schools in Turkey, today there are only 22, and they are all located in Istanbul. Specifically, there were 1,996 Armenian schools in Turkey with over 173,022 students. Today there are 16 schools and only around 3,000 students. With 16 out of 22 of the remaining minority schools in Turkey, the Armenian community still has the largest minority representation and the largest number of schools, even after the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

At the end of WWII, the Treaty of Lausanne was signed by Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Greece, Romania, and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (Yugoslavia) and what was to become the nation of Turkey. This agreement created the borders of the Turkish state. To end hostilities, Turkey was to give up their claims to Cyprus and the Dodocenes Islands, as well as the Arab lands that were once part of the empire. In return, the other countries agreed that they would give up their demands that Turkish Kurds be given autonomy and that Turkey return lands it had seized from Armenia.

While the Treaty of Lausanne had some devastating effects for Turkey’s Kurds and the thousands of ethnic Armenians now separated from their country by the borders of the new Turkish state, the treaty also outlined stipulations for the treatment of minorities under the new state, including rights that are afforded to them. Although the treaty guarantees minorities the right to operate schools and educate students in their mother tongue, these rights have been denied and/or subverted in many ways throughout the years.

Restrictions, Regulations and Problems for Minority Schools

First of all, under Turkish law, while minorities may operate schools, they must fund them only through foundations or private donors. In turn, these foundations are allowed to gain the required capital only through the lease and sale of real estate. In 1936, all minority foundations were forced to disclose all financial holdings and property. Later, in 1974, a new law was passed that forbade minority foundations from acquiring any new property, and voided the acquisitions they had made between 1936 and 1974. This led to the seizure by the state of lands and properties that had been legally purchased by minority foundations from 1936 – 1974. It was not until 2008 that a new law was passed and some of these properties began to be returned to the minority organizations to whom they had once belonged. Many have still not been returned.

Similarly, there is a law that if a building owned by a minority foundation is left empty or falls into disuse due to a lack of congregation (for churches) or students (in the case of a school) it should revert to state control. The law states that a building which is in disuse can be transferred to another minority foundation with the same stated goals, but the process of transfer is long, tedious and expensive and may not be approved. In these ways thousands of buildings or properties that were once possessed by minority citizens or foundations have been taken by the government. Read more about the struggles Armenian schools and foundations face in Turkey in this report.

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My school with the Sisli Marriot rising behind it

During this research, I discovered that my own school’s foundation narrowly escaped the seizure of their property, which encompasses the plot on which the school sits as well as the surrounding area (about 4 square miles). Our school’s foundation owns the land that hosts the Sisli Marriott Hotel next to the school, and they lease the land to the hotel and other surrounding businesses. Our school does not charge the students any tuition and is funded exclusively through the foundation’s holdings and private donors from the Armenian community. Without the ownership of this land, our school would not have the funds to continue operating.

In 1997, the mayor of Sisli, the district of Istanbul where our school is located, made the “offer” to purchase the lands from the orphanage(our school was originally an orphanage, and the foundation that runs it still bears the name Karagozyan Armenian Orphanage Foundation) for a small fraction of their worth. When the trustees of the foundation refused, the mayor ordered the property to be expropriated. Luckily the order was withdrawn in 1998 after backlash from the left-wing media and extensive campaigning by the Armenian community. This was a really interesting story for me to find and read. It is located on page 28 of this article.

In addition to the restrictions on how minority schools can be funded, there are many other obligations they must adhere to. Firstly, all minority schools must have a deputy principal who is an ethnic Turk and is vetted by the Turkish school council. These deputies then have to cosign all paperwork from the school, which means that they can shut down anything they don’t like and have often acted as something like spies for the government. At our school, our Turkish deputy principal mostly sits behind his closed office doors, drinks tea and smokes cigarettes (yes, IN the school, and no this is not legal). Although I really disapprove of the smoking inside a school, I suppose we are lucky as he pretty much stays out of the way, and according to some other teachers who he talks to is a pretty nice guy. He seems pretty soft spoken and mostly just pokes his head out around lunch time and for some special occasions.

Another struggle for minority schools is that the government restricts the enrollment of students. In the past, only those students who were Turkish citizens and whose parents were both of Armenian descent were admitted to Armenian schools. After hard won battles, these requirements have been lessened slightly (read about that here). However, there are many ethnic Armenian students who are not permitted to attend Armenian schools. Many times their ancestors were forced to change their names and/or convert to Islam to protect themselves from persecution, which makes documenting their Armenian heritage impossible. Even for those students whose parents can prove their Armenian ancestry, the government makes the process of documentation onerous and time consuming.

There are also many students who are living in Turkey with their families but are not citizens. These students are allowed to attend minority schools, but only on a “guest student” basis. They are not permitted to receive report cards or diplomas. Out of my 45 students this year, I have three that fall into this group. And the “guest student” status only applies to those Armenians whose parents are in the country legally. However, due to strained diplomatic ties between Turkey and Armenia (for many years they ceased diplomatic relations all together), All of these requirements imposed by the Turkish government contribute to the problem of declining enrollment in minority schools.

Finally, minority schools must follow at least in part the dictated curriculum from the Ministry of Education. Although today minority schools are allowed to include more mother tongue instruction than they were ten years ago (at the worst point the hours of instruction in Armenian language was limited to only FOUR per week), all schools are still required to have Turkish language, history/culture and religion/ethics classes taught in Turkish. At minority schools, Turkish teachers are sent to the school by the Ministry of Education to teach the courses and their salaries are paid by the government rather than by the school. This creates its own problems, because the expectations for the quality of education and the responsibilities of teachers are much higher at our school than at public schools. Our school also pays their teachers more than public schools, but for the Turkish teachers, who are paid by the government, their salary will be the same whether they work in a public school or a minority school. This leads to high turnover of Turkish teachers, as they often (and understandably) choose to transfer to a pubic school where there are less demands on them.

There is also the problem of the Turkish curriculum being very centered on a specific historical narrative that favors ethnic Turks and Sunni Islam to the denigration or exclusion of minorities. Read a brief article about a report on the subject here, or the full reportDiscrimination based on Colour, Ethnic Origin, Language, Religion and Belief in Turkey’s Education System. In one of our meetings this year, the Turkish teacher from Grades 3 and 4, who is new to our school this year, complained that he feels very uncomfortable sometimes teaching the required material, as Armenians are often painted as the villains of history in the established narratives. The Armenian Genocide is of course never mentioned, and is not accepted by the government.

Recent acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide by foreign governments such as Sweden and more recently Germany and the European Parliament have led to fierce backlash from the Turkish government, and threats by the Turkish leader to deport all Armenians who are not citizens of Turkey back to their country. The unwillingness to accept that the large scale murder of ethnic Armenians constituted genocide is a problem not only for the government, but for average Turkish citizens. The issue is discussed succinctly in this Al Jazeera article. The narrative presented in the Turkish Ministry of Education curriculum and educational materials promotes this denial. Turkish teachers in our school have shared that they feel uncomfortable teaching this one-sided version of history to our students.

There are also many things which all schools in Turkey are required to do, such as start and end every week with a ceremony in which the Turkish national anthem, the Istiklal March is sung as well as many mandatory ceremonies where they must repeat and recite things about being grateful to be a Turk, etc. While I have seen a lot of irony and even some cruelty in this, upon reflection I realize that it is no different than Native Americans in the US being forced to attend public schools where they put their hand over their hearts, sing the Star Spangled Banner and say the Pledge of Allegiance. As I went through school in the US, the curriculum and materials we used also promoted a very one-sided view of history, and we likewise do not refer to a Native American Genocide as part of the history of our country, although there most certainly was one.

In fact, my hometown of Lancaster, Ohio, is also the birthplace of William T. Sherman. One of his quotes regarding Native Americans is as follows: “The more Indians we can kill this year the fewer we will need to kill the next, because the more I see of the Indians the more convinced I become that they must either all be killed or be maintained as a species of pauper. Their attempts at civilization is ridiculous“. Sherman’s childhood home is a museum in my town. Statues, murals and monuments honor him. Philip Sheridan, who was raised in Ohio, is famous for his quote “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”. One of the local elementary schools is named after him. These examples show how the same problems that affect the Armenian community in Turkey are also present in the United States. As educators preparing our students to exist peacefully in the global, multicultural community of the 21st century, we need to be aware of these problems and prejudices and work to dismantle them rather than perpetuate them, even if we may need to do this discreetly and carefully. We must respect rules and norms regarding subjects that can and cannot be broached, especially as foreigners working in a country that is not our own.

Conclusion

This research helped me to understand much more clearly just how imperiled minority schools in Turkey are. In only the past decade, the number of students studying at Armenian schools in Turkey has fallen from 3,800 to 3,000. The number of Armenian schools has decreased from 19 to 16, with Greek and Jewish schools also facing similar problems with declining numbers.

This in turn led to a better understanding of why our principal works so hard and tirelessly to improve the quality of education at our school, attract parents to enroll their children and retain students from preschool to Grade 8. Further, as learning English is now seen as essential for children’s futures, I can see that my role and the role of the other foreign teachers at my school is also very important for our school, parents and students. Having good native English-speaking teachers is a big attraction for any private school in Turkey, and a huge one for our small Armenian school that for years was suffering from dwindling enrollment. Many parents were choosing to take their children out after preschool and kindergarten to a Turkish private school with a stronger English program. In the past few years, that has changed, and most parents are choosing to keep their children in the school, which is obviously a big success.

As our students will be responsible for keeping the Armenian community and its institutions in Turkey alive, it will be crucial going forward to have more students continue their education in Armenian, stay involved in their community, and take on leadership roles within it.

Resources:

Bulut, Uzay (2017, April 26). Turkey Uncensored: ‘First, They Came For the Armenians’. Retrieved from http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/3547576/posts?page=4 on May 19, 2017.

Danforth, Nick (2014, April 24). What we all get wrong about Armenia, Turkey and Genocide. Al-Jazeera America. Retrieved from http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/4/what-we-all-get-wrongaboutthearmeniangenocide.html on May 19, 2017.

Encyclopedia Brittanica (1998). Treaty of Lausanne (1923). Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Treaty-of-Lausanne-1923 on May 19, 2017.

Hofmann, Tessa (2002). Armenians in Turkey Today: A Critical Assessment of the Situation of the Armenian Minority in the Turkish Republic. Retrieved from http://www.armenian.ch/gsa/Docs/faae02.pdf on May 19, 2017.

Gök, Fatma (2007). From Education in ‘Multicultural’ Societies – Turkish and Swedish Perspectives, eds. Marie Carlson, Annika Rabo and Fatma Gök: Appendix 1. Retrieved from http://www.srii.org/content/upload/documents/68cee78c-6f0a-4d49-843e-c573d9847eb5.pdf on May 19, 2017.

Kaya, Nurcan (2015). Discrimination Based on Colour, Ethnic Origin, Language, Religion and Belief in Turkey’s Education System. Retrieved from http://minorityrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/EN-turkiye-egitim-sisteminde-ayirimcilik-24-10-2015.pdf on May 19, 2017.

Multiple authors (2017, April 4). Education in Turkey. World Education News and Reviews. Retrieved from http://wenr.wes.org/2017/04/education-in-turkey on May 19, 2017.

Ghazanchyan, Siranush (2014, June 9). Istanbul Armenians build first school since 1923. Public Radio of Armenia. Retrieved from http://www.armradio.am/en/2014/06/09/istanbul-armenians-build-first-school-since-1923/ on May 19, 2017.

Ziflioglu, Vercihan (2011, January 30). Armenian schools open doors to a different audience. Hürriyet Daily News. Retrieved from http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/default.aspx?pageid=438&n=armenian-schools-open-doors-to-a-different-audience-2011-01-27 on May 19, 2017.

Ziflioglu, Vercihan (2012, March 22). New regulations on minority schools causing confusion in Turkey. Hürriyet Daily News. Retrieved from http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/new-regulations-on-minority-schools-causing-confusion-in-turkey.aspx?pageID=238&nID=16570&NewsCatID=339 on May 19, 2017.

 

 

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