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New Turkey turns to old Ottoman

Funds that could help improve education system instead going to Erdogan’s latest nationalist vanity project

December 23, 2014 2:00AM ET

On Dec. 4, Turkey’s National Education Council introduced mandatory Ottoman language courses for high school students at the country’s religious schools, known as imam hatip schools. The classes are electives in secular high schools. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is vowing to make all Turks learn their ancestral language.

“There are those who do not want this to be taught,” Erdogan told a religious council meeting in Ankara on Dec. 8. “Whether they like it or not, the Ottoman language will be learned and taught in this country.”

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, abolished Ottoman Turkish in 1928, shifting from an Arabic script to a Latinate alphabet. He sought to produce a language more Turkish and less Islamic, more practical and modern, and traveled the country with a blackboard and chalk, giving lessons to suddenly illiterate locals in schools and village squares.

In the years that followed, officials removed hundreds of Arabic and Persian words from the lexicon and added thousands of Turkish words from native roots and phrases. British scholar Geoffrey Lewis, who studied and taught Turkish for many years, called Turkey’s language reform a “catastrophic success,” noting that the initiative created and instilled a new language even as it severed the modern republic from its rich history.

“Is there any other nation who cannot read the language its own civilization is based on?” Erdogan said at a reception for a Turkish calligraphist earlier this month. “The damage to our language will be healed by the next generation.”

Ottoman language courses would certainly help recapture Turkey’s lost heritage, making more than five centuries of history and literature much more accessible. But the proposal also advances the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) broader embrace of Islam and all things Ottoman, as it tries to undo much of Ataturk’s modernization and secularization project. At its Dec. 4 meeting, for example, the National Education Council approved proposals to extend compulsory religious education to children ages 6 to 8 and to ban bartending classes in tourism high schools.

The push for Ottoman language instruction may also be a political maneuver intended to court the AKP’s conservative base in the lead-up to parliamentary elections in June. In reality, most Turks have no issue with Ottoman courses. The problem lies in making them mandatory. 

The funds saved from implementing mandatory Ottoman instruction could be spent improving education, perhaps crafting a new curriculum.

“We are not against Ottoman instruction but the idea of making it a compulsory course,” New York–based Turkish journalist Arzu Kaya-Uranli tweeted on Dec. 5. “No one can teach my kids Ottoman-era Turkish or Arabic by force,” said Huseyin Aygun, a parliamentarian for the main opposition Republican People’s Party.

But beyond politics and the long-running cultural war between conservatives and secular Kemalists, the proposal has serious weaknesses. Much like Latin, Ottoman is largely a dead language and offers very limited usage. More pointedly, if Ottoman were mandatory, where would Turkey find the required 150,000 teachers? It would need to spend tens of millions of lire to train them.

Those funds would be better spent improving Turkey’s education system. In the most recent Pisa score issued (PDF) by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Turkey ranked 44th out of 66 countries in math, reading and science scores.

Classroom instruction still relies on rote learning. “We’re still prioritizing indoctrination, but we need to promote critical thinking,” Batuhan Aydagul, head of the Education Reform Initiative, an independent think tank, said during a recent interview. “We have to make sure people are stronger thinkers.”

What’s more, teaching languages may not be Turks’ forte. A number of recent news stories highlighted common errors in Turkish-language signs, as if to ask how Turks are supposed to learn a new, Arabic version of their language when they barely grasp the one in wide use. And Turkish students still test poorly in English despite English-language prep schools, private tutors, summer schools, study abroad programs and Anatolian High Schools focused on English.

A 2011 study by the English instruction company Education First ranked Turkey 43rd of 44 countries in terms of English-speaking ability, behind such countries as Colombia and Thailand. Turkey’s ranking has since marginally improved, to 47th out of 63 countries. Last year about 26,000 Turkish students took an English language test as part of their university entrance exam. Out of 80 questions, the average number of correct responses was 28. Similarly, a 2014 report from the British Council and the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey found that more than 95 percent of Turks are unable to answer relatively simple questions in English. 

“Turkey’s problem with English is a structural one,” Hurriyet columnist Guven Sak wrote in 2012. “The country lacks skilled and fluent English teachers and the programs to train them. It isn’t just the curriculum but the building blocks of English-language education that are missing.” 

It’s not a stretch to say that Turkey lacks the building blocks of Ottoman education as well. Despite the historical linkages, Ottoman is a foreign language to the 21st century Turk, with different words, grammatical structure and syntax. Even pro-government analysts acknowledge Turkey’s language shortcomings.

“Skeptics who complain about the shortcomings of Turkey’s education system in the area of foreign language instruction are completely right,” Dogan Eskinat wrote last week at the pro-government website Daily Sabah. “In its current condition, Turkish schools are largely unable to teach English and other foreign languages and, considering that the country desperately needs more English speakers, this is a pressing issue.”

Turkish leaders should take all this into account as they go forward with Ottoman instruction. Opposition parliamentarian and former head of the Turkish Historical Society Yusuf Halacoglu has offered a reasonable compromise. He proposes the state allocate funds to help those who want to study Ottoman history and language so that all Turks can benefit from their knowledge.

The funds saved from implementing mandatory Ottoman instruction could be spent improving education, perhaps crafting a new curriculum. The World Bank’s director for Turkey, Martin Raiser, recently told a local daily that better quality education is crucial to helping Turkey avoid the middle-income trap and achieve sustainable growth.

Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, who oversees the economy, shares this view. He has highlighted improved education as critical to achieving the government’s goal of joining the world’s top 10 economies by 2023, the 100th anniversary of the republic. And if educational reforms are to include a mandatory language course, English, the lingua franca of the global economy, might be of greater value.

“Without solving our education problem,” Babacan said last year, “our 2023 targets will remain a dream.”

David Lepeska is a freelance writer based in Istanbul. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Financial Times, The Economist, The Guardian, Slate and other outlets.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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