This blog looks at how Turkish textbooks could better incorporate the cultures, lifestyles and histories of ethnic and religious minorities. It is part of a series of blogs on this site published to encourage debates around a new GEM Report Policy Paper: Between the Lines, which looks at the content of textbooks and how it reflects some of the key concepts in Target 4.7 in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
By Kenan Çayır, Director, Center for Sociology and Education Studies, Istanbul Bilgi University
Education has been centralized in Turkey since the foundation of the republic in 1923. Schools are required to follow a state-produced and unified curriculum. Textbooks strictly follow the National Curriculum drawn up by the Ministry of National Education (MoNE). The Ministry prepares textbooks for all subjects and allows the use of other textbooks submitted by private publishing houses only after they have been approved by the Board of Education. Teachers are not free to choose textbooks, but must use those distributed and approved by the State.
Textbooks in use in Turkey today took their shape and content as a result of a comprehensive curriculum reform in 2005. This curriculum reform was part of a global trend towards more student-centered pedagogy. In the Turkish context, the MoNE rationalized the curriculum reform by emphasizing the need to align the Turkish education system to the norms of the European Union and of preparing the country for ‘the information age’. As a result, since then, new programs have been developed and new textbooks have gradually been introduced at all grade levels in compulsory education (4 years primary, 4 years secondary, 4 years high school years).
This reform could have been a way to use education’s potential to create a more inclusive nation in Turkey. This is an urgent need since contemporary Turkey has been characterized by increasing claims of non-Muslim and non-Turkish minorities to equal citizenship. Turkey needs to develop an inclusive notion of citizenship in the face of these changes. However, a recent study shows that despite few progressive steps, today’s Turkish textbooks – as with many textbooks worldwide – still contain the same core problems as the ones they replaced: they deny multiculturalism.
In a study conducted by a team at the Center for Sociology and Education Studies of Istanbul Bilgi University (in collaboration with the History Foundation of Turkey) 245 textbooks were analyzed as well as students’ workbooks and teachers’ manuals taught in every subject in 2012-1013 academic year. This study followed up with previous projects in 2003 and 2009 that sought to report human rights violations in textbooks.
The recent study shows that one major shortcoming of Turkish textbooks relates to the
ways in which the national self and ethnic minorities are represented. In response to demands for citizenship among non-Turkish and non-Muslim minorities, the MoNE incorporated elective minority language courses such as Kurdish, Circassian and Laz courses in 2012. This might be considered a progressive step towards recognising the existence of minorities by the State. Yet, the findings demonstrate that the current textbooks do little if anything to incorporate the cultures, lifestyles and histories of these ethnic and religious minorities. The textbooks promote a notion of citizenship that is ethnically Turkish and denominationally Muslim, thereby excluding and alienating minorities.
One subject that specifically exemplifies the way that Turkish textbooks’ promote a single dominant ethno-religious identity is Religious Culture and Morals, a compulsory subject taught between grades 4-12. Alevis (a non-orthodox religious minority), non-believers and democratic circles severely criticize these compulsory religion courses. In response to criticisms and lawsuits over the fact that these lessons are compulsory, the MoNE claims that they do not impose a single religion but, on the contrary, teach religious culture. To support this position, the MoNE included several pages about Alevism in some textbooks. Nevertheless, our findings show that Alevis are still portrayed as the folkloric branch of Islam. The textbooks still use expressions such as “our religion” or “our Prophet,” thus they still assume that everyone living in Turkey is Sunni-Muslim.
Interestingly, the study points out that gender bias in textbooks has improved. There are several examples in which men are portrayed doing housework or the term bilim insanı (person of science) is used in place of bilim adamı (man of science). These are important in terms of overturning sexist stereotypes. However, the research demonstrates that many textbooks are still written with the mentality of preparing men and women for traditional patriarchal and unequal gender roles.
Another fundamental problem in Turkish textbooks today is that concepts such as democracy, secularism, republic or human rights are taught not on the basis of their universal definitions but for sustaining narrowly-defined Turkish national identity. Lastly, despite the aim to more actively involve students in classroom life along the lines of student-centered pedagogy current textbooks include few activities to engage students. And among the activities listed, many are designed to promote exclusivist nationalistic and militaristic values (for example, they ask students what they would have done if they had been on the front during the War of Independence).
An analysis of State-authorized textbooks in Turkey today shows that the desired outcomes set out in the curricula during the 2005 reform such as “critical thinking, creative thinking, problem solving” exist only on paper.
Therefore, Turkey needs to rewrite its textbooks if it is to empower students with democratic multicultural/intercultural skills and the competences for living together in a diverse and diversifying national and international society.