A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
“Teachers are the one and only people who save nations.”
Today Turkey’s literacy rate is measured to be around 90%. In 1940 it was estimated that many were illiterate. Most of the population was rural based and outside of the major cities few males and probably no females could either read or write. With statistics like that, the late Ataturk’s vision of a secular, technologically sophisticated society was looking distinctly rose tinted. The situation urgently required practical solutions to drag the nation out of the rural backwater and into the modern world. This boy is from Erzerum, a small eastern city that in the 1940s was geographically closer to the Russian border than it was to Ankara; some suspected it was philosophically as well. In 1940 it was had one of fourteen Village Institutes in the country, a radical experiment in education that prosperous western countries looked to as a model.
The Village Institutes could only have been set up in a post revolutionary environment, where the list of problems facing the new state were huge yet there were people still inspired by the momentum of change and the enthusiasm to put ideas into action. The man credited with setting up the Village Institutes was Ismail Hakki Tonguç, the General Director of Primary Education. In his climb up the ladder he had not distinguished himself as a particularly radical thinker but the crisis facing education in Turkey was not likely to be solved by slow and gentle innovation. The few village schools the Republic inherited from the Empire were religious and the curriculum was based on memorizing the Koran and learning Arabic script. Not only were they now ideologically redundant, nothing in their programmes encouraged practical skills. In some cases rural based education involved introducing modern farming methods, such as the use of tractors.
Another problem was how to attract teachers. It was never a well paid profession, even in the cities, and the prospect of spending four or five years in a remote town was only going to appeal to the most idealistic; the men (the teachers were mostly men) who really believed their greatest duty to the new Republic was in educating the people who needed it most. Such people existed though they weren’t that common, nor were they the ideal teachers, not if they had never spent time in a village and understood how different things were out there. Tonguç’s solution could have been a stroke of genius. The students selected for the Village Institutes would be those from the area who showed aptitude for learning. The real purpose of the schools would be to train them as teachers. In time, in theory, education in the rural areas would become self reliant and the teachers would not only be the most academically talented but their stake in the advancement of village education would be personal.
Reading literature, learning music and keeping folkloric traditions such as weaving were as important as maths and basic science. The students also learned agricultural skills like beekeeping, animal husbandry and construction. Girls were taught childcare and modern health practices. Once Friday afternoons had been given over to prayer, now the institutes ran self-criticism sessions where the students were expected to actively challenge the teachers. Such idealism belongs to a certain type, which in the 1940s was generally categorized as Marxist and communism in its various forms was the one ideology the Government would have no truck with, not with Soviet Russia right next door. While Stalin was busy starving the Russian peasants, the teachers at the Turkish Village Institutes were attempting to introduce a more perfect form of Marxism, based on the principle that the villagers would become masters of own means.
If a government suspicious of left wing ideas had offered the only resistance to the schools, it could have been persuaded that for purely pragmatic reasons the experiment was worth supporting. But pressure was also coming from within the villages, especially the focus on training young girls in modern ways. Centuries of inculcated notions about a woman’s status were being challenged and there were plenty of village men who did not believe educating women to any level was necessary. In 1950 President İnönü offered the country its first multi-party elections and paradoxically sealed the fate of the Village Institutes and their focus on free expression. Under pressure from elements within his own party as well as the opposition Democratic Party he closed the schools. When the DP won the elections the schools were absorbed into the official teacher training education model.
There are people who see the gnarled and sinister hand CIA behind the closure of the schools but they tend to see it wherever they look. Much as it didn’t want socialist teachers so close to the Russian border, the CIA didn’t have to intervene so long as there were enough elements within Turkey who wanted the schools shut down. A nervous government facing its first election and strident opposition from conservatives were enough to seal the fate of the system. These days there is a certain nostalgia for the ideals of the village institutes and even attempts to revive them but although there are people around who fondly remember their student years at one of the schools, they were too short lived to prove they could have brought in the changes they promised. Ten years wasn’t long enough to see the kind of results Tonguç expected. Given another decade a different Turkey could have emerged, but what it would have been remains unknown.
All of these snapshots were taken in Turkish villages in the 1940s and 50s. There are still parts in the country that haven’t changed that much.