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The Contribution to the Turkish Education System

by Enes Ergene on . Posted in An Analysis of the Gülen Movement

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The private high schools established upon Fethullah Gülen's encouragement became important in two respects: first, in terms of their social aspect; and second, in terms of the quality of education. They greatly enhanced interest in education everywhere, in circles that supported or criticized them. In a sense, these colleges contributed to spreading education to non-governmental organizations and made education the possession of larger segments of society. As the success stories realized by these schools started to receive broad coverage and public attention, people were compelled to show great interest in educational projects. Turkey was new to such an emphasis on education, having never experienced such an event in its history. Today, special education programs in the media, and special features on the news, which regard education have become ordinary practice. Now, many people from all kinds of ideological backgrounds, professionals or amateurs in this field, open colleges in an organized manner. Education is a growing field in the private sector that gains importance with each passing day. And it has been the schools attributed to the Gülen movement and their successes that have triggered these developments.

In addition to all of this, these schools have ushered in a notion of selfless service to education. Education is a long-lasting marathon. It requires serious effort and hard work. The success of these schools is based on altruism and idealism. Thousands of people serve in these institutions with unabated enthusiasm. They act with a sense of contentment, and they illustrate the idea of a soul dedicated to humanity. This is the attitude that the Turkish education system forgot long ago. Of course, there are altruistic and faithful people everywhere. However, it has been nearly impossible to attract teachers to regions of deprivation. In some regions, the application of double salaries has been established as an economic incentive. Despite such a generous offer, teachers prefer to work in big cities where modern consumption habits are more easily satisfied. Since teachers who want to work for public schools start their career in a district selected by the Ministry of Education according to priorities, the issue of appointments and placements has been the most complicated, controversial and speculative agenda for Turkey. But there is no such a problem in schools associated with Gülen. A harmonious framework of employment and teaching environment is what signifies these schools. The teachers go to the most remote corners of the world, some that are plagued by deprivation. Among these are regions where military conflict with separatist groups is an ongoing reality. Despite these facts, however, the teachers appointed to these dangerous regions head there with an utter sense of acceptance and assurance of their future. "They would like to show, acting for this cause, that education is serious and it requires sacrifice and altruism, submission, and resignation."[1]

There is no doubt that the architect of this devotion to humanity and a sound understanding of trusting in God (tawakkul) is Fethullah Gülen. But what has drawn a man who comes from the madrasa system into the field of modern education? Why would someone who is aging and has had a difficult medical history engage in such a marathon? Some people ask similar questions from a reverse angle: What does a religious person have to do with education? If he is a preacher or hodja (religious teacher), why does not he keep himself confined to his own specialization? These have been the questions asked by media groups and by various people from different sectors of society. These questions were answered in interviews held on various occasions, according to the context in which the questions were raised.

Gülen is almost the only person who has, both directly and indirectly, paid so much attention to the issue of education. In his sermons, conversations, articles, and essays, he has struggled to present the need to engage the masses in educational projects. He has tried to relay his message to all sectors of society, but especially to tradesmen and artisans who have come to listen to his sermons and lectures; he has exhorted them strongly to deal with the lack of proper education in the society.

In the near history of the Republic, the issue of education has been normally restricted to a handful of ideologues and politicians. Education has been a field over which only an enlightened group of people pondered, talked, debated and put forward projects. The large masses of society have not been permitted to participate in these discussions in any way. The matter of education has been regarded too important to entrust to the general public! That has been the general attitude of Turkish intellectuals. They could never think that a large community of tradesmen would mobilize their economic capacity for education without expecting any profit. As a matter of fact, the grassroots had never assumed any role in such political, educational, or socio-cultural projects. Fethullah Gülen challenged this perspective, and the elite character of its proponents. He argued that such a perspective alienates people from education, politics, and the state.

Gülen regards and defines the matter of education as the biggest problem of not only our country but also of contemporary modern civilization. He believes that the education of humankind is the foundation of faith. At the root of the modern education crisis lies the fragmentation of the once-harmonious heart and mind connection in education and scientific thinking. Gülen contends that the new education system will not be able quell this crisis unless it redefines the natural and inherent relationship between humanity, the cosmos, and God. For the last couple of centuries, modern scientific thought and education has turned all humane, social, and ideological relationships into profane objects, stripping them of their sacredness and ascribing to them a positivist nature. This situation has led to corruption and a spiritual crisis that society currently witnesses. One of the innovations developed by Gülen is his holistic outlook in regard to the relationship between human being, the cosmos, and God—namely the harmonious unity of mind and heart. The colleges inspired by his ideas have questioned and overcome this extremely positivistic problem that deadlocks contemporary thought and education systems. It goes without saying that these schools do not offer their students a religious education. However, they do treat mind and heart simultaneously as the center of information and thought, and offer a system that views humans as existing in a harmonious relationship with the universe, society, and God. These schools work to create model individuals who are confident in themselves and the future; who are at peace with their own personality; who are respectful of their traditions, the roots of their faith, and their social identity; and who are open to modern scientific thought, innovation, and change. That is why, everywhere they have been opened, these colleges represent a new voice in education, and an excellent model of successful, hard-working, and open-minded students.

In addition, these colleges have changed the clumsy understanding of education as it was defined by blind repetition, which was based on memorization of definite patterns. The Turkish education system is still mostly dependent on memorization. It is under the yoke of formal logic in many fields. The educational program at these schools established a mathematical and experimental form of logic, and a progressive method that is not based on memorization or repetition. They have brought a new dynamism to education. They have transformed the formerly stagnant and lazy attitude of Turkish education, improving and highlighting student learning in all subjects.

Another significant development emerging from these schools is in the realm of student-teacher, school-parent, and student-student relationships. The colleges promote an emotional, sincere, and heartfelt order of relations between all the people involved in a student's education. From this point of view, the colleges have reproduced genuine and positive relations between the family, street, and community, and they have adapted these relations to modern conditions. They reconstruct the former self-sacrificing "person of society," who is totally devoted to his or her nation and to humanity, and who is the hero of love and affection. In this era, when selfishness, egotism and materialism prevail, this is a remarkable achievement. In a time dominated by the primacy of material interests and idolization of personal, this new form of education is leading students to prefer the profession of teaching over all others. While there are highly respected occupations in aviation, computer and industrial engineering, medicine, etc., which provide social status and prestige, these people choose teaching.[2] These teachers take these merits with them wherever they go. Each of them thus becomes "an ambassador of culture." Many of the places they go are not even suitable for tourists; but despite material deprivation, these teachers meet their surroundings with high spirit. They establish warm relations with local people in those countries, and thus form a historic bridge. It is difficult to gauge the impact this bridge will have on behalf of Turkey, but it is not difficult to predict that the schools will enable Turkey and the co-operating countries the possibility of establishing and improving broad relations on a humane and social basis.

Footnote[1] See Mehmet Gündem, Fethullah Gülen ile 11 Gün, Istanbul: Alfa, 2005, p. 94; Gülen, Sohbet-i Canan, pp. 105–107.

[2] Traditionally, teachers have always been highly respected in the Turkish culture. However, teaching did not use to be a popular occupation until recently due to low salaries and very few benefits. Regulations are changing rapidly to improve their conditions.