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  • Learning to Read in the Late Ottoman Empire and Early Turkish Republic
  • Benjamin C. Fortna (bio)

Few would deny the centrality of reading to modern society. Since the nineteenth century a growing proportion of the population has been taught to read at an early age in preparation for a life of reading. The expanding fare has included primers, textbooks, newspapers, magazines, books, advertising text, mail, government forms, and recently mail of the electronic kind and the wide array of texts made available by the internet, all of which, and many others, have become increasingly central to contemporary life. The prevalence of reading stands in marked contrast with premodern society with its restricted literacy and reliance on oral transmission and aural reception. But this centrality presents a paradox: reading is both extraordinary for the crucial role it has played in modern society and has been so accepted and apparently natural that it is routinely taken for granted. Modern education—and the reading and proliferation of texts upon which it depends—is universally credited with ushering in a number of momentous changes integral to the formation of the modern world. Yet reading has generally not received attention commensurate with its importance in underpinning contemporary social practices. While reading is universally credited for its role in such phenomena as upward social mobility, the universal franchise, the greater cohesion of a variety of political units, and the increase in mass communications and markets, the precise ways in which reading has affected these developments is still relatively unexamined.

In recent years the study of reading has become a field unto itself, but one which has focussed almost entirely on the history of reading in the West.1 While some attention has been given to the Islamic world,2 until very recently almost none has been devoted to the late Ottoman Empire,3 where, presumably, to use Roger Chartier's phrase, "reading has a history," just as much as it does anywhere else.

For all of its obvious importance, what we know about the processes and even the materials involved in the late Ottoman and early Turkish Republican periods is actually quite limited. The subject of literacy has received some attention from a quantitative perspective.4 But even here we have severe disagreement, largely stemming from differing definitions over—and the problems of measuring—what constitutes a literate person. This is especially problematic in the case of "traditional" Islamic education where lessons were taught in Arabic, not always the students' mother tongue and, indeed, where the entire purpose of education was radically different from its "modern" alternative. Perhaps due to the fact that so much surrounding literacy and its social effects is generally taken for granted, we confront a serious imbalance between the assumptions covering the ways in which literacy and education are thought to have affected any number of social, political, and economic transformations, on the one hand, and the flimsiness of the underlying evidence, on the other. Despite considerable recent attention to education in the late Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic, the main assumption still operative here is, of course, that the Republic emancipated its population from the retarding effects of the ancien régime, by building schools, eliminating the supposedly outmoded Arabo-Persian script, and generally teaching the nation to read, with Mustafa Kemal playing the role of national instructor-in-chief.

The lack of evidence underpinning such assumptions suggests both that we need to think about them more critically and that we need to take another look at the question of reading in this context. In this article, I try to address the various ways in which learning to read and reading were depicted in texts relating to late Ottoman and early Republican children. These are mostly children's magazines, primers, and textbooks, (from roughly the 1880s until the first years of the Republican period) along with a few memoirs written later in the Republican era.5 Unlike my previous research on state education,6 this project is aimed at understanding the role of individual and market forces that had much less to do with the state bureaucracy.

Due to the growth of new-style schooling and the increasing demand for...


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pp. 33-41
Launched on MUSE
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