- The Modernization of Public Education in the Ottoman Empire, 1839-1908: Islamization, Autocracy and Discipline
In this thoroughly researched study of public education in the late Ottoman Empire, Selçuk Aksin Somel makes a major contribution to our understanding of the role of education in the modernizing project of the Ottoman Empire. The book also contributes to the growing literature on state-sponsored reform of the Ottoman Empire that seeks to go beyond the clichés of decline and the inevitability of collapse.
The book consists of seven chapters and sixteen appendices. Somel describes the legal and administrative background to the creation of a network modern public educational institutions, with particular attention paid to developments in the provinces. He also discusses the financial constraints involved in the growth of new educational institutions, curricular reform, and the use of education to integrate ethnic and religious minorities into the imperial mainstream. In the final chapter, Somel uses a large number of memoirs to evoke the students' experience of these schools. The appendices, covering almost 100 pages, reproduce texts of key laws and regulations, and produce statistical evidence. The source base for the study is rich: Somel has made extensive use of Ottoman archives as well as of contemporary published sources (most notably Ottoman provincial and ministerial yearbooks and school textbooks).
The aim of elementary education in the Ottoman Empire before the Tanzimat, the transmission of religious knowledge, was seen as integrally connected to religion, and this basic understanding was not initially challenged by the Tanzimat. Indeed, the original proclamation of the Tanzimat had nothing to say about education. Until the proclamation of a Regulation on Public Education in 1869, educational reform emphasized middle (rüsdiye) and higher education, with elementary education being left to existing Qur'an (sıbyan) schools. It was only in the 1870s that the Qur'an schools began to be gradually displaced by state-run elementary (ibtidâî) schools, under the supervision of the ministry of public education and teaching according to the new method (usûl-i cedid). Policy makers continued to see education primarily as a means of creating a loyal populace through the inculcation of religious and moral values. On the one hand, they attached a great many hopes to education. Public educational institutions continued to have substantial continuities with the old Qur'an schools in terms of personnel, content, and style. Also, Somel notes that schools were often located in places where the local Muslim population was perceived to be under threat, rather than in cities, which were already major cultural centers. At the same time, financial difficulties and shortages of qualified teachers meant that the homogenization and institutionalization of public education remained a distant dream. The distribution of state-run schools (not to mention their quality) varied greatly across the length and breadth of the empire.
Other dilemmas persisted, too. Bureaucrats could not decide whether education should have the practical goals of developing trade and industry to lessen the empire's economic dependence or whether it should be aimed solely at producing competent civil servants. Education was also invested with the hopes of bringing marginal populations (ethnic and religious minorities) closer to the center, but the very act of centralization, implying the use of Turkish, exacerbated, according to Somel, existing tensions and created new ones.
Somel provides detailed description of the schools themselves, and of the institutionalization of public education in the provinces. A chapter surveys the mutual impact of educational policies on nationalist movements in a variety of Ottoman contexts. Somel's overall assessment of the Ottoman record is negative. The state failed to produce a coherent synthesis of Islam and modernity. The lack of financial resources was partly to blame, but Somel also argues that Ottoman thinking about education was often contradictory or counterproductive. In this, he differs from Selim Deringil, who sees Ottoman policies being broadly similar to, if less successful than, those adopted by other contemporary states.
While this is a very solid work, a couple of minor...