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Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 21.1-2 (2001) 61-72

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The "Teachers' Army" and Its Miniature Republican Society:

Educators' Traits and School Dynamics in Turkish Pedagogical Prescriptions, 1923-1950

During the first half of the twentieth century "modern" educators in Europe and the U.S. evinced a fervid belief that the classroom and larger school environment should form a truly functioning social, cultural, and even political society-in-miniature. Illustrating a shift from nineteenth-century pedagogical thinking that espoused learning for life after school, twentieth-century educators advocated learning through life in school. Accordingly, school dynamics were to mirror, if not create, the conditions of "grown-up" life through teacher-student interactions in and out of class. Student-student cooperation in the form of interactive learning, clubs, and extracurricular activities would provide emerging citizens with firsthand experience in healthy, productive forms of self-reliance, trust, and societal organization. Allowing children comparatively broad scope for decision-making, while teachers hovered protectively yet unabtrusively nearby, would cultivate a practical understanding of democracy and all that it entailed in terms of rights and duties. Thus, instead of passively receiving dry lessons in these matters, students could actively become motivated citizens.1

Such conceptions of school dynamics were not the preserve of Western pedagogy. With a sizeable pedagogical corps, many of whose leading members read European languages and had even traveled to Euro-American pedagogical centers, Turkey between 1923-1950 illustrates a Middle Eastern environment in which the teaching cadres championed this same understanding of schooling's central role in socializing individuals into liberated and empowered citizens. Indeed, late Ottoman teachers such as Ismail Hakki Baltacioglu—called the "father of republican Turkish educational thought"—envisioned a kind of school dynamic in the pre-World War I years similar to the European "school-as-society" conception. This, of course, reflected the overall platform of political and cultural reform entertained by particular intellectuals of the Second Constitutional, "Young Turk," era (1908-1918)—Baltacioglu chief among them.2 In the post-1923 years, it was a natural progression to consider the school the environment in which the most essential processes of socialization would occur for the first generation of emerging Turkish citizens. Acculturation of students to particular kinds of sociopolitical interactions and assumptions would provide the new nationalist Republic with active members ready to guarantee the future of a sociopolitical order in the making.

Most often, teachers themselves, along with experienced administrators, penned the works depicting schools in such a manner. They began by prescribing the qualities and role of the teacher, after which education itself as a broad, all-encompassing phenomenon received sustained consideration. Having recourse to traditional Islamic distinctions phrased in secular nationalist terms, rather than mere informational and skill instruction, or talim (based on the Arabic 'allama, to make known), the new Republic's schools were to be animated by terbiye (from Arabic rabbaya), entailing the purposeful cultivation of intellectual and social refinement in youth and the formation of proper Turkish citizens through coherent educative efforts. Teachers perceived themselves to be peerlessly integral to this process, with the scope of the true educator (mürebbi, and not the mere muallim-instructor) passing beyond the school grounds to mentor children even in their homes. Here, teachers would display exemplary conduct worthy of emulation. All this was not, however, merely a matter of pedagogical rumination. Because the school was indeed envisioned as its own properly regulated society, its dynamics were to eventually radiate out into the larger sociopolitical domain. As key advocates for state-driven national(ist) modernization projects articulated both in and outside the pedagogical realm, the Turkish teaching corps prescribed school dynamics, which provide us with a rich understanding of how those animating a key Kemalist ideological state apparatus—education—viewed the workings of their nation.3

In the following pages we will examine what self-perceptions Turkish educators nurtured from 1923-1950 and how...


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