A spectre is haunting Turkish high schools

Ever since January, when more than a thousand academicians who did sign a “peace petition” calling on the state to stop the fighting and human rights abuses in the Kurdish south-east of Turkey have been accused of spreading terrorist propaganda, pressure on academicians and higher education institutions started to unfold. A recent protest among high school students however, showed that the discomfort in the realm of education was far deeper than estimated.

When in the first week of June, students of the Istanbul Erkek Lisesi, (IEL) one of the most reputable and oldest schools in Turkey protested against their principal by turning him their back during the graduation ceremony, they probably were not expecting to be lighting the fuse of a series of similar protests nationwide.

In their statement they described their act as a reaction to the cancellation of their traditional cultural week activities by the principal on the grounds of the “invited artists’ and intellectuals’ political stances and even sexual orientations”. Instead, the school administration made its own program of activities and participation to them was announced to be compulsory. The IEL was soon followed by the students of the elite Galatasaray Lycee, who published a fake job advert calling for a new principal, while expecting him to have some “interesting” qualifications, such as: “being reasonable, intelligent and sane; protecting his students more than his post; not taking students’ washing machines and pianos to his home; not having served as a slave to any sultan”. The prime reason behind the dissatisfaction and rejection of those principals was related to their direct appointment by the Ministry of National Education, a recent change of practice among others, which were made possible through the governmental decree no. 652 which entered into force in September 2011. Accordingly, the Ministry has the right to select some “Project schools” and decide for its administrative as well as academic staff, who different from the previous implementation of the regulation do not need to pass any kind of qualification exam. Neither does the Ministry have to consult the executive boards of the foundations which those schools are affiliated with.

Afterwards dozens of high school students and graduate associations started to publish declarations in support of their fellow pioneers, protesting the prevalence of an anti-scientific, anti-secular, militaristic, sexist, nationalistic, standardizing and repressive understanding of education and its poor quality. They proposed instead an education based on secular and free thought, and the principles of democracy and human rights. The latest declaration published by the “Union of High School Students of Turkey” with the title “We won’t let pass reactionism in high schools” was jointly undersigned by more than 360 high schools. Not only esteemed colleges from Istanbul were among them; the list included also religious vocational high schools, as well as fine arts and technical schools from cities of all geographical regions in Turkey, from Edirne to Diyarbakır.

While Turkey is currently going through a period of grave repressions of the freedom of expression, which targets academicians, journalists, and human rights activists in particular, the sequential yet spontaneous protest actions undertaken by high school students have been evaluated as hope-inspiring and courageous many liberal activists. Some commentators even called it the “biggest event of the history of Turkish democracy”. Nevertheless, in a speech where he commented on the recent high school uprisings, President Erdoğan argued that these incidents were planned and directed by certain powers, referring to those powers indirectly as “hyenas and vultures”.