The south coast of Turkey, from the southeast corner of the Aegean through to the point where the Syrian and Lebanese Coast bears off to the south, has only recently been discovered by curious tourists. For some 300 days a year almost clear blue skies attract tourists from Northern Europe, the Baltic and Russia but in late January there is heavy rain, and the large modern hotels are virtually empty. To one of these, the 800-room Sheraton in modern Antalya, came some 850 delegates to the Turkish Private Schools Association Symposium to discussRebuilding the Education System. I was invited to open the three-day conference (see speech on website) and even found myself signing 160 copies of my book.
It was a very well organised conference – and I say that having experienced dozens of such conferences – and it provided an experience that has made a deep impression on me. I first came to Turkey more than 40 years ago with an expedition of Sixth Formers, and survived an earthquake which killed some 10,000 people when we were working in Mus Province. Turkey has made enormous strides since then (though not enough to reassure the EU that it is as yet ready to be a member). The well-to-do of Istanbul and Ankara are successful, sophisticated and well-dressed as are the elite of Paris, Berlin or London. But the eastern part of the country (where there is rampant population growth) remains poor.
Despite Ataturk reforms of the 1920s Turkey lacks the political will to invest sufficiently in the education of the masses, and is content to see the wealthy of the western cities solve the problems (at least for themselves) by creating for-profit private schools able to adjust their fees to what their parents are willing to pay. Many of them pay a lot, and by my judgement of the people in the conference, they have very good teachers (the level of their curiosity in new ideas was impressive). In an open market the school with the most money can then buy (poach) staff from other schools. To my English mind that did not seem right but, given Turkey’s present economic situation, it may be inevitable. I was stopped in my tracks when one energetic school proprietor gave me his business card – on one side was the school address, and on the other side the name of the chemical processing plant which he owned!
Beyond the hotel with its magnificent views of the Mediterranean and with palm trees enclosing the swimming pool and tennis courts, was the Antalya Archaeological Museum – a place that I had never heard of before even though I now know that it had been named European Museum of the Year. It is hard to describe the impact this had on me for, within the past 40 years, local archaeologists have identified some 4,000 sites of special significance. I felt like Alice in Wonderland as I made my tenuous way from gallery to gallery. I have never seen such a profusion of exquisite marble statues anywhere – statues that had as much vitality as anything produced by Michelangelo 1,500 years later.
Then, beyond the museum, is the ancient port of Pamphylia where, not being daunted by the rain, I and three colleagues made our way up the heavily worn steps, past the derelict Baptistery of an Armenian church, to the castle and the giddy streets and alleyways that must have been there when St Paul visited several times on his way to Ephesus, and to whom he wrote his subsequent Epistles. But, in terms of the stunning archaeology of the area, Paul was a relatively recent visitor in comparison to those who had founded the province after the Fall of Troy in 1184 BC. Yet most of St Paul’s churches were subsequently turned in mosques by the Seljuks, and now into museums given the “ethnic cleansing” of the Armenians in 1916.
So, said one of my Belgian colleagues, where do we 21st century educationalists fit into all this? Profoundly confused I sipped a final glass of raki and mysteriously those statues seemed to spring to life, and the man who ran both the school and a chemical processing plant appeared to my troubled mind to look like a wealthy, and worldly-wise, Roman Senator and owner of many slaves. Traveler as I was in that antique land, which has seen the rise and fall of so many cultures, I recalled the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair.”
See Chapter 4 of Overschooled but Undereducated