ISTANBUL — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey keeps making global headlines. First it was for claiming that Muslims discovered the New World. Then it was for asserting that you “cannot put women and men on an equal footing.” Last week, it was for supporting the arrest, by Turkish police, of a number of journalists. But in the long run, it is his reforms of the Turkish education system that will likely be the most influential — and detrimental — to the global competitiveness of the country’s next generation.
Earlier this month, Mr. Erdogan backed a proposal by Turkey’s National Education Council to make Ottoman Turkish — an older version of the language, written in Arabic letters — mandatory in religious high schools, and available as an elective in secular high schools. Flouting earlier rulings by the European Court of Human Rights, the council also proposed that religious education be compulsory from age six. The president’s response to sharp criticism of these initiatives from Turkish politicians and civil groups was characteristic: The changes would take place “whether they like it or not,” Mr. Erdogan said.
In other words, as is often the case in Turkey, a war over ideology dominated the agenda, while the practical needs of Turkey’s future generations were overlooked. The National Education Council did not put any emphasis on foreign language instruction, for example, despite the fact that Turks generally fare poorly when it comes to speaking any language other than their own — particularly languages like English, Chinese or Arabic that could help Turkish businesses grow, both in the region and globally. Nor was there any emphasis on critical thinking or democratic values — the very qualities that could help transform Turkey’s insular, rigid and intolerant political culture.