Gözde and Damla

TBMM, that’s the abbreviation of the name of the Turkish parliament: Türkiye Büyük Millet Meclisi, Turkey Grand National Assembly. Basic knowledge for any educated Turkish citizen, you would think. Not for Gözde, who recently was a candidate in the game show ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’. She is, mind you, a political science student at Istanbul’s Yeditepe University, and was asked the question: by which name is the TBMM also known? Answer “b”, Parliament, was of course right. She hesitated, and then answered the question wrong. She picked “d”, ‘Yüce Divan’, the Supreme Council – watch it here. Totally embarassing for her, but even more so for the Turkish education system.

After the show, Gözde told a journalist that she hated politics and that she only started reading newspapers about a year ago. This is flabbergasting, of course. Why does a woman who hates politics choose to study political science? And how come she ended up at university in the first place, for that matter? The even more flabbergasting answer is: in Turkey, you don’t have to be smart to be able to go to university. Second, you have hardly anything to choose from.
Third, some private universities don’t offer such good education: their fees are so high the teachers don’t easily let students fail classes. At Yeditepe University, where Gözde studies, students are not even called students, but clients. Annual fees at Yeditepe are between 10,000 and 50,000 lira (between €4,500 and €25,000) – state universities cost around 150 lira a year.

Learn to memorize

So how come you don’t have to be smart to get enrolled in a Turkish university, and how come you don’t have much to choose from? The answer is: the university entrance exam. Based on how well you do in the test, you get the right to register at certain universities in certain faculties. What your interests and skills are is of no importance whatsoever. If you score very well, of course, then you have more choice, and can pick something to your liking, but for most students that is not the case. Apparently, it wasn’t for Gözde either.

Scoring well in the exam is not a matter of being bright. It is a matter of studying very, very hard, and going to a dershane for years – read an article I wrote about that earlier for a youth paper in the Netherlands. You learn to memorize and you are pressured to spend all your time with your nose in the books. Which also doesn’t help, of course, to develop yourself in any way other than learning to repeat facts, as you would for example by socializing with friends, reading papers and novels, visiting museums, making weekend trips or whatever.
Gözde for example, might have learned to memorize what the abbreviation TBMM stands for, without knowing what it actually does, and without being encouraged in any way to find that out for herself.

Extremely anxious

The University Entrance Exam is considered the most important test a Turk takes in his or her life. It was held again yesterday: 1,837,000 students took the exam, striving to get one of the 450,000 places at Turkey’s 167 universities (123 state, the rest private). One of the students who was about to take the test was 18 year old Damla. But as she was preparing to leave home to go to the exam, she had a heart attack. She was taken to hospital, where she died. Her family says she had been extremely anxious all year about sitting for the exam. Did the exam really cause Damla’s death? Scientifically, it seems disputable: high stress can trigger the development of cardiac diseases, but cause instant death? Maybe Damla already had a heart condition that was undiagnosed. Maybe an autopsy will shed more light. But that the heart attack came right before she was off to take the exam seems hardly a coincidence.

Gözde and Damla: one hilarious, and one deeply saddening example of what the Turkish education system leads to.

2 replies
  1. Ellen
    Ellen says:

    Another great post. I’ve also been disheartened by the focus on memorization in Turkey’s schools; students are simply not encouraged to think for themselves.

    On a side note: you certainly don’t have to be smart to go to university in the USA either. That goes for law schools as well; there’s a college and law school to suit any combination of intelect and budget.

  2. CS
    CS says:

    Students are not encouraged to think in the US, either. With NCLB and high stakes testing, one wonders what we can do to help children in big countries. Finland, Singapoure and many other high-achieving countries are too small in size to offer any comparable lessons.


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