Foreign Policy Blogs

Ukraine and Turkey: when politicization starts at school

This fall, two of the EU’s biggest neighbors decided to celebrate the new school year with a slew of retrograde education policies. Ukraine sparked off a minor diplomatic crisis on Europe’s eastern frontier after Kiev unveiled politically charged plans to prevent minority-language students from learning in their native tongues. Earlier, Turkey drew strong international condemnation by imposing restrictions on school curricula and by requiring students in the ever-growing pool of religious academies to learn about the concept of jihad. Making matters worse, a lack of funding and a stilted bureaucracy have bogged down the very body supposed to oversee cross-border educational issues, UNESCO. With populism on the rise from West to East and with nations like the US more politically polarized than ever, these developments are a tocsin.

Both Ukraine and Turkey seem to have missed the memo that education is meant to bridge divides, not deepen them. Their new laws threaten to create splits not only among local communities, but also in nations beyond these countries’ borders. In Ukraine’s case, the government’s plans to forbid some 400,000 students who are currently receiving their entire schooling in a minority language – mainly Russian – has provoked severe criticism not only from Moscow, as expected, but also from Hungary, Romania, and other countries whose nationals would be affected by the law. The government has called it a necessary law to ensure that all students develop a working knowledge of the country’s majority language.

Critics have called Kiev’s move a divisive provocation at a time when the government should be promoting bilingualism – and focusing on deeper educational reforms. The most furious response to the legislation came from Budapest, where Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto claimed Kiev had “stabbed Hungary in the back” and threatened that the government would bar Ukraine’s efforts to further integrate with the EU. Additionally, in an awkward turn of events for Brussels, the incident has firmly placed the Visegrad Group, along with Romania, Greece, and Moldova, on the same side as Russia in this dispute – a first.

The politicization of education is arguably far worse in Turkey. Since last year’s failed coup, the public school system has emerged as a key battlefield in the government’s attempt to squash dissent. This September, students went back to school with a contentious new curriculum that expunged the theory of evolution and introduced the concept of jihad. Critics called the new law a blow to secular education at a time when attendance at imam hitap schools, used to train Muslim preachers, has soared from 60,000 in 2002 to more than 1.1 million today.

To be fair, during its first 10 years in power, the ruling AK party oversaw impressive improvements in the national education system. Now, however, progress has started to backtrack, with Turkey scoring second to last among all member states in the OECD’s latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Parents cite issues of inept teachers, overcrowded classrooms, and inadequate language courses. The fact that more than 30,000 teachers have been fired for allegedly holding dissident sentiments hasn’t helped. The government’s latest set of legislation has now only further divided the nation between religious and secular factions – and isolated the entire country.

Meanwhile, although most European countries continue to score highly on core educational competencies, the state of public education – and growing national polarization – in the US reminds us that such a state of affairs is by no means a given. The American public school system already delivers abysmal results for students who live in the poorest districts. The Trump administration seems bent on dismantling Obama’s education legacy, with Betesy DeVos handing favors to for-profit universities and removing protections for transgender students rather than focusing on more meaningful reforms.

With even the US educational system threatened by regressive political agendas, the role of UNESCO in promoting learning is more important than ever. However, for the past eight years, the outgoing director general, Irina Bokova, has presided over an organization crippled by lack of funds, an ossified administration, and vehement disputes among its member states. UNESCO tumbled into its “worst ever financial situation” in 2011, when the US pulled finding – which had made up 22% of the agency’s budget – over the body’s decision to grant membership to Palestine. Seven years later, UNESCO still lacks a predictable budget and continues to be involved in the political turbulence of the Middle East and other hotspots.

At the very least, one of the contenders to take over the helm at UNESCO, former French Minister of Culture Audrey Azoulay, has put education at the center of her platform, emphasizing that learning is foremost a tool to break down silos and expand people’s minds – not to politicize and divide. Acknowledging the difficulties of steering UNESCO at a time of disinterest from the US, she has highlighted that it is in the interest of Americans – and other nations – to promote education globally as the best way to counter radicalization.

As the agency’s motto states, the best way to prevent conflict is to construct the “defenses of peace in the hearts of men.” It will be for the future UNESCO director to remind Ukraine and Turkey of this motto – that schools are not meant to be an incubator for political division but a place for open engagement.