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Changes to the Turkish secondary school science curriculum that has been expected to take effect by 2019 will be in place next month, according to recent updates on the controversial measure.
While the government sees this as the foundation for a simpler, “values-based” education system, for many in the politically-charged nation it’s a troubling sign of religious influences.
Earlier this year drafts of the new Turkish education curriculum were discovered to no longer contain any mention of the word ‘evolution’, inspiring a call-to-arms from science advocacy groups such as the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Society.
The chair of Turkey’s Board of Education, Alpaslan Durmuş, has since outlined on the board’s website the specific changes to the nation’s primary and secondary curriculum, one of which is the removal of the grade 9 topic “Origin of Life and Evolution”.
“We have excluded controversial subjects for students at an age unable yet to understand the issues’ scientific background,” Durmuş claimed, stating it would instead be delayed until the students attended undergraduate studies.
The Education Minister Ismet Yilmaz echoed the chair’s justifications, telling reporters, “It’s a theory that requires a higher philosophical understanding than schoolchildren have.
Come September, those grade 9 students – made up mostly of 14-year-old children – will be reading from science textbooks that no longer mention evolution.
As can be imagined, the changes have sparked a firestorm of debate not just in Turkey but around the world, with comparisons made with various attempts in the US to expunge similar ‘controversial’ topics from the syllabus.
Turkish parents and academics have since voiced their concerns that without an adequate grounding in something as fundamental as an understanding of how and why life evolves, future generations of scientists will be significantly affected.
“I’m worried, but I hope it changes by the time my grandchildren are in high school,” retired chemical engineer Emel Ishakoglu told NPR.
“Otherwise our kids will be left behind compared to other countries when it comes to science education.”
Behind it all there are deeper worries that the changes aren’t so grounded in sound pedagogy, as much as politics.
Despite its Muslim majority, as far as its constitution goes Turkey has been a secular nation for much of the 20th century.
This is largely due to the revolutionary influences of the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, about a century ago.
Other changes made to the curriculum in recent years have reduced the amount of time spent learning about Atatürk while also making other changes to religious tuition, making some classes optional while adding modern concepts such as exploring the notion of jihad to others.
Sold as a “simplification” of the curriculum, the changes are being interpreted by some groups as a sign of an ongoing political shift in empowering the nation’s religious groups.
The current government, a conservative party led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan since 2014, has implemented various changes to religious freedoms since coming into power, including the removal of a ban on the wearing of head-scarves and increasing the number of religious schools.
For some, this is just one more sign of Turkey’s eroding secularism.
“The last crumbs of secular scientific education have been removed,” head of a secular-teachers union, Feray Aytekin Aydogan, told Patrick Kingsley at the New York Times.
Turkey’s politics and religious culture have influenced the teaching of evolution and the inclusion of creationism in the curriculum for decades, making this change less unusual than first appears.
It’s yet to be seen how teachers will react to the changes, and how students will be affected given there is far more to the classroom than what’s demanded by a syllabus.
But if the international response to the changes is any indication, Turkey’s new curriculum reflects growing fears that science is increasingly being treated as a political position and not as a necessary part of a strong and productive future.