Ece, the female receptionist at our hotel, was impressed when the driver from Robert College arrived to take us there. Her eyes were wide with respect and perhaps a bit of awe. When Ece had been a schoolgirl, she had visited a friend at Robert College. And here I was – a Headmaster, she now knew, somehow associated with Robert College. It took a few days for the transferred awe and respect to wear off.
The school was founded in 1863. Now, in 2009, Robert College is widely acknowledged (even by Wikipedia, so it must be true) to be the most selective school in Turkey. Graduation is a ticket to the top two or three universities in Turkey, where entrance depends on a government exam. Everyone in Istanbul knows Robert College, in much the same way that everyone in Victoria knows St. Michaels University School – except that greater Victoria has a population of perhaps 340,000, whereas greater Istanbul has a population of 16 million. I and my wife were guests at the school for a morning. The Head, John Chandler, was eager to welcome us, but ended up being away away in the US on school business – he has many alumni now living in the US, and the school has both an American Board and a Turkish Board. Our host was the Deputy Head of the school, herself a woman of American background, married to a Turk, whose daughter had attended the school.
In the early 1860’s, Cyrus Hamlin set out from US, a minister with a mission to increase the number of Christians in the world, especially those of the modest, hard-working Protestant variety. He had the support of Christopher Robert, a wealthy philanthropist. To give the time a bit of context, this was the era of the Crimean War, a conflict pitting the forces of Britain, France and Turkey against Russia in a ridiculous fight over a disputed isthmus in the Black Sea. Discovering that the direct approach to conversion was fruitless in this nearly uniformly Muslim society, and being dedicated to education, in 1863 he founded a school. At this time, Istanbul, and Turkey, were more or less the centre of the Islamic universe; the Ottoman empire included most of the area now circumscribed and including Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Northern Africa and the Mediterranean. Cyrus Hamlin’s purposes were ambitious at the centre of such an empire, but he did have the blessing of the Ottoman state. This fact was acknowledged by President Bill Clinton in an address to the Turkish Parliament in 1999 when he visited after the devastating earthquake: “In 1863, the first American college outside the United States, Robert College, opened its doors to the youth of Turkey. It was the only foreign institution allowed along the Bosphorus, precisely because America had never encroached upon Turkish sovereignty.” This reference also illustrates Turkey’s mainly constructive ambiguity in its relations with Europe, especially France and Britain, but its unequivocal sympathy (while maintaining its independence clearly, in all matters) with the United States. In 1878, Christopher Robert, the founding benefactor of the school, left much of his wealth to the school upon his death.
The school thrived, founded on principles of American democratic education that seemed to stick and a Protestanism that didn’t. In fact, the school accepted few non-Muslims before 1930. A College Catalogue of 1878-79 describes the school mission thus: “The object of the College is to give to its students, without distinction of race or religion, a thorough educational equal in all respects to that obtained at a first-class American college and based upon the same general principles.”
Here begins a bit of a digression on the evolution of Turkish education in the twentieth century, for which Robert College serves as one facet of a fascinating near-oriental jewel, but an illuminating one. It illustrates some of the challenges of transforming an education system. Those readers who want to skip a paragraph or two (or the entire blog entry, for that matter) are welcome to do so, but for those who read this skimpy summary of Turkey, I suggest you don’t resist the temptation to spend a few minutes here and there on Google or Wikipedia following various threads. By the end of the First World War, the Ottoman empire had fallen apart, having lost its grip on its far-flung empire, decadent and weak. Mustafa Kemal, the Turkish general who successfully resisted the Allied forces at Gallipoli, then in Palestine and Jordan, and then the Russians in northern and central Turkey, continued his resistance after the Allies occupied much of Turkey in the aftermath of WW I. To make a long story short, by 1923 he had successfully rebelled against external forces and established the Turkish Republic. An original “Young Turk” himself, he now led those who believed in a national future for Turkey but who at the same time believed that the past was not to be embraced. The former Sultanate, hand in hand with the Caliphate, would only lead to decline, and repeated intervention by foreign powers. In 1923, he established the Turkisk Republic, a secular state. A sincere and fervent Muslim, he believed with many others that such a separation of state and religion would only elevate Islam. Most important to the evolution of the new Turkish state was a complex reform in education, involving a secular curriculum, with many a nod to Islam, and employing best practices from countries whose systems he admired: France, Switzerland, the UK, and the United States. He brought John Dewey from the US to advise him on his educational reforms. He said quite publicly that the reform in education and the liberation from dogma was more important than the Turkish Was of Independence. Among the pillars of his educational reform were the compulsory education of women and the institutionalization of male and female equality, creating a dialectic of opposition and synthesis that continues to this day in Turkish culture. Interestingly in a number of legal and informal steps the Army was made the guardians of the new vision of secularism which embraced an Islamic society. This role of the army has made for some interesting history since that time, as the army has intervened whenever a democratically elected government comes too close to reinstating Islamic law and practices. The citizens of Istanbul tend to be strongly in favour of this secular approach, unlike many people in the rest of Turkey who seem to favour an Islamic flavour that increases according to how far they are from Istanbul. Among those in Istanbul, considerable sympathy with the army’s role exists: here the Army is viewed as the guardians of the secular vision, against the more reactionary and undemocratic forces that would bring back many of the elements that were banned by Ataturk (Father of the Turkish State, as he is now known, a title formally conferred upon Mustafa Kemal by Parliament) back in 1923. The major irony here is that Mustafa Kemal established the capital of the new Turkey in Ankara as an overt criticism of the established capital in Constantinople, now Istanbul, which was the seat of the Sultanate and the Caliphs.
It was in this climate that in 1923 Robert College, by then a respected and prominent school, in line with this new national policy, also became an explicitly secular institution..
Another digression of sorts, but at least this one is an organic offshoot of my travels. I was beginning to understand that the measure I had constructed privately as a means to assess the reactionary or liberal nature of a school – namely, the wearing of head scarves – was crude. My use of this yardstick, I have been realizing, is a bit of an invitation to ignore the rich curiosity, intelligence and energy that belongs to these girls as much as it belongs to the boys. Now, in Istanbul, just as I was beginning to seriously doubt the adequacy of this yardstick, I found myself in a country where it was applied explicitly as the de facto and official criterion. In Turkey, head scarves on women are banned in any office, institution or occasion that is connected to government – which includes all schools and universities. The issue is a lightning rod for public debate. The wife of the current Prime Minister has mortified many by publicly wearing a head scarf on numerous occasions; her attendance at many events is impossible, or problematic. So another ingredient drops into the increasingly complex potpourri that is my own thinking about schooling in the Islamic world.
Back to Robert College. Turning off the busy city street (which must double as a training track for Formula One racing) that follows along the Bosphorus Strait, we turned into the school grounds through a significantly secured front gate, up a treed hillside, to the facade of an impressive main building, complete with pillars and stone and red brick. Although the school sits on 65 acres, little of that acreage is useful for much other than trees and green space because of the steep terrain. Because of the historic nature of the school, they are forbidden from making any changes to their physical facilities – no new buildings, not even extensions. Even renovations are difficult. They are limited to their current physical plant. “Limited” is perhaps an inappropriate word. The school is well provided for. In 1971 the school gave a huge piece of property to the Turkish state so that a new university , Boğaziçi University, could be founded. This university is now one of the top universities in Turkey, and the school continues in the 65 acres it still owns.
Instruction at the school takes place in English in almost all subjects. The Head’s assistant, a former student at the school, remembers when it was taboo even to speak Turkish on the school grounds; now Turkish is the language of the school hallways, whereas English is the language of the classroom. Students are expected to take Advanced Placement exams at the end of their education at Robert College, in addition to the university entrance examinations. A healthy minority of the student body go on to universities in the English-speaking world, mainly in the UK, Canada and the US. To prepare themselves for this rigour, students come out of 8th grade (it is compulsory as of 1998 for all boys and girls to attend school until the end of Grade 8 ) into a “prep” year before entering grade 9, during which time they take academic courses that bring their English up to a workable level. Competition to enter Robert College is fierce. The Deputy Head, talking about her own daughter’s entrance to the school, mentiones her doubts about sending her daughter in the first place (doubts that later subsided). The heavy emphasis on external state examinations leads to a classroom that is more rigid and less inquiry-spirited than we would encounter at SMUS or at the schools that the Deputy Head would have been used to in the US, and which she felt might be better for her daughter. But this circumstance, of crucial formal standardized exams is the one in which the school finds itself, and they have to fit within it. They more than fit, they thrive.
Unlike almost all the other schools we visited or saw since leaving Canada, there was no uniform at this school. Nevertheless there was a high degree of uniformity in the clothing – mainly white shirts and dark pants for both boys and girls. At Robert College, as at other schools in Turkey, the girls don’t wear head scarves – as I said earlier, it is forbidden by law. Outside, after class, a few of them do put on their head scarves. According to our host, the pressure to wear the head scarf comes not so much from the girls themselves as their homes – in their neighbourhood if they don’t wear a head scarf it is considered scandalous. It is with mixed feelings, therefore, that the girls don their scarves. The school has about 160 boarders, some of whom come from nearby, but most of whom come from further reaches of Turkey. Turkey can at times be quite a stratified society, in terms of urban centres looking down on the rest of the country. Apparently if you are not from Istanbul, Izmir or Ankara, you are from the hinterland. A mother of a girl had asked for a change of class because in her daughter’s class was a girl from Antalya. And I had always thought of Anatolia in rosy, rather poetic terms. Certainly Ataturk would have frowned.
Our visit coincided with the Turkish National Day, when they celebrate the founding of the Republic, when there are compulsory assemblies in every school. We were going to miss today’s assembly at Robert College, later in the day. We did get to visit classes and talk to students. Yes, they were very serious about getting to university, and were nervous about their chances on the national entrance exam. Yes, some of them were going to university abroad, including one to University of Toronto. The two Canadian universities that seemed most on the radar here were University of Toronto and McGill, interestingly the two Canadian universities that tend to be included when some newspaper or magazine ranks the top 50 or 100 universities in the world. Their English was good, but they still had a bit of a ways to go, I knew, before they were ready for AP exams. Did they like their school? This was a question that gave them pause, which surprised me – I welcome anyone to ask that question of our students; we do find it gets asked often at SMUS. Then I changed my tack: are you proud of your school? Would you rather be at any other school? This provoked an immediate and emotional response: they were very proud, there was no better school, it was the best.
I thanked them. I told them how much we had appreciated our visit, how welcoming and friendly everyone had been. How impressive their classes were. Yes, most certainly their pride in their school was well-placed and well-justified. We said our good-byes, and the taxi (the school driver was occupied with other commitments) drove us out the back way, past the school’s two modest playing fields, back into the maze of Istanbul.