May 23, 2011

Fethullah Gülen’s Philosophy of Education in Practice

Ruth Woodhall

In this study I first examine Fethullah Gülen’s own writings and statements about education and show how Gülen’s educational philosophy is reflected in practice in the movement's activities. I argue that measuring the achievements of the movement indicates that the application of Gülen’s philosophy is the key to the success of the movement. This study depends to a large extent on my own experience of working within the movement in a number of different locations and roles over a period of almost ten years.

The purpose of education

Throughout his public life, Gülen has taught that learning is a duty for all humans and “by fulfilling it we attain the rank of true humanity and become a beneficial element of society” (Ünal and Williams 2000:308). Gülen is not only addressing the education of children in his writings but the education of all. The participants in the movement see themselves as learning or attempting to learn all the time and the dominant theme of the movement is the struggle for self-improvement.

Any school or education system anywhere in the world conveys values overtly and covertly, directly and incidentally, deliberately and inadvertently. Given freedom to choose, parents choose schools whose educational philosophy aligns with their own moral values. Some parents may prefer the values of private schools, often out of disagreement with public schools’ official positions on social issues, while others may ascribe a higher quality to them.

Gülen and movement participants are not so disingenuous as to pretend that there is such a thing a value-neutral education system. Gülen’s opinions on the value of education do not differ markedly from the mainstream Muslim view. However, he emphasizes good deeds carried out collectively, and stresses that men and women who cooperate in good works, or meet to discuss the experience and planning of good works are doing a special service (Özdalga 2000:94). Gülen emphasizes the importance of collective consultation and work in his teachings (Gülen 2005:43–58; Sykiainen 2007:126–8) and by example in his personal life (Kalyoncu 2008). This emphasis is reflected in the movement in participants’ use of collective consultation and decision making in educational projects at a local level (Kalyoncu in press:42; Irvine 2007:66, 74–5). In my experience of working in the movement in educational, publishing and intercultural institutions, the movement’s interpretation of collective action is enacted as a genuine collegiality and professionalism, and this always involves consultation and cooperation with interested parties in the environment of the institution.

Thus, for Gülen movement participants, when conscientiously performed, education has beneficial effects for individuals and the global community (Ünal and Williams 2000:306). Gülen believes that this approach is advanced by tolerance and patience and not by the suppression of opposition or the use of force. He states, “Improving a community is possible by elevating the coming generations to the rank of humanity, not by obliterating the bad ones” (The Fountain 2002:71).But for Gülen, education is not utilitarian; it is integral to his philosophy and religious world view. This world view is naturally shared by many in Turkey (Kalyoncu 2008) The Gülen movement originated as a faith-based with a strong cultural identity, but its educational and cultural projects are spreading into regions where world views have neither Turkic nor Islamic roots. Participants and supporters feel they have proved that the high-quality secular education and moral values combined with the altruism of teachers and sponsors are universal values which appeal to people all over the world.

Religious Knowledge and the Natural Sciences

Many commentators have argued that Muslim educators must address the relationship between Islam and modernity. Gülen acknowledges that this relationship has been problematic, especially in the natural sciences, but indicates that according to his understanding of Islam, the perceived conflict between religious knowledge and science is falsely conceived (Ünal and Williams 2000:316–17). To answer skeptics, Gülen refers pointedly to the opinions of the twentieth century’s greatest scientist:
Einstein said that science teaches us the relations between phenomena and how phenomena exist together under their specific conditions. He added that science, which consists of the knowledge of what already is, does not teach us what should be; only religion teaches us how things should be and to which goals we should aspire. (Ünal and Williams 2000:45)
Gülen’s educational philosophy derives from his faith, and for him scientific and religious knowledge are essential and complementary parts of the same whole. Gülen movement participants support this synthesis of rational and religious knowledge. Consequently, Gülen-inspired schools value science and mathematics. Most of these schools have excellent computer technology and science laboratories.

The Characteristics of Good Schools

When writing about the qualities of a good school Gülen blends metaphors of science and spirituality and reminds us of the hereafter. Although Gülen vigorously advocates education, he does not offer detailed prescriptions for curriculum or pedagogical techniques. Instead he presents broad guidelines for moral and technical aspects of education. (Ünal and Williams 2000:312)

In addition to being unusually well equipped for the teaching of science, the schools in Turkey, Central Asia and the Balkans tend to have very good English language departments and small classes. These factors aid students’ educational and professional success which attracts the growing educated middle class in Turkey, Central Asia and other non-English-speaking countries.

Between 1998 and 2005, while working on training programs for teachers and administrators in the Gülen-inspired schools in Turkey and Central Asia, I learned that most of the schools covered the national curriculum of the country where they were situated so as to cater for local needs. They then modified this with some additional elements to meet international standards so students could also study in foreign universities. Other schools followed an international curriculum such as the International Baccalaureate. When I worked in the UK in a Gülen-inspired-school, teaching differed from the national curriculum only in that the school also added the Turkish language. Religious studies was given as an after-school option on the request of a child’s parents. In the UK at that time private schools were permitted to set their own curriculum as long as Her Majesty’s Inspectorate judged the school’s performance “satisfactory” and a school’s curriculum could be modified to meet the needs of a particular community (and individuals).

Regular in-service training of teachers and support personnel maintains high standards at Gülen-inspired schools. Schools often join together, in greater or smaller numbers, to provide skills training for personnel. A variety of training methods are used within the schools, including the mentoring of new recruits, guest lecturers, professional trainers, and peer training through workshops. In addition, teachers are funded to attend conferences about teaching. Due to this mandatory training, teachers often work six days a week with only four weeks per year of paid vacation. The professional demands placed on these teachers contrast with the demands placed on Turkish public school teachers, who have comparable salaries but work substantially less.

Administrators also meet, exchange views and experiences, share news from the areas where they work, and discuss good practices and innovations. While other private schools in Turkey also provide training and send teachers to conference and training days, no other group rivals the Gülen movement in sheer numbers and training resources. For example, in July and August 2005, I worked with a publishing company which offered short classroom methodology programs on three four-day pre-semester residential courses, first in Istanbul, then in a small town in central Turkey. Over four hundred teachers from Gülen-inspired schools attended these courses and in most cases their schools funded the course fee. Training programs such as these are offered throughout the year by the major publishing companies which sell textbooks in Turkey and supplemented by smaller weekend and after school conferences and seminars. They are highly appreciated by teachers and administrators for their individual satisfaction and for the benefits they bring to standards in the schools. Özdalga describes the competitive spirit pervading the schools as one of their defining features, pointing to the schools’ awareness of how their students’ results compare with those of other schools, and to the efforts expended on preparing students for “Knowledge Olympics”, where they often win medals (Özdalga 2000:97). For Gülen himself service to humanity and competition with others are not mutually exclusive and success may be evidence of the validity of one’s message (Ünal and Williams 2000:318–19).

Support for the educational activities in the Gülen movement derives from shared values between the schools and communities they serve and is reinforced by the immediate benefits accruing to students and families in terms of improved social relationships and high academic standards (Kalyoncu in press:37, 83–6). From the perspective of organizational theory, shared values legitimize formal and informal local leaders in the eyes of the communities gathered around an organization as the use of normative power resources to influence is invariably seen by those subject to it as legitimate and evokes moral commitment (Hales 1993:27). Since Gülen emphasizes argument rather than force, financial reward, or other external obligation, the mode of influence most often practiced in the Gülen movement is moral persuasion, suggestion or argument. This demonstrates Gülen’s insight into human interaction, Students and parents who are less committed to some of the values of the movement are not disadvantaged. Özdalga quotes a teacher in the movement as intending to offer students good quality education and the chance to learn good manners and morals, without any religious instruction, for “with respect to that question, we do not have anything to give as teachers” (Özdalga 2003:68–9).

Observers confirm that the values taught in the schools are, to use Özdalga’s term, “transconfessional”. These are taught indirectly, witnessing by example rather than words; and in a principled way, in that the mode of influence appears to differ little no matter the location of the school. Thomas Michel, who visited a school in the Philippines, commented on the absence of explicit Islamic content in the curriculum and was told that “what they sought to communicate were universal Islamic values such as honesty, hard work, harmony, and conscientious service rather than any confessional instruction (2002:106). There is also no direct teaching of Islam in the curriculum of Gülen-inspired schools in Turkey or Central Asia beyond what is legally required. So, the schools are not “faith schools”, that is, they do not require that students are or become Muslim. This reflects a conscious choice not to use available sources of power and influence in ways that could conceivably be perceived as imposed and illegitimate.

In addition to good relations with people of other religious traditions, Gülen calls for tolerance throughout society and between nations. Movement participants have proved adept at establishing and maintaining multi-faith. multi-ethnic educational institutions. They run educational and cultural projects in, for example, Southeast Turkey, known for ethnic conflict (Kalyoncu in press), and in other regions of the world where ethno-religious conflict is occurring, for example, the Philippines (Michel 2002:105), the Balkans and Central Asia (Ünal and Williams 2000:336–46; Michel 2002:106), or where such conflict is potential or low-level, for example, Germany (Irvine 2007:70–1).

As well as being inclusive as regards religion and ethnicity, Gülen-inspired schools have made a valuable contribution to the education of girls and women in Turkey. All primary schools established by movement participants are co-educational. In addition, several private high schools for girls set up in Turkey in the 1990s, university preparation courses, and student hostels established by movement supporters have encouraged many young women to access quality higher education. In the schools the curriculum does not differ for boys and girls and there is the same emphasis on science, math and computing for both sexes. The women working in the educational projects in the movement are often viewed as suitable role models by other Turkish women and the parents of girls (Kalyoncu in press:87). Indeed, when Gülen movement participants first advocated setting up schools for girls, the suggestion was enthusiastically received. I was told by one female administrator in a girls’ school that at the first fundraising meeting before the school’s foundation the women in the meeting immediately donated all the jewelry they were wearing1.

In 1999, after the “soft coup” in Turkey (Çetin 2009), a ban on covering the head was enforced in all educational institutions. The following year, single-sex schools were banned and all the high schools in the movement became co-educational. The bans were perceived by all social actors in Turkey as countermobilizations against educated and practicing Muslim women, especially those holding professional positions or aspirations ([insert cross-reference to Çetin’s paper here, please]; Turam 2007:127). These moves by the state apparatus prevented many practicing Muslim women from entering university, but they did not cause any of the Gülen-inspired schools to close.

The balance of male to female faculty seems to be approximately equal across the Gülen-inspired schools and movement supporters (Boyd 2006:5; Irvine 2007:80–1; Kalyoncu in press:74). Nevertheless, observers sometimes remark on a lack of women in higher and more visible administrative posts in the movement (Stephenson 2007:150–1). Some women in the movement give the ban on the head-covering as one reason for not aspiring to visible roles, such as principal, which would involve representing the school in public2. Turam (2007:128) claims that the ban, far from empowering Muslim women, “has reinforced patriarchal practices”. However, many men in the movement work in the same roles as women and similarly express no desire for career advancement (Stephenson 2007:160 n. 1), and not all women working in the institutions cover their heads outside the workplace. Men and women explain their lack of ambition for higher status or career advancement as an effect of the emphasis on service (hizmet) in the discourse of the movement. Another possible reason for the lack of women in visible leadership roles is the more recent entry of women into the workforce in the institutions and social movement organizations, as the first schools which were established were boys’ schools3.

Although single-sex schools are not permitted in Turkey, Gülen movement participants still encourage girls of all backgrounds to attend school and university (Ünal and Williams 2000:332; Kalyoncu in press:86, 90). Also, in southeastern Turkey, this effort has been extended to literacy classes for adult women in the community around the school (Kalyoncu in press 2007:87).

Characteristics of Good Teachers

Gülen states that parents and a healthy family life are the first essentials of a child’s education and that dysfunctional family life increasingly reflects upon the child’s spirit, and therefore upon society (Ünal and Williams 2000:310–11). In the movement great emphasis is placed, therefore, on the home–school relationship. First, the schools conduct normal, regular parent–teacher meetings in schools, where students’ academic results and general conduct are discussed. Second, every student in a school has a home-room teacher. Throughout the school year these teachers visit the family of each of their students at home outside school hours. Teachers also take after-school clubs, provide extra after-school and weekend tuition and take students on educational visits and field trips. These are all normal practice worldwide throughout the movement. Administrators and teachers believe this extra dedication plays a major role in the success of the schools. All these activities are combined with financial and other material support from the local community, and a tripartite relationship between parents, school and sponsors develops (Aslandoğan and Çetin 2007:49–50).

Gülen calls performance of the superficial, technical aspects of instruction “teaching”, reserving the term “education” for a deeper, more meaningful and holistic activity (Ünal and Williams 2000:312). Notwithstanding the importance that the schools attach to training in practical classroom technique, the teacher is more than a mere purveyor of information or skills. The relationship between teacher and student is crucial: “The best way to educate people is to show a real concern for every individual, not forgetting that each individual is a different ‘world’” (Ünal and Williams 2000:313).

This importance given to the development of the individual in the movement leads to teachers and administrators dedicating extra hours to free after-school and weekend lessons for individuals or small groups. Graduates of the schools, who have started university courses, also return voluntarily to help the students in the following years with their studies and to mentor them (Aslandoğan and Çetin 2007:54). Teachers also form groups or pairs to support new and probationary teachers with planning lessons and clerical tasks associated with teaching. The friendships that result from these voluntary activities build strong feelings of community around schools.

Teachers’ altruism is not confined to sacrificing their time for students. They also make considerable financial sacrifices. Many teachers also sponsor students for part or all of their tuition. Kalyoncu (in press:59) describes sponsors and teachers renovating a half-ruined building for a university preparation course, and I have met teachers in other countries who have done the same. Teachers move from one area to another, and even to other countries to give educational services.

Gülen’s writings on the qualities of good teachers give no indication of the gender of the teachers he is talking about. The fact that there are equal numbers of men and women teachers throughout the movement indicates that the model of the ideal teacher is not in any way gender-related in the eyes of movement participants.

Within the movement, teaching is viewed as service (hizmet) to students, society, the world, and God. This is much more akin to the classical Christian view of teaching as a sacred calling or vocation than to the modern managerial view of teaching as a collection of competencies or measurable goals.

Measuring Achievement

How can the achievement of the schools and other educational activities be assessed or measured? We first consider how far and fast the activities of the movement have spread. We then consider the success of specific goals (the establishment and continuance of particular activities or institutions) and the globality of the issues (Melucci 1999:307–12).

With respect to time and space, the rapidity of the spread of these educational activities and institutions has attracted attention. Gülen movement activities include informal study groups (sohbets) organized by participants to cater for their own education and spiritual needs. These accord with participants’ and supporters’ own needs, wishes, the social environment, and previous knowledge. The Gülen-inspired private primary and secondary schools, university preparation courses, and private universities first sprang up in Turkey and Turkic republics but have now been established in approximately one hundred countries throughout South-East Asia, Africa, Russia, Eastern Europe, and Australia (Zaman 2006). Scholarships are available for talented students who cannot afford the fees. In Western Europe there are community centers or student hostels in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium and Holland. These centers and hostels provide support for those studying in the public education system. Although movement participants have not found it easy to set up schools in the European Union because of the weight of European bureaucracy or tradition, I saw three new schools in the UK in 2007 and Irvine (2007:66) reports three new private high schools in Germany. In addition to educational institutions, Turkish entrepreneurs who share Gülen’s values have established voluntary associations like the Journalists and Writers Foundation, as well as media outlets in television, radio, and print, reflecting Gülen’s view that the mass media should play a part in public education and support the education policy approved by society. (Ünal and Williams 2000:310).

Another measure of success is the achievement of particular aims (Melucci 1999:307–8), such as setting up a school in a particular location, improving the standards of training of a specific group of teachers, and providing a particular holiday course. Gülen counsels precise and thorough planning for new projects (Gülen 1996:75). This planning is always carried out at a local level by supporters and participants of the movement. Before commencing a project, the local group carries out a process of consultation and collective decision-making with all the parties concerned in the local community, including local authorities, parents, sponsors, and Gülen movement participants. Local groups are also carry out and monitor the educational projects so the projects are always adapted to the environment and local needs. (Çetin n.d.; Kalyoncu in press: n.d.)

Gülen also warns that material success is not the only measure. The means must be as legal and legitimate as the goal (Gülen 1996:76). For this reason, the SMOs and institutions are established on a legal basis with fully transparent administrations and accounting systems. Participants obey the law of the land in which they are employed and avoid politicized activities.

The aims of Gülen movement participants and supporters include finding moral values common to different social actors, communities and societies, and the reduction of schism or conflict within and between societies. Through its educational projects, dialogue and media activities, the Gülen movement limits or displaces extremist developments in modern, politicized expressions of Islam and sectarian ideological groups, particularly in Turkey and Central Asia (Ünal and Williams 2000:39; Kalyoncu 2008), and works to develop peaceful and cooperative relationships between communities in all other regions of the world (Michel 2002; Irvine 2007).

Characteristics of the Movement

The spread and success of the movement has been achieved in spite of periods when Gülen and the movement as a whole have come under sustained legal and political attack (Çetin 2009). In this respect, I believe one of the most salient characteristics of the movement is its ability to adapt to varying local conditions and its flexibility in the face of rapid change. Based my observations within the movement, it seems that this adaptability and flexibility are also based on participants’ interpretations of Gülen’s teachings and that Gülen’s own understanding of the dynamics of social change is very advanced.

Three different approaches to understanding change are used by participants in social movements or social movement organizations (and researchers). The first approach sees the organization or movement as monolithic and focuses on shared qualities and consistent elements such as language, beliefs, rituals, leaders, and other aspects of culture. The organization in question disregards, downplays and even denies the existence of differences and variety within it (Meyerson and Martin 1987:32–3). This view, however, can account for only some of the features of the Gülen movement, for example, the majority of its members are Turkish, Muslim, share a language, beliefs, and national rituals (public holidays, etc.).

This analysis of organizations as hierarchical holds out the prospect of change initiated and managed from above, but at the same time is forced to acknowledge the likelihood of “persistence, inertia and thus resistance to change” at the level of “deeper manifestations of culture, such as taken-for-granted assumptions and understandings that underlie behavioral norms or artifacts”. (Meyerson and Martin 1987:33)

In reality, in the Gülen movement, language, beliefs, and other cultural tropes are not shared by all movement volunteers. There is no centralization or central control. Decision making for projects and activities is localized and therefore there is no pyramidal structure or strict ranking, only local, rather flat professional hierarchies within SMOs and institutions. The lack of central control also means that there is no way of knowing whether movement participants and supporters have fully understood the principles of the movement so there is variation in participants’ levels of understanding. While some of Gülen’s writings show his appreciation of Turkish language, beliefs and cultural practices, his emphasis on universal values, appreciation of other national cultures, and dialogue indicate that he does not support a view of the movement as hierarchical.

The second model sees organizations as consisting of a set of subcultures that share some elements of a dominant culture. Variety rather than uniformity is the key to this view and the social environment plays a much greater role (Meyerson and Martin 1987:35). This second viewpoint is found among those who have worked in educational institutions set up by movement supporters in different locations or countries, on a variety of projects, and in different roles. It allows a number of different kinds of “belonging” which require less narrow conformity.

In contrast to the view of change within an organization or culture as “top-down,” directed, and revolutionary, in the subcultures model change is localized, incremental and stimulated by the environment. This means that the effects of local changes on the organization as a whole are difficult to predict and control (Meyerson and Martin 1987:37). This view supports Gülen’s claim that he is neither a leader nor knowledgeable about the schools founded in the name of his ideas. It also accounts satisfactorily for the adaptability and subsequent success of the schools, universities and other projects in widely varying cultures and locations across the world. Schools and other projects are often set up by sponsors in ways that suggest that this model is employed within the movement. Small groups of two or three schools are established under a governing body, sometimes a small trust and sometimes a small company, with a board of trustees or directors respectively, in such a way that the governing body may respond to local demands rapidly and without central restrictions.

In this view, the occurrence of regular meetings of participants working in the same or similar positions in different schools and institutions is less evidence of a hierarchical structure than of an attempt to counteract the problems this kind of devolved structure has with communications. Such meetings encourage but do not impose the spread of particular valued innovations where they may be found suitable to other local conditions, while allowing local control to continue to operate.

The third model of change, instead of positing a monolith or a set of subcultures, accepts ambiguity Agreement, disagreement, ignorance and confusion all coexist and boundaries within and around the organization are permeable, so various internal sub-cultures and influences from the environment gain and lose prominence (Meyerson and Martin 1987:38). Of the three models, the third places the most emphasis on individuals. The organization or movement is a network and individuals, as nodes on the network, may be in more than one relationship at any one time.

The advantage of the network model is that it allows participants a great deal of autonomy, allowing them to experiment with little risk of repercussion as causes of failure and even the criteria by which to judge failure are not clear. It therefore endows the individual with an attractive sense of autonomy. This kind of approach is useful in settings like classrooms, publishing, cross-cultural business and inter-organizational negotiations, where change is constant and a key element of the activity itself (Meyerson and Martin 1987:40).

The correspondence between the range of activities in the Gülen movement and those listed in this analysis is striking. This inclusive network model appeals to those for whom the notion of belonging to a social group is less important and is found among “front-line” or pioneering groups wherever a new project or new and atypical type of project is in the process of being established and draws heavily on resources from a new social environment.

Gülen’s emphasis on getting scientific knowledge from the West is an argument for the permeable boundaries demanded by this model. The expansion of the movement’s activities into other countries also indicates the relevance of this model to the movement. The drive for formal and informal contacts and dialogue with other groups, as evinced by interfaith and intercultural activities initiated by movement participants is another sign of an appreciation of other cultures. At an individual level too, the tolerance of ambiguity characteristic of this model is made explicit. Gülen recognizes the potential for moral ambiguity within human beings and counsels a lenient response (Gülen 1996:87). He asks that this compassionate attitude should typify all encounters (Gülen 1996:19). He argues that even our less attractive characteristics, such as ambition and love of status and fame, can be turned to good use and we should not be quick to condemn others (Gülen 1996:88).

The network model stresses individual adjustment to changes in the environment. Change is therefore continual, almost uncontrollable, and usually undetectable, since there is no stable background against which to measure it. This view of change accords perfectly with Gülen’s urging of participants and volunteers to greater individual effort through his books, published talks, and journals, and periodicals.

Conclusion: The Future of the Movement

I believe that it is only the harmony between Gülen’s philosophy of education and the cultural practice of his movement participants which can explain adequately the continuing growth and success of the movement. It is difficult to hold in mind and use more than one of the models described here at the same time and yet without this ability an individual or a movement will have many “blind spots” and will miss many valuable sources of change. It is my contention that Gülen and the Gülen movement are able to work with multiple models simultaneously.

The qualities of Fethullah Gülen and the huge variety of circumstances in which movement participants labor must raise the issue of alternative future forms of organization and institutionalization. However, if, as I have argued, many Gülen movement volunteers have understood the elements of his teachings outlined here, the movement’s features, especially its collective consultation and decision taking and its inclusiveness, its openness to innovation, may allow it to continue to adapt and grow.

References Cited
Published on, 14 November 2009, Saturday

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