September 22, 2014

'Turkish schools are excellent good will ambassadors for Turkey'

Internationally acclaimed sociologist Professor Vincent N. Parrillo from William Paterson University in New Jersey, the author of a dozen books and numerous journal articles, some translated into nine languages, has been conducting research about Gülen-inspired schools over the last several years.

Turkish scholar Fethullah Gülen is the inspiration behind the faith-based Hizmet movement.

In order to find the answers to their research questions, Professor Parrillo and his research team followed a qualitative methodology selecting negotiated order theory, which focuses on how structure and process combine to achieve an organization's stated goals. They have been to countries with large Muslim populations in the Balkans (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Central Asia (Kazakhstan) and countries with large Christian populations in Europe (Poland, Romania). The research has taken them to between three and five Hizmet schools in Almaty, Astana, Bucharest, Sarajevo, Tirana and Warsaw resulting in nearly 300 interviews.

After the results, Professor Parrillo says that he came away with an admiration for the educators' commitment to educating the whole person, rather than just the acquisition of specific subject matter.

Professor Parrillo says that, without question, these schools are excellent goodwill ambassadors for Turkey.

In response to a question on the efforts of Turkey's newly elected President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to close down the schools, Professor Parrillo says, “With the rising level of literacy and educational achievement a reality, any leader acting against educational institutions will find himself on the wrong side of history.”

Today's Zaman interviewed Professor Parrillo about his research and findings about the Gülen-inspired schools.

Could you please tell us how you decided to research Gülen-inspired schools?

On separate trips to Turkey, my colleague Maboud Ansari and I became slightly familiar with Gülen-inspired institutions, although at that time we did not visit any schools. Back in the United States, we learned more about the Hizmet movement. I heard a few public presentations about these schools in Africa and Asia that aroused my curiosity. Maboud attended a conference in Chicago in which scholars gave papers about Hizmet schools, but he felt they were too descriptive and lacked cultural analysis. Then both of us became aware of criticisms about the schools and claims that they had some hidden agenda. Intrigued, we decided, as outsiders and objective social scientists, to conduct evaluation research to 1) see how effective the schools were in achieving their stated goals, 2) explore the reciprocal impact between different cultures and the schools' fairly universal curriculum and pedagogy, and 3) address suspicions about a hidden political and/or religious agenda, as well as concerns about where the money comes from and why.

Tell us about the scope of your research.

Other studies of the Hizmet schools have primarily been descriptive in their analyses, either discussing them generally or as case studies within a specific country. Until now, researchers have not studied these schools cross-culturally. Never explored exactly what impact -- intellectually, political or otherwise -- within distinctive cultures these schools have on students' attitudes, behaviors and goals. Our study thus is a far more expansive one because it is a cross-cultural analysis of these schools in numerous countries with different cultures and histories. So far, we have been to countries with large Muslim populations in the Balkans (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Central Asia (Kazakhstan) and countries with large Christian populations in Europe (Poland, Romania). Shortly we will extend our study into Canada and the United States, countries with diverse populations. Our research thus has taken us to between three and five Hizmet schools in Almaty, Astana, Bucharest, Sarajevo, Tirana and Warsaw resulting in nearly 300 interviews.

Moreover, the information we are gathering comes from four sources connected with these schools, the students, parents, educators and financial supporters. Consequently, our research rests upon four unique perspectives of individuals residing in seven countries, each of them unique in their cultures and demographics. This rich and diverse resource material provides a solid basis for a better understanding of the Hizmet schools in form, function and performance.

Tell us about your methodology. How did you collect the data?

Ours was a qualitative study, one in which we conducted semi-structured interviews that lasted about a half-hour each in a private room, with each respondent assured of anonymity and confidentiality. Schools varied in size from less than 200 to more than 500 enrollees. Included in this study were both same-sex and coed schools in all countries, as well as schools that had only dorm students, no resident students at all or a mixture of the two. Given our time constraints and other challenges, we used stratified sampling to divide our student population by gender, religion and year level, and our parent population by religion and social class (as determined by occupation). We then used convenience sampling to secure not only our student and parent interviewees but also our teacher and financial supporter interviewees. We each carefully detailed what was said, and later typed and combined our notes. Next, we looked for patterns in the responses that cut across both cultural lines and role-specific viewpoints. Like all social scientists, we established a theoretical framework to guide our research, particularly our analysis. We selected negotiated order theory, which focuses on how structure and process in an organization combine to achieve the stated goals. For purposes of this study, we drew from the schools' mission statements to determine how successful they were in: (1) teaching universal human values through role modeling by teachers; (2) teaching modern, scientific and technological knowledge through classroom instruction; and (3) establishing organic solidarity within diverse cultural and religious communities.

What were your research questions? What were you looking for?

Our contextual questions probed into individual demographics, self-perceptions and institutional perceptions, level of school and community involvement, personal experiences, academic aspirations and future life goals. Other open-ended questions gave respondents the opportunity to expand further upon their responses, which we encouraged, as well as on other aspects of their social situations. When necessary, we asked pertinent follow-up questions.

Throughout our questioning, we sought to examine the effectiveness and impact of the movement's avowed objective to promote dialogue, tolerance and respect among different cultural and religious groups. Through our interviews we also sought to determine how the motivations and reactions of individuals correspond to the schools' mission. Further, we wanted to know if, in the manifest and latent functions operative in integrating tradition with modernity and democracy, the schools also advanced a more specific political or religious agenda, as critics have charged.

Our questions varied a bit, depending on with which of the four cohorts we conversed. For example, one question we asked students and parents was what they liked best about the school. We questioned financial supporters as to why they gave money. With educators, we partly probed into their motivation and satisfaction levels.

Did you find the answers you were looking for?

Yes, although our research is still ongoing and thus final analysis is down the road a bit. Everyone connected with the schools has been most cooperative and trusting in giving us unrestricted access to randomly selected interviewees. The students were a good mix of males and females; different ages, religions and social class backgrounds, and with varying educational experiences, in that some were recent public school students and others longer-term enrollees in the Hizmet schools. The parents were arbitrarily chosen as they arrived to pick up their children. Also, we interviewed teachers who were diverse in their backgrounds and experiences; some of them were in the movement and others not. This broad spectrum of respondents gives greater credibility to our findings, further assuring that this is an objective, scientific study and not a public-relations article for the schools. We are outsiders looking at this educational model. We have no vested interest in the schools or movement and we were not paid to do this research. We were simply driven by intellectual curiosity.

Tell us what findings surprised you the most.

Of our many findings, perhaps the most surprising were the close bonds between students and teachers. As a former high school teacher myself, and one who has been an educational consultant in the past, I am familiar with the extra effort put forth by dedicated American teachers and with the strong professional relationships that often develop between younger teachers and their students. However, that which exists as a norm in the Hizmet schools goes much further.

In every school, in every country, at every grade level, students -- male and female alike -- would name teachers as one of the best things about their school. Our follow-up questions revealed it was more than dedication and personal attention, two attributes that former public school student respondents said had been missing in their prior education. One reason was the extra time outside the classroom that teachers devoted to helping students master the class material. Even further, their teachers visited their families once a year, thereby strengthening the triad relationship of school, student and family. Still further was the level of the student-teacher relationship. The most common unprompted comment from students in all seven countries was that their teachers were more than that -- they also were “family,” like a “big brother” or “big sister.” I came away with an admiration for the educators' commitment to educating the whole person, rather than just the acquisition of specific subject matter.

What do you think these schools can provide and/or are already providing to humanity?

That's an important question and flows nicely from my last comment. When I said “the whole person,” I was referring to the numerous ways these schools promote mutual respect and intercultural understanding. We made a strong and successful effort to interview students from ethnic, racial and religious minority groups in addition to those from the majority group. Whether in leading by example, teaming up students in group projects, offering advice about character-building in the tea time informal sessions after class or other approaches, the teachers consistently promoted universal values and intercultural interactions. When I asked one businessman in Kazakhstan why he was so generous in his financial support, he simply responded, “Humanity.” Similarly, in Bosnia, a Christian technician, with tears welling in his eyes, told of his daughter's exposure to such teachings in turn resurrecting in him his own tolerant feelings, ones that had been submerged by the interethnic violence of the 1990s, still vivid in the memories of his generation. He told me that any school that can promote such attitudes deserves as much support as he or anyone can give. Another example is in one of the most common responses of parents everywhere to a question about changes observed in their children since attending Hizmet schools. Their children, they said, had become more tolerant of others and less quick to make negative judgments. As these comments indicate, the schools are making a major contribution to society by inculcating in students respect and tolerance for unlike others.

From your observations, what was the general feeling of the people involved in the schools?

Students and parents were extremely positive about the quality of the education and the universal values taught. They also liked the safe environment in the schools (no bullying, drugs, gangs, etc.) and the dedication and personal rapport with the teachers and educators. The schools enjoy such a high reputation that typically they can only admit one-tenth the number seeking entrance. Also, within the schools we found that the morale of staff and students is quite high.

How do you think these schools have helped the "Turkish image" in the world?

Without question, these schools are excellent goodwill ambassadors for Turkey. In the countries we visited, the public knows them as the “Turkish schools.” With the schools enjoying a wide reputation for quality among the populace in these countries (something we can confirm), by natural extension that positive impression can only enhance the general public image of Turkey itself. Moreover, the schools offer courses in Turkish language and culture, thereby extending familiarity with Turkey in other parts of the world that otherwise would not occur.

What do you think about Erdoğan's ambition to close down these schools?

I think it is unfortunate. All wise leaders recognize the immense value and accrued benefits a country enjoys with a well-educated citizenry. One of my country's most illustrious leaders, Thomas Jefferson, came from an affluent background but he recognized that freedom and democracy rested on extending quality education to everyone. One of his proudest accomplishments, besides authoring our Declaration of Independence and the religious freedom statute in Virginia, was founding the University of Virginia -- all three, as per his instructions inscribed on his tombstone. Jefferson would have never advocated the closing of any schools that promote learning and acceptance of others. No one else should either.

Although through competitive entrance exams these schools recruit the best and the brightest, they are not “elitist” as is charged. I learned that school officials make determined efforts to enroll students from all parts of a country. They give the test in many locales to give all students an even chance to gain acceptance. Those with high eligibility scores but not the financial means can get partial or full scholarships. Bright youngsters without influential connections get the chance to become educated in a strong learning environment, and lower-scoring applicants do not get in simply because they have “connections.” These schools, it seems to me, are not elitist because a performance meritocracy guides the selection process, not family background.

In addition, Turkey benefits enormously from these schools, not just in its public image abroad but in its own youngsters getting a superb education and thus become well prepared to make significant contributions to Turkish society. I say this with insight into how many high-school students from the Hizmet schools continually get accepted at many prestigious universities abroad, and return to make the mark in their homeland. Furthermore, as we discovered in our investigation, the schools have no hidden political or religious agenda, unless one considers advocacy of respect, character building and intercultural dialogue as such. If so, that's an agenda that everyone should welcome.

On what level can governments take Erdoğan seriously?

I do not feel qualified to offer a political opinion on this question. I will say, however, that history teaches us that those individuals whose leadership policies and actions embraced the future and sought a more civilized society by advancing education are the ones whose memory and legacy lives on. Those who repress education are either soon forgotten after their deaths or else are negative footnotes. Americans still admire Jefferson 200 years later. [Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk's personal involvement in education reforms is part of his legacy that gives him a lasting positive place in history. With the rising level of literacy and educational achievement a reality, any leader acting against educational institutions will find himself on the wrong side of history.

Published on Today's Zaman, 22 September 2014, Monday