John Dewey in Turkey: Lessons for today

The Republic of Turkey was proclaimed on October 29, 1923. As its first President, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (photo below) sought to establish the modern Turkey as a “vital, free, independent, and lay republic in full membership of the circle of civilized states.” He recognized the need for “public culture,” which would enable citizens to participate fully in public life, and saw the unification and modernization of education as the key. Accordingly, one of his first acts was to invite John Dewey, who arrived in Turkey just nine months after the proclamation.

In this endeavor, the ideas of Atatürk and Dewey were consonant. Dewey’s words above (“vital, free, …”) could have been written by Atatürk, just as Dewey might have talked about “public culture.” Both recognized the need to institute compulsory primary education for both girls and boys, to promote literacy, to establish libraries and translate foreign literature into Turkish, and to connect formal schooling, the workplace, and government.

Today is John Dewey’s 149th birthday. Back in 1924, he was nearing the age of 65, when many people think of retiring. But his three-month-long study in Turkey was an ambitious project. He addressed issues of the overall educational program, the organization of the Ministry of Public Instruction, the training and treatment of teachers, the school system itself, health and hygiene, and school discipline. Within those broad topics, he studied and wrote about orphanages, libraries, museums, playgrounds, finances and land grants for education, and what we might call service learning or public engagement today.

He laid out specific ideas, such as how students in a malarial region might locate the breeding grounds of mosquitoes and drain pools of water of cover them with oil. In addition to learning science they would improve community health and teach community members about disease and health. Workplaces should offer day care centers and job training for youth. Libraries were to be more than places to collect books, but active agents in the community promoting literacy and distributing books. In these ways, every institution in society would foster learning and be connected to actual community life. As Dewey (1983, p. 293) argued,

The great weakness of almost all schools, a weakness not confined in any sense to Turkey, is the separation of school studies from the actual life of children and the conditions and opportunities of the environment. The school comes to be isolated and what is done there does not seem to the pupils to have anything to do with the real life around them, but to form a separate and artificial world.

Atatürk saw the need to unify Turkey into a nation state, despite its great diversity. Dewey supported that but emphasized that unity cannot come through top-down enforcement of sameness (p. 281):

While Turkey needs unity in its educational system, it must be remembered that there is a great difference between unity and uniformity, and that a mechanical system of uniformity may be harmful to real unity. The central Ministry should stand for unity, but against uniformity and in favor of diversity. Only by diversification of materials can schools be adapted to local conditions and needs and the interest of different localities be enlisted. Unity is primarily an intellectual matter, rather than an administrative and clerical one. It is to be attained by so equipping and staffing the central Ministry of Public Instruction that it will be the inspiration and leader, rather than dictator, of education in Turkey.

This was realized in many ways. For example, the central ministry should require nature study, so that all children have the opportunity to learn about and from their natural environment, but it should insist upon diversity in the topics, materials, and methods. Those would be adapted to local conditions, so that those in a coastal village might study fish and fishing while those in an urban center or a cotton-raising area would study their own particular conditions.

Many of Dewey’s ideas were implemented and can be seen in Turkey today, as we come upon its 85th birthday next week. What’s even more striking to me is how relevant they are to the US today. Many of our problems can be traced to the “separation of school studies from the actual life of children and the conditions and opportunities of the environment,” but also to the separation of work from learning, of health from community, of libraries from literacy development, or of universities from the public. Dewey would be the first to argue that we need to re-create solutions in new contexts, but his report from long ago and far away still provides insights for a way forward today.


Ata, Bahri (2000). The influence of an American educator (John Dewey) on the Turkish educational system. Turkish Yearbook of International Relations (Milletlerarası Münasebetler Türk Yıllığı), 31. Ankara: Ankara Üniversitesi.

Bilgi, Sabiha, & Özsoy, Seckin (2005). John Dewey’s travelings into the project of Turkish modernity. In Thomas S. Popkewitz (ed.), Inventing the modern self and John Dewey: Modernities and the traveling of pragmatism in education (pp. 153-177). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Dewey, John (1983). Report and recommendations upon Turkish education. In Jo Ann Boydston (ed.), The Middle Works: Essays on Politics and Society, 1923-1924. Vol. 15 of Collected Works. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press.

Wolf-Gazo, Ernest (1996). John Dewey in Turkey: An educational mission. Journal of American Studies of Turkey, 3, 15-42.

first Youth Community Informatics Forum

In the Youth Community Informatics Forum held June 27-28, 2008, about 40 young people and youth leaders came to Champaign from a variety of economically disadvantaged, mostly minority communities throughout the state.

There was a youth media festival on Friday. Then on Saturday, participants spent the morning working in one of four small groups to investigate “information spaces” in the community. These included the Center for Children’s Books, Champaign Public Library, the Independent Media Center, Espresso Royale, Native House, Cafe Paradiso, Transit Plaza, Illini Union, and bronze plaques around campus. The group leader introduced a staff member from the center to the students for a small tour and helped them use a Flip video camera and a GPS receiver to record their observations.

At each site, the youth asked questions such as:

  1. What do we see in this information center? How do we like it?
  2. What is this center about?
  3. What do we want people to know about the center?
  4. How can we give others a clear idea about the center through watching/hearing our report?

In the afternoon, they created a Google map with their videos, text, and GPS coordinates. They also added music (an innovation we hadn’t planned on, but perfectly appropriate). They then shared their findings in a public presentation.

The activity was conceived in terms of an Inquiry Cycle:

Inquiry cycle

Inquiry cycle

  • Ask: What are the information spaces in the community?
  • Investigate: Visit, listen, explore, video, determine geo-coordinates.
  • Create: Make a GIS site with video, music, text.
  • Discuss: Share the product and the findings with others.
  • Reflect: Think about issues of journalism, democracy, careers, technologies, etc.

We found that the students learned technology skills, problem solving, cooperative work, writing, public presentation, specific information spaces, community journalism, university life, and much more.

Although the June activity made use of diverse new technologies, it is important to note that the focus was on learning about the community, asking questions, and sharing findings with others, not on the technologies per se. The most effective use of these technologies in libraries and similar settings would likely involve embedding that use in a larger, purposeful context. That context in turn could be a way to help connect youth with other resources, such as books and structured activities.

We’re now planning a similar activity in October with the Mortenson Center Associates, a group of visiting, international librarians. This will be the first day of a two- or three-day event. The longer time will allow for discussion about how the information spaces might differ in different countries, what technologies are available in different contexts, how valuable the activity would be for youth in their libraries, and so on. Students from the Community Informatics (LEEP) course would lead the investigation of the local-area information centers.

Both youth leaders and young people said they enjoyed the Forum, learned a lot, and hope for more. One youth leader said that next year he’d like to bring a much larger group. Another wrote,

I believe, in the not too distant future, that this conference will be seen as a landmark in developing a new perspective as part of the partnership between those marginalized sectors of civil society and the university in bridging the digital divide.

As Myles Horton might say, that’s a long haul, but at least there was good spirit of cooperation in learning, which I hope will carry over to continuing work in these communities.

[Cross-posted on social issues]

Youth Community Informatics Forum

Forum flyer p. 1The goal of the Youth Community Informatics project is to encourage youth to consider careers in library and information science by engaging them in technology-rich activities that benefit their local communities. Youth ages 12-18, along with their adult leaders.

  1. participate in technology-mediated learning modules on a range of information science topics;
  2. work on community informatics projects in collaboration with local community partners and university students from LIS and related fields;
  3. participate in campus events to experience a wide variety of library and information science careers;
  4. Forum flyer p. 2help develop computer technology centers for their own use, and for use by others in their communities.

In the Youth Community Informatics Forum, to be held on June 27-28, 2008 at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, groups of youth will investigate information spaces around campus using digital cameras and GPS, along with their own eyes and ears, create Google Maps representations of what they learn, discuss their findings with other groups. They will also learn about LIS careers and about working with their own communities.

The project is supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

The fountain of knowledge

Edessa waterfallsWhereas many Greek towns might be dusty and dry, Edhessa (Έδεσσα) is lush and wet. Much of it is free of cars as well. The reason is a river cascading down from the mountains to the north. It flows through the town, allowing park spaces along the banks and a complex array of paths and bridges crisscrossing the waters. Then, at the edge of the old town (Varossi), the river descends rapidly, culminating in two large waterfalls, which I came to see as fountains of knowledge.

Following the Networked Learning Conference earlier last week in Halkidiki, Greece, we had headed west through Thessaloniki to the region around Edessa. This is where Alexander the Great was born and where his father, Phillip II and Aristotle went to to school together. It includes what are now the major archaeological sites of Vergina, the site of the ancient Macedonian royal city of Aegae, and Pella, the later capital. Alexander, of course, was the one whose conquests spread Hellenistic culture throughout Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, and eventually the entire Persian Empire, going as far as India. Supposedly, he slept with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow throughout the campaign. His exploits might not represent the origin of the knowledge, but they certainly helped it flow and created an early version of a global culture.

The oracles of Delphi and other sites might allow Greeks to claim the fountain of knowledge. Towns with names like Grammatico make one feel that love of knowledge is intrinsic to daily life. Add in the beginnings of Western science and philosophy and the whole nation would seem to be a bubbling fountain of knowledge, if it just weren’t so sunny and dry!

Edessa libraryI thought we might be approaching the fountain when we came to Meixa, the location of Aristotle’s school (from the Greek schole), where Alexander had studied. But it was just north of there in Edessa, that the fountain revealed itself.

The pleasure of experiencing the water town was only enhanced for me when we visited the wonderful town library. Staff there helped us access the internet and told us more about Edessa.

The library has a unique logo combining two of my favorite things, books and water. It suggests that the ideas of Plato, Sophocles, Hippocrates, Thucydidies, Heraclitus, and all the rest flow from the library, providing pleasure for the mind as the cataracts do for both body and mind. I like the way the logo incorporates the @ sign, too. Fortunately, knowledge is never owned by any one time, place, or people, but Edessa and its library make as good a claim as any to being its source.

Libr@ries: Changing information space and practice

Libr@ries examines the social, cultural, and political implications of the shift from traditional forms of print-based libraries to the delivery of online information in educational contexts. Despite the central role of libraries in literacy and learning, research of them has, in the main, remained isolated within the disciplinary boundaries of information and library science.


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