Turkey’s educational oasis strives to keep American style

Up a snaking drive on the European side of Istanbul sits Turkey’s uniquely American institution, Robert College.

By Justin Vela

Robert College. (Justin Vela)

Up a snaking asphalt driveway on the European side of Istanbul, past thick trees and dark green bushes that seem alien in the city’s urban sprawl, sits the massive, pillared halls of Turkey’s uniquely American institution, Robert College.

Celebrating its 150th anniversary next year, the American-style high school has educated two Turkish prime ministers, numerous cabinet ministers, ambassadors and leaders in medicine, law, journalism, business and the arts. One of its most prestigious alumni is Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk.

Now the Turkish government might be undercutting that tradition by insisting that the college adopt curricula that hue to Turkish standards rather than the American-style teaching that defenders say has made the school great.

“It was really an oasis,” said Alexander Dawe, 38, the son of a former dean of Robert College who spent part of his youth living on campus and then later moved back to Turkey to work as a translator. Dawe described the school as a “perfect example of a New England College.”

One of only 11 foreign schools currently operating in Turkey, Robert College was founded by American Christian missionaries in 1863, during a period in the Ottoman era when the empire was opening its borders to foreigners. It’s now the oldest American school operating in its original location abroad.

The school today remains highly selective, both in terms of academic rigor and cost. Only students from elite families can afford the $20,000 annual tuition. Students who also live on campus pay an additional $10,000 per year. Last year, Turkey’s gross domestic product per capita was $14,700 a year.

A changing elite for a changing Turkey

Like an elite schools everywhere, Robert College and its students reflect and shape their country’s social trends. Clashes between the school and Turkey’s increasingly confident civilian government, global terrorism and a more diverse student population are changing the school as similar forces change Turkey.

It’s no surprise Robert College’s community and the Turkish government occasionally fail to see eye-to-eye. The school has a goal of promoting “…critical thought, encouraging independent thought, values we can with some justification call Western, or American,” said Dean John Chandler, a Maine native slated to retire this year after a decade on the job. It’s a style of teaching that contrasts with Turkish education, “which is very teacher-centric,” he claimed.

While its emphasis on critical thinking makes many people value Robert College, the Turkish government doesn’t always agree. Approximately 700 students from various Turkish schools have been jailed in the past few years for criticizing Ankara.

As a result, school teachers and other staff were cautious about making statements to the press, saying they wanted to avoid retaliation from Ministry of National Education officials who are now reviewing the school’s curriculum.

Robert College maintains its American connections. It’s chartered in the U.S. through the Board of Regents of the State of New York and conducts fundraising with an endowed foundation in the U.S. American citizens comprise half the board of trustees.

But the school is also officially a nationally registered school in Turkey and subject to Turkish laws and regulations, a status that sometimes leads to friction.

In Turkey, do as the Turks?

Turkish education officials recently asked the school to adopt the national curriculum for all subjects, for example, a requirement that could compromise the school’s traditional encouragement of thinking outside the box. At present, Robert College only follows Turkey’s national curriculum for the social sciences, not for other subjects, Chandler says.

“It pays lip service across the board,” says Chandler said, describing the national curriculum, but adding that Turkish guidelines are often overly bureaucratic.  “They have to put all into how they teach, not what they teach.”

The school is now seeking to postpone implementing any changes, but the next dean will be faced with the choice of whether to adopt the Turkish standards or resist them, Chandler says.

Turkish education officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Hello, Anatolia

While he was concerned about the future curriculum of the school after his retirement, Chandler says he’s proud that the school was accepting more students from a wider range of Turkish society at a time when the country’s growing wealth has spread into Anatolia.

In the past, Robert College’s students came almost exclusively from Istanbul. But Turkey’s growing wealth has allowed more Anatolian students to attend the school. Today, about 185 out of 1,000 students come from Anatolia, Chandler says.

The War on Terror, especially the 2003 bombing of the British consulate that was blamed on Al Qaeda, has also changed Robert College. Before the bombing, visitors to the school could walk onto campus without a security check. Now, guards verify identities at a security gate before visitors are allowed entrance, administrators said.

Despite the changes, the school’s alumni are still intensely loyal.

Librarian Ayse Yuksel attended Robert College. Thirty years ago, she returned to work as a librarian in its world-renowned archives. (Justin Vela)

Ayse Yuksel, who attended the school as a student, has been a librarian at Robert College for more than 30-years. “I wasn’t planning to work here,” she said. “They told me that there is an opening and I took it. Later on I got addicted. The graduates have contributed so much to the country.”

The library is symbol of Robert College’s academic heft. In a city with plenty of ancient archives, the high school’s stacks are well-respected.

Murat Yildiz, 30, a PhD candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles, came to the college recently to research his dissertation on the spread of sports in the late Ottoman Empire and early republican era in Turkey. The school’s collection of 19th century Ottoman records are probably more complete than any American university’s holdings, Yildiz says.

“The Robert College archive in itself is wonderfully organized,” says Yidliz.