Saturday, May 8, 2010

Education in Turkey

I admit that this blog has been pretty Evan-heavy lately.  I apologize.  I had a couple weeks of midterms mixed with weekly traveling, so the blog needed to take a break.  My midterm results have been mixed so far.  I got the high score in Control Systems, which was announced to the class in a very public give-a-chocolate-bar-to-the-high-scorer ceremony.  The chocolate bar had pistachios in it and was rather delicious.  It almost justified the alienation that may come from my classmates for my handing their collective asses* to them.  On the other hand, I got the average score in Advanced Strength of Materials, which between METU’s and Mudd’s high standards means that I am currently failing.

This segues into a trend that I’ve been seeing at METU.  The long of the short of it is that Turkey is educationally screwed and there is very little they can do about it.  Let me explain…

Education is a big deal in Turkey.  Both high school and university have rigorous entrance exams with engineering being one of the most competitive fields.  Only the top 5000 or so students out of over a million every year are allowed to enroll in METU or ITU in mechanical or electrical engineering.  To get in, many METU students spend their after school hours “dershaneler” (class houses) for up to six years before the university admissions test.

All this studying makes students really good at memorizing things.  This isn’t exactly helped by a class structure where the professors see themselves as providers of information rather than educators.  While they lecture for three hours a week, they expect the students to teach themselves the material.  As the students have perfected memorizing, they employ it as study skill #1.
In mechanical engineering, this memorization obsession is thankfully minimal.  Though they sometimes reward speed and perfection more than they should, the tests are pretty problem-solving intensive.  According to Johnny, chemistry is a different story.  There, the professors have seemingly given up on teaching their students to do chemistry.  Labs are pre-planned and tests are pretty exclusively based in rote memorization.

The sad thing is that the professors do not really endorse this type of education.  METU has required its professors to get their Ph.D.s abroad for decades, and many know the importance of critical thinking.  They are either too lazy or afraid to do anything about it though.  The students have been memorizing since early in their careers and no professor in departments like chemistry wants to be the first one to break the cycle.  They know that if they request more of their students, nobody will be able to pass their examinations.  Some professors have tried.

The result is a country of competent students that will do nothing extraordinary with their lives.  Most of the students here are studying so they can have steady work.  Passion is not as highly rated.  One student told me that it was a perfect time to be an engineer in Turkey, since Ford was outsourcing their more tedious engineering tasks there.  This student (who is apparently near the top of his class) might be the ideal candidate for such work, seeing as he said that he could not conceive anything vastly new being engineered in the next hundred or so years.

So why doesn’t anyone do anything?  No matter what happens, these students are going to get METU degrees and they will be set for life.  They can become professors or professionals and live the good life whether or not they actually learn useful information.  This is the Turkish Dream: obtain a high-status position that allows you to live comfortably and put little additional effort into your work.

So relax, America.  We still have a huge educational advantage.  Even though our educational system sometimes eschews learning for “talking about our feelings” and the like, it teaches critical thinking and makes students dream big.

*I apologize to anyone reading this blog that doesn’t know that word.

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