A Revolution in Learning - 
The Lessons of Ataturk
by Ian Bullock

We often so greatly underestimate the initiative, creativity, resilience, and capability of those we have been entrusted to ‘govern.’ There is ample evidence to the contrary in this ‘story’ of challenge, success, and triumph of the ‘little’ people-  the great untapped capability of the ‘governed.’  (ed.)

Top-down / bottom up change!

This deals with a conversion - similar to a business undergoing a systems conversion, but not quite.  Not a metric conversion, nor a religious conversion, although elements of both are present.  It has to do with overcoming the resistance to change mind-set by recruiting the young as change agents in a top-down bottom-up process.

The scenario is the Turkish Republic of 1928, in the process of being dragged into the 20th century by its autocratic visionary President, Kemal Ataturk, from the wreckage of World War 1 defeat.  Ability to read  was the privilege of a select few and even fewer could write properly because the Arabic script in use for more than a millenium did not lend itself to the phonetics of the Turkish language. 

How to bring about universal education when writing was an art form using arcane language frozen in time.  The matter had taken on added urgency with the Turkic language republics in the Soviet Union converting to Latin script some two years earlier, by fiat, thus threatening the written links between these varied linguistic groups. 

An Alphabet Commission was appointed and after some preliminary analysis and work, came to the conclusion that it would take at least five years to allow for the teaching of both scripts in the schools as well as printing both of them side by side in the newspapers.  Monumental obstacles were in the way: archives needed to be converted; contracts transcribed; school manuals produced; printers trained; typeset imported; teachers trained, ... and on ... and on.  Then the old script would be phased out. 

The President spotted the ‘running parallel’ syndrome that could drag on indefinitely and stated that the change must happen in three months if it was to happen at all.  He headed off potential opposition from the clerics by means of a series of conferences and  one-on-one meetings, lined up support from those among the influential literate, many of whom knew European languages, and made sure that deputies in the National Assembly understood that to raise the nation’s level of literacy to that in the West they each had to lead by gaining familiarity with the Latin script. 

After much debate, and behind the scenes arm twisting, it was decreed that newspapers would carry passages in the new script before switching completely at the end of three months.  All teaching in the schools was to be done in the new script starting in the fall of that year - thus a crisis was created, not unknowingly, considering the absence of textbooks and teachers who could instruct in the script.  To deal with it, the whole nation became a classroom and the blackboard its symbol as deputies headed back to their constituencies to organize the teaching of the new alphabet.  Ever the hands-on executive, even the President busied himself instructing groups and individuals in the use of the new script which he called the true ‘Turkish’ alphabet, thereby also appealing to national pride by carefully avoiding any reference to ‘Latin script’.  He accepted no less a leadership role from the deputies.  By November 1928 the new script became law and use of the Arabic script was banned as of the end of that year. 

Civil servants throughout the nation sat for examinations of proficiency in the new script, and a School of the Nation was set up (its chief instructor was the President) whose objective was to foster literacy in the population.  Within a year it had issued more than a million certificates of proficiency.

Youth revelled in the reform as it freed them from the dead hand of history and opened up opportunities for learning.  The children and the illiterates were the quickest to learn, their minds not having to unlearn the previous alphabet, and they in turn instructed the older generation.  And the rest is history. 

Ian Bullock is an author, reviewer, eagle eye co-editor of The CEO Refresher, investor & shareholder champion, former CFO and consultant, residing in Toronto, Canada. Contact Ian by e-mail: ibullock@onramp.ca .

Many more articles on Leading Change and Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives | Other book reviews and articles by Ian Bullock


Copyright 1999 by Ian Bullock. All rights reserved.

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