Compulsory Ignorance

Jocelyn Pihlaja essays

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Responding to the waving arm of a village woman clad in the traditional clothing of shalvar pants and long white head scarf, the driver pulled over. As the door to the mini-bus rolled open, the woman leaned inside and asked in Turkish, “Is this the bus to Urgup?”

“No,” responded the driver, “This is the Nevsehir bus. The Urgup one is coming along soon.”

“Ah, okay,” the woman said as she removed her foot from the step, backing away from the bus. At that moment, a buzz went through the first two rows of seats, amongst other traditionally-garbed women. Mutters of “Not the Urgup bus?” and “Going to Nevsehir?” and “Whoops, wrong bus. Lemmeoff!” accompanied the bustle of several other women packing up their bags, re-adjusting their scarves,and making for the door.

Patiently, the driver waited while they disembarked, wished them a good day, and shifted into gear. Bemused, I turned to my husband and noted, “Isn’t it bizarre that this happens every time?” On a year of sabbatical, our family had been living in the Cappadocian region of Turkey for several months; during this time, we’d been rapt observers of the culture, right down to gaping at the dynamics on the small buses known as dolmuses.

In response to my question, my husband agreed, “It’s amazing. These women have lived here their whole lives; they’re heading to one of two possible destinations, yet there’s vast confusion about which bus to get on. They plop down and start chatting about their achy knees, only to discover six minutes later that they’re on the wrong bus…”

Breaking in, I added, “…which is so weird since the destination is printed on that big placard in the front window!”

Indeed. The buses from our village headed to Nevsehir, or they headed to Urgup. In the front window of every dolmus was a lettered sign: either NEVSEHIR or URGUP. Even I, myopic bifocal wearer, could decipher the six-inch letters when the bus pulled up.

Thus, the village women’s confusion was baffling. Eventually, after asking around, we learned: While the current law is that Turks must complete eighth grade, it wasn’t always so.

Until relatively recently, Turkey’s requirement for mandatory education was a mere five years of primary education. Factor into that a lack of busing, families that didn’t approve of educating girls, and overcrowded schools that offered half-day sessions so that a second set of students could come in during the afternoon hours, and suddenly it seemed amazing that these women were able to find the bus stop at all.

On the day in question, though, we were as confused as undereducated village women faced with a reading task.

Catching whiff of the conversation, our 10-year-old daughter interjected, “Wait. What are you talking about?”

Quickly, we briefed her. Emphasizing the scope of the issue, I explained, “So basically, the majority of adults in Turkey, unless they were lucky enough to have particular intelligence or a family with the means to pay school fees, stopped going to school after fifth grade. Think of it this way: imagine how much you wouldn’t know if this year of school you’re doing right now were your last, if you never again had to sit down and wrap your head around fractions and decimals, if you never again had your brainspin in the face of simple versus complex sentences, if you never again got to learn anything academic. Imagine if fifth grade were the end of your learning. That’s what we’re talking about: people for whom fifth grade was the peak.”

For just a beat, one perfect beat in 4/4 time, our daughter was silent.

She looked out the window at the garbage blowing in the wind. Her eyes took in the crumbling houses ,already eroding although only half-built. She flashed back to hours spent in waiting areas, times when we shocked the assembled crowd by opening our bags and pulling out books. Her active brain remembered when the cash register at the grocery store indicated we owed 12 lira, but after we handed over a 20 lira note, it took a minute of finger counting under the counter before the worker made change. She blipped to the street repair that had happened outside our rented house, when the entire lane was dug up to fix some pipes—then, a week after that job, dug up again to fix a few more. Finally,of course, she mentally rifled through the many instances of women getting off the well-marked bus once they realized where it was headed.

That single beat later, our smart girl’s sponge of a brain, so ready to absorb any input, had processed the information about Turkey’s former educational requirements, and her eyebrows shot up. Matter-of-factly she noted—greeted by our hoots of laughter—

“Well, that sure explains a lot.”


About the Author

Jocelyn Pihlaja

Jocelyn has been teaching writing at the college level since 1991. She has a husband who cooks dinner every night, kids who hold up hands requesting "silence" when their reading is interrupted, and a blog, .

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January 2015 – live & learn
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