MP3 Audio: Hugh Pope Interview by Jim Zellmer

Jim Zellmer: What does it mean to be educated in 2013 and beyond?
Hugh Pope: Increasingly, I think it's a critical indicator of how well a society is doing. I think that how well educated the people are does give a very good indication of how things are going to go for a country in the future. For instance, in Turkey I think they are genuinely held back by a lack of commitment to open-minded education and to a proper length of education. Very often the rulers of Turkey associate progress with shopping malls and lengths of dual-carriage highways and ignore the fact that the average age of children in schools and the average length of time that children spend in school is somewhere between six and eight years, which is obviously nothing compared to competitors in Asia or in Europe. I think that the lack of education can be a big problem for a country like Turkey if it truly wishes to break out of the second division of countries in the world, and move up to the first division.
Jim: Why do you think that is? I was going to mention I have an acquaintance who teaches at Robert's college, and clearly there are some in Turkey who value education. I've met them in America and other places. Why do you think the policies are what they are?
Hugh: I think it's based in... [laughs]
Jim: I was asking you why you think the policies are what they are, given that some parts of Turkey, obviously, value higher education and longer education.
Hugh: Obviously the policies from the government is to try and get more education. I think that as Turkey has urbanized, it's been a quantum leap in consciousness among parents about how important it is... [audio skip 2:15] cannot have well-educated children, and that can... [cell phone rings] [audio skips]
Hugh: Jim, this is going to be more comfortable for all of us.
Jim: Oh, good. [laughs] Ah, the humanity of technology. Anyway, we were talking about the policies about improving education, and why it is what it is.
Hugh: Obviously families who used to be rural used to value a large number of children who didn't have to be educated and would work on the fields and increase the value of the family output that way. But once urbanized, people needed and do still need higher-educated children, and less of them, because it's expensive to educate people. There's been a real shift towards an educated population in Turkey and, I think, many countries through the region. People are really ready to invest in the education of their children above all other things to increase the long-term well-being of their families. The problem comes in Turkey where it clashes with the old-fashioned idea that education is to create a kind of ideological citizen who is going to be a loyal actor and loyal to the state. That clashes with all kinds of modern ideas of western education, which should be about creativity and independence of thinking and so forth.

You have rote learning being very much the basis of a lot of [telephone busy signal sound] education in this region clashing with the need to be much more of a thoughtful person. Turkey is only halfway across that, [Skype tone] bridging that divide.

There is another additional problem that is standing in the way of that wish to be a better education population is the school system works according to one set of curriculum objectives to get a high school passing out certificate, but that does not count for entrance into University, which is another exam. Which is by enlarge something that is a highly complicated set of things that have to be learned more or less by heart and that's done in evening classes in special colleges where the poor children of this country go after they finish their normal school.

They spend their whole childhood, basically, working for exams. I have to say it's, in many ways, I find a country like Turkey to be a miracle of the informal over the formal, because [indecipherable 5:12] of a child after having gone through all of this would find it very difficult to develop normally. But in fact Turkey, as you've seen, it's a perfectly normal country.

Jim: Yes. Well, it sounds similar to South Korea and parts of China, obviously...interesting.
Hugh: I think that's a fair comparison. But I do think a country like Turkey has to look at South Korea and wonder how it is that South Korea, which had a lower per capita income than Turkey back in the 50's, has so completely overtaken Turkey on questions of technological development. There's no Samsung in Turkey that is a world champion technological breakthrough. Turkey has remained a very secondary [indecipherable 6:06] copycat country. I think that's because the Korean education system and the Korean attitude to goal setting has been more sophisticated than the educational managers in Turkey.
Jim: How about the other places you've visited across the Middle-East and Central Asia. What observations do you have on their education systems, successes and failures as well as things that we in the West should know?
Hugh: Well what was interesting when the Cold War ended, you had several countries like Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and other Central Asian-stans that had been for about a hundred years within a Russian orbit under the Czars' empire and the Soviet Union, and had therefore undergone a complete transformation in their educational approaches. Now, of course, one should put a little warning sign that there was some level of discrimination against local cultures in that time. But overall to this day there is a big difference in the society and education of those countries that underwent quite a rigorous educational system, especially under the Soviet Union. Quite surprisingly meritocratic as well, which is very different from the countries right next door like Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey, which would be...obviously the formation of elites would to some extent be based on meritocratic education, but politics and rich family background played a much bigger role. That dividing line, that I think is an educational dividing line, persists to this day, and that's something which strikes me from the region.

Of course, we're looking at the Central Asia and the Middle East and you ask what the West should know, it's usually quite misleading to look at countries like this based on a Western point of departure if you think countries have developed along different timelines. I think it's much more useful to look at countries like Afghanistan, for instance as, "What is it now, where was it 10 years ago, and where could it realistically get in 10 years' time?" Rather than, "My gosh, they seem to be stuck in the Middle Ages, this is a disaster, they need to be transformed completely," which is so really quite unrealistic.

Jim: Yes, [laughs] yes.
Hugh: That, again, I think it's something to do with education. For instance, the Taliban is based on an educational concept. How come they run the place, or ran the place 10 years ago and by the look of it will be running it...I better not say that. But so they still have a role.
Jim: Yes, sure.
Hugh: That educational system was the one thing that the culture had, and to tell it to students. One might not like the system they created, but it was a system, and it was one that managed to achieve dominance in Afghanistan. I think that it's an interesting way of looking at the region and of course it's also difficult to dissociate with politics and I am hearing a very unpleasant echo of my voice which is putting me off. [laughs]
Jim: Yeah. No, it's good here, thank you but it is...
Hugh: OK. Yeah, I will just take the...when I start talking I'll take the earpiece away.
Jim: Do you have a sense across these regions of the mix of public, private, religious and maybe other education what does that look like?
Hugh: Yeah. There again, I think it's very important that we find in our work in crisis group is very important to look at each jurisdiction and country separately rather than make sweeping judgments about whole regions. But of course there are features you see in common. Obviously Iran is a very interesting case where one group of educated people are...people educated in a particular way in the Hawzas of Qom the religious schools where the mullahs have taken over the country but at the same time as the current government of Iran is a very strictly ideological, theocratic regime. The main source of opposition to that other mullahs in Iran who have very different views of how the country should be run, and even believe that there shouldn't be a theocratic ruled Iran. In many ways they are the most legitimate critics of the government of Iran, and again that's a product of an educational system for the religious elite, but that's certainly only one of a number of education systems in Iran. You contrast that to Turkey where the education system of the religious elite is completely subsumed to the state.

They're two countries side by side with many similar characteristics, but Turkey's different developments and the way they've chosen to educate their elites has very much determined how the countries look today.

Jim: Do you have a sense of the proportions of populations in those two countries going through the religious education, or the public, or private, or whatever other models they might have? Do you have a distribution of that at all?
Hugh: No, I've never looked at the breakdown of that, but what's fascinating about the two countries again, Turkey and Iran, next to each other is that there's a great increase in Turkey as that apparently secular country in...there's government support for, and popular interest in public schools, state-funded schools, with an explicit mission to make the children much more religious. They're called preacher training schools. They have become much more prestigious and common under the current government. I am afraid that I don't have the breakdown of what percentage they are. At the same time, as my information on Iran is quite old...But the same time as you have this highly religious government, you get a strong sense in the population that there is very little popular interest in religion anymore. For instance in Turkey, you can barely turn a corner without seeing a new mosque being [indecipherable 13:34] ...
Jim: Right, right
Hugh: ...or built, but in Iran, at least in my last trip ten years ago it was still the case, there was almost no private building of mosques and people have it least half the people I meet have very secular outlook because of the highly religious discourse of the government, which just proves you can't please everybody all the time. I would say that the number of people going into purely religious education, in my experience in Iran is probably smaller than that of secular Turkey.
Jim: You mention that in one of your books, the inverse relationship between a secular model and then the growing interest in aspects of religion versus, as you say Iran, where it's a theocratic government and the population views it differently.
Hugh: Yeah, and I think it's very important for Americans to see that what you see is not necessarily what you get. Just because the government is taking one line of rhetoric that a lot more may be going on behind the scenes.
Jim: Yes, [laughs] exactly. One of the reasons for our conversation, yes, thank you. How about your education, you've obviously been well traveled, well ridden, and live an interesting life. What are the pros and cons of your personal education?
Hugh: That's quite a deep question. [laughter]
Jim: Well, you've had some time to experience it.
Hugh: I was sent to school at the age of nine, a British boarding school which was in its history aimed to educate young English [indecipherable 15:20] for the army, colonial service, and this kind of thing, which would have me spending eight months of the year, from the age of nine, away from my family and thereby making it perfectly normal for someone like me to spend the rest of life away from whatever my home base was and to find it very normal that I would live my life in hotels or on the move. One doesn't really have a very strong sense of what home is after being in boarding school for ten years. That was one thing which...I don't know how common an experience it is in the United States. It certainly made it very much easier for me to just up-sticks and move to new places. I've lived in a great many countries and reported from even more.

The ability to bounce around and not feel too connected to one's home base is in some ways an advantage. Because there can be a personal cost to it, that you do not pay as much attention to your family, you do not put down roots, you don't feel where you belong in the places where you are. Perhaps one becomes irresponsible and superficial to some extent, to what's one's own circumstances, whereas I imagine in the United States where you have such a very strong, local, commitment to your surroundings that it's maybe a bit different.

Yes, that also means that one becomes interested in all kinds of global things, as opposed to local things, and prefers...I prefer reading about events far away than close to home, which is odd really, isn't it? I suppose from a positive side there is a need for people that act [indecipherable 17:30 ] between cultures and so that's what I do. Of course being a journalist is taking the situation in one place and trying to fit it and educate the prejudices of the newspaper bias, or the radio and TV business of another place into what's going on, so one is a purveyor of news and you have to be quite light footed to do that.

[cell phone buzzes] The trouble is of course is that very often, as I tried to explain in my last book "Dinning with al-Qaeda", when [cell phone buzzes] the editor in the receiving, the place where for instance United States and the US editors, often take news from the Middle East for instance. It's not censorship it's not distortion but they do very much try and fit the stories into the preconceptions of the public. They don't like to disturb the preconceptions of the public.

This can sometimes lead to great distortion in the sense that journalism school, I believe, teach that you should only make one surprise per story...

Jim: [laughs]
Hugh: ...and it got to the situation now that a really true story from the Middle East would be totally incomprehensible to the average reader in America because the story has become so far...has become so dominated by American preconceptions rather than the realities on the ground in the Middle East, but we've moved rather far away from education then.
Jim: Well, I don't know. I think it's all related, actually, I think...Why, if you think about the people you've interacted with on that subject why has that occurred, why have they...? One of our kid's favorite teachers, a superb lady discusses this issue, and she refers to it as the lack of critical thinking as one of the one of the great failures of American education is we're turning out too many people who just accept what it is, right, or what's being told, and so why is that? Do you have an opinion?
Hugh: Well, I think that generally, there's a feeling in the United States that books, newspapers, and leaders are telling the truth. The sad fact is that people are less than perfect and there is no one truth, really. You have to be able to juggle various sources of information to reach a proper analysis of what's going on. The big thing that's missing, of course, in most American's reading of the outside world is context, because news is, by its own nature, only a very partial fragment of what's going on in an area. If you are subjected to 20 years of believing that every day is a day of massive violence in the Middle East, everyone is slitting each other's throats or doing this or that, you'll have an idea of the Middle East as a bear pit. Whereas, of course in 99 percent of the Middle East every day, everyone is going about their daily lives fairly normally outside Syria right now. [laughs]

Ordinary lives do tend to dominate. If you know that...If you know that the Middle East there's a normality, then you can make an accurate judgment about how abnormal another event is. That's something that's very hard to get if you've never travelled to the Middle East, and that's one thing.

Of course there have been some distortions from an ideological perspective. There have been some ethnic lobbies in the United States that have, not just the Jewish lobby or the pro-Israel lobby, but say obviously the Cuban lobby in its time has distorted views of how Americans see things in the Caribbean. You can, I'm sure, add them all up, but I think that in terms of what teachers can say is know, that they should very much [audio skip 22:00] ...hello?

Jim: Hello Hugh. [laughs]
Hugh: Yeah. That was the battery of my phone, all right.
Jim: Oh yes. [laughs] Indeed. To sort of...
Hugh: Where did I just...? [laughs]
Jim: ...follow-up on that point. In your education as you think about growing up, when did your light go off about critical thinking and observation as opposed to just accepting? Was it your education, was it your experience? Was it your parents? What was decisive?
Hugh: Well, I think that I never felt that I had a particular base group to relate and I was born South Africa and lived the first nine years of my life there and saw things from a, I suppose, a English speaking South African perspective. Then I, because of political reasons we had to move out of South Africa...and the apartheid regime had made things difficult for my father, so we moved to England and I was put in a completely different area and they took, it was very puzzling because I spoke English, I thought it was English but it turned out that actually there's more to English that's being English than just language. I don't think that I ever completely fit in, and so I always saw things as a bit of an outsider there. I think that when you are an outside you take a much more careful view of everything that's going on. You see things rather more distinctly than someone who's always been inside it, so perhaps that was the critical thing for me, moving at the age of nine. Not that I would particularly recommend it as a course of action, I don't think it's a very...It's quite traumatic. I think that's where it comes from if anything.
Jim: If we could turn on the time machine and take you back to 18 or 16, would you study the same thing? Would you pursue the same career? What would you do, Hugh?
Hugh: Well, I always remember at the Oriental institute, in my University, that we used to really pity the people that were studying Chinese and Turkish, because when we were 18 those two countries really seemed to be completely pointless. What were they ever going to contribute? Everyone clamored to learn Arabic and Persian because those were oil-rich countries that were clearly going to be much better for peoples' careers, and of course it turned out to be exactly the other way around. [laughs] I suppose it's a bit like those advertisements about investments, don't judge past performance as an indication of future profits. It's very difficult to choose what to do. I think I was very lucky in that I was one of the last generation of people educated for free in Britain.

It actually didn't matter what one chose, because there was no debt associated with it. Nowadays if you go into University I think you've got to be much more aware of, "Whether this is going to be a possible investment of time and money?" because that debt is going to hang over people, isn't it? If I was going today I think I would be a bit more commercially minded, in a sense that I would choose something that was not just of intellectual interest.

Still, I did love learning Persian, and I think that was a benefit in itself, I still think that the Persian poetry we were taught about made a deep impact on me. I wouldn't change that. There are many things about the Middle East that make one really frustrated but at the same time there is a liveliness and an instantaneous about the Middle East which you don't find in Europe.

The way that countries like Turkey and elsewhere change rapidly is much more exciting than a country in Europe where everything is planned many, many years ahead. People start thinking about their pensions in their 20's.

Jim: Right, yes. [laughs]
Hugh: I think I would choose the same subject, but I think the key thing to remember is always to be ready to change horses. Like I studied Persian and Arabic, but I ended up living in Turkey, which is similar. I'm able to use many of the vocabulary and experiences that I had from the middle-east here in Turkey. However, I find that Turkey as a country has a lot more to offer than the Middle-Eastern countries where I was. I think there are dog-legs in my [indecipherable 27:24] which one takes, and one just has to be ready to take the opportunities when they arise to change course.
Jim: Yeah, agreed. In Madison, my current hometown, in the 70s when Nixon went to China, the University of Wisconsin, I think was the first, or one of the first, to have a fairly large exchange program with the mainland. That has continued to this day, so are there opportunities that we in the West are missing, I guess you could say the soft power opportunities, using education and other things. Are there opportunities there, or are the nature of these countries such that that's just not on the table?
Hugh: Phew, yeah, that's beyond my [indecipherable 28:25] . My exchange programs were with farms...
Jim: [laughs] Right, of course.
Hugh: That was close and easy and I do know that children go to China [indecipherable 28:40] that just seems unimaginable that they can't be, very, very lonely out there. [laughs] It must be quite traumatic for them. But I do think that certainly as crisis group here when for people interested in international work, there is no question that learning foreign languages is an absolutely vital skill that we value above all things. In fact my boss will not even interview someone who doesn't have four languages, at least she claims that. Another thing that I think that people underestimate is the need to be able to write about what they know especially. This is, these are two things that I think that people can do almost anywhere. I mean, I think that that's an exchange program is going to teach skills that are valid for almost any country later on.

But of course, the more unusual the place, the's likely that the more valuable the skill. Except, of course, in my case, learning Persian is all very well, but Iran gives no visa to people like me with British passports, and I've been expelled twice from that country anyway, so...that's the only country that really speaks Persian fully. [laughs]

Jim: Yes.
Hugh: You might say it was...for instance, an exchange program to Iran right now would be very unusual and would place a student in a very good position to do something unusual in the future if they wanted to.
Jim: Yeah.
Hugh: But of course, not everyone wants to cruise around the world for their career. Most people I guess want to have a good job in their hometown. I don't know.
Jim: Yeah, well, you mentioned languages. Given technology today, does the fact that you can...Let's see, I suppose it's somewhat easier, maybe, to at least get started with languages due to technology. Have you seen that change? You've learned many different languages. Is there a role for technology? Is it useful? What's your sense of that?
Hugh: The changes are absolutely astonishing right now. I just was reporting on the Syrian border, and I hadn't realized that our crisis group website, which appeared in English...When I would try and introduce our organization to people, I would go to their computers. I suddenly realized they weren't reading it in English. They had an automatic translator on and they were reading it in Turkish. They were actually unaware of the English version of it. Of course the translation is still somewhat inadequate, but clearly in 5, 10 years the translation machines are going to be much, much better to the point where one can almost imagine speaking into a machine and it coming out in the other language pretty soon. I don't know how valuable language skills will be in a 10, 15 years' time, but I do sincerely believe that the ability to communicate in peoples' own language completely changes the nature of the conversation and delivers a much higher quality to any interaction, whether it be or business or my business of research.

I think that that will remain, I think, face to face exercise absolutely critical and even with a machine [cell phone buzzing] doing the translating it still has to think about it and there is something very awkward about doing interviews with people when there has to be a translation, therefore as everything goes very slowly, people get bored. I still think the business of learning a language as a skill is very important, and I also think that the process of learning a language introduces a person to the very individual ways of thinking of the culture where that language is spoken, which is just as important to know how to phrase things.

For instance, one of my expulsions from Iran was because I used the word "owlish" to describe an Ayatollah. Just that one word was the reason for my expulsion. I should have known that in Persian that the word "owlish" means ill-fated. If I'd paid more attention to my teachers I wouldn't have made that mistake.

Jim: [laughs] How have you picked up languages post-University? When you've decided to learn another language, what has been your technique to do that?
Hugh: I think the only way people really learn languages [cell phone buzzing] is by having to speak them. I'm not actually a great linguist, but I am very stubborn so I'm ready to make a lot of mistakes while talking and to inflict my version of languages on other people. They have to be fairly shameless, and also need them. A city like Istanbul has always been a crossroads of cultures. I think its all personal circumstances too. I'm married to a Dutch woman who speaks Dutch to her child all day long, so I've learned Dutch. I live in a country where everyone on the streets speaks Turkish, and if you want to get anything done you have to speak Turkish, so I've learned Turkish. My daughter goes to a German school, so in order to read the letters from the administration of the school I should keep up my German. My other children went to French schools, and their mother is French speaking, and there is a little French there too.

I think that's very personal, but I go to the United States and I see that there is an enormously high profile for Spanish, and I have to assume that that exposure to Spanish, and the way that the Hispanic population is coming forward it means that many people in the United States are going to be bilingual. I think that's also for school, that people, that children learn other languages very early on.

I think all of the scientific studies show that if a child can learn a language before the age of eight that it's a very different experience, and it really helps to learn other languages later. Of course when I was in South Africa I was learning [indecipherable 36:11] and English, which is a kind of Dutch as well. I don't have a theory for it, I just know why I learned particular languages, but I imagine there's many people who have similar reasons for learning languages, but an early start is very, very important

Jim: Yes, yes.
Hugh: One of the things that I feel about English speakers is that they're handicapped in a way because everyone speaks their language. They never feel the need to really learn other people's languages.
Jim: [laughs] It is true.
Hugh: Especially when one goes to Europe, you'll find the elite in Europe now speaks excellent English, alongside their home language and I think that makes them much more intellectually powerful people and gives them a much broader view of the world. You could say that it, certainly in England you can see it in the popular culture is the poorer for the lack of international perspective and I think that comes in great measure from not having access to other languages or feeling the need to learn other languages.
Jim: Agreed. My last question, and you referred to it earlier in our conversation about, in Central Asia the Soviet education model being prevalent for nearly 100 years. Have you seen examples where geography has driven education successfully in your travels or I should say decisively? Obviously there are political systems where they use education as their lever to grow their policy or grow their domination, or what have you, but have you seen, I guess informative examples, or things that again we should know in the West on education policies across the geography that you've covered?
Hugh: Education policies are always political, aren't they, and they're absolutely in lock-step with ideologies. In parts of the world which are still authoritarian you'll always find that the first thing that is done by an authoritarian leader is to inject the education system with his or, usually his, line of thinking, and to try and mold the country around that. I feel that that's not really geography, it's politics, that is a critical thing. Yes, you can make certain judgments about how less developed geographic areas of the world generally have more simple, simple is a polite word for it, but more primitive political systems and that democracy really depends on a highly educated population. Add also that there is no one democracy, and there's very many ways of giving people representative government. Islands, Islands always seem to be different from continents, certainly geographical, and if you look at the island of Cyprus, or the island of Britain, or the island of Japan they would seem to have a more insular, and we even have a word for it, don't we, approach to life and that must be [indecipherable 39:52] in education.

Whereas the great continental systems of France and Germany, do tend to be more broad-based, but gosh, these are the things that I've never thought about...

Jim: [laughs]
Hugh: ...and I hate to make judgments. Just one last thought is that in geographical terms how it affects politics, and the way people are brought up and the languages they speak, is the Kurdish people. It's an extraordinary situation where you have about 25, 30 million people living in one fairly big geographical area if you look at it on the map, but when you get down to the details of it, there are very big mountains there. These mountain valleys will split different tribes of people up and different groups of people up to the point where the Kurdish people's, as they are now, speak four [indecipherable 40:45] distinct dialects, have very different cultural development. I would also think that... [laughs] although the education side of it...I don't know whether...the Kurds have never managed to actually run their own system until very recently in northern Iraq. The result of that geography was that, up until now, they never got to educate themselves, but that's a rather unusual example I guess. link to the original post