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What do the children draw/endure?

Preface: What was I drawing/enduring?

Life has been difficult for everyone lately. The effects of pandemics and war on the people are visible with the naked eye. This difficulty helped me to understand some realities. With increased access to the information and internet, the issues we were once unaware of are now inside our phones. During the last year, as I had access to these events, I had the chance to see the things I have completely forgotten about. For example, with the transition to an online teaching system in schools, everyone can easily watch the course of lessons. I also easily observed the lessons, and the photos of the students from the drawing, poetry, and essay competitions. At the same time, I could effortlessly reach the social media posts shared by some parents while their children were reciting poems or holding flags or pictures. The posts I came across with coincidence and the online pages of the schools had reminded me of some matters I forgot about my school life: the poems we learned by heart, the pictures we drew, the scenes we recreated – all concerning the events of 20 January and/or Khojaly tragedy.

I was not excellent at school, but always hard working. No matter how hard I tried, I had to figure out another way to become the teachers’ pet, because what I did was not enough. My best grades were from the drawing class. There used to be a queue starting from my desk in the break before the drawing class started which was always the last class of the day. I drew pictures for everyone, and therefore everyone was getting good grades. Hence, the only subject I was praised, and got good grades in was the drawing class. I was very pleased because I was able to prove myself. As I did homework for the whole class, I also did the homework of our lessons dedicated to 20 January or Khojaly Tragedy each year. Of course, this happened if my classmate’s parents did not have the time to do their children’s homework. My mother helped me as well, specifically in the weeks of 20 January or 26 February. I did not want to get bad marks from the lesson I always got better marks, just because I did not understand the topic and was unable to draw realistic pictures. My other classmates who were good at literature were praised for their abilities during these weeks. One thing I have not forgotten since then was the atmosphere in the classroom during those times of the year and the fear I felt while drawing. I was not frightened because I drew pictures involving blood, human corpses, tanks, and soldiers. I was afraid because I thought I would get a bad mark if I did not draw a good one. The reason for all these was, at the other times of the year, I drew the pictures with love, and I understood their topics. However, war was something I did not understand at all. That is why I was not afraid of the things in the picture. Besides a lack of understanding of the meaning of war and death, I also hardly knew what the blood exactly was. Yet I was only drawing. Once I remember drawing a swaddled baby with a bullet hole in its wrap, and it was bleeding from that hole.

Yes, I was not the teachers’ favorite except our drawing teacher. The education I got from school was not “successful”. Now I am going to introduce you to the “successful” education and what the children had endured till today.

What do the children draw/endure?

Unfortunately, as we dig into our research, national goals and interests stand at the core of our education system. Accordingly, in the social media posts of the schools (3), in the Article on the rights of the children to education (10), and at the same time in the education policy of the heads of the state we can plainly see that our educational system is based on national values (1). The law emphasizes the importance of ensuring education for the children based on progressive requirements and the formation of the child as a worthy citizen. At the same time, it is stated that the state policy is implemented on the basis of targeted children's social programs created taking into account national and local features (10).

In Azerbaijan, the history class is compulsory in all schools and there is no alternative for this class. The Ministry of Education began re-arranging history books in 2000. The idea behind this decision is clear to all of us. The easiest way for Azerbaijan to regain its national identity as an independent state in the quickest way is, of course, propaganda in education. However, the decision of the Ministry of Education emphasized that the textbooks should not contain any racial, sexual, ethnic, or religious comparisons. In accordance with the country's legislation and international agreements, the policy also prohibits discriminatory views on issues of national identity, religion, race, and gender. However, according to some writers, the content of Azerbaijani history textbooks is governed by the state and describes public policy. Additionally, the school action plans include special activities to be fulfilled each year, and the time allocated for each in literature and drawing class is determined officially. (4). Incentive gifts or compliments are also part of this action plan to make school competitions more enjoyable for students.

Competitions in schools that were closed due to the pandemic now can be seen in online classes. The details of a competition named “We won a Victory” are shared on the online page of the school №108. When the competitions or lessons are shared on the online pages of the schools, their purpose is also included in the explanatory part. On the page of school №108, it is clearly stated: “The main purpose of the competition is to instill a higher level of patriotism among our students.” It should be noted that 100 students from 35 schools across the country participated in the competition (5).

I started researching after the information I got from the school's online page. Through the page, I came across the interviews of the teachers (specifically the headteachers of primary school) of the school. For instance, in the school action plan, it is emphasized that there is special attention over the development of patriotic spirit in primary school students, and in the explanatory part of the drawings made by the headteacher Rasif Mammadov’s students, it is noted that:

“Although the students did not see the Khojaly tragedy with their own eyes, they copied the impressions of their teachers, parents and the thing they saw on movies on white paper with the help of child imagination. The paintings depict the night of February 25-26, the horrific capture of the disabled, the unarmed people, their brutal killings, as well as the pride of our brave sons and daughters who endured all these atrocities.”(2). 

In addition, on the pages of other schools, we can see the staging of many events related to genocide and war. If you pay attention, to each of these examples, you can see more students from lower grades rather than 10th or 11th-grade students. When we read the above-mentioned text several times, we can see that the teacher is speaking on behalf of the children. This example is just the opinion of a schoolteacher.

When I started doing my research outside of online pages, I came across some interesting facts. I asked everyone I knew around me: Were you also drawing pictures? I got confirming answers most of the time. I got cavils as well. Then I increased the age range of the subjects of my question to 30-35. Then finally, I asked my mother. She talked about what happened in the last years of school.

In 1990, when she was studying in 11th grade, despite her teachers’ prohibitions, she and her classmates gathered together with her classmates and read the poems of local poets, drawing nationalist pictures on the blackboard for showing their nationalist and patriotic ideas and protested in the class. For these actions, my mother and some of her friends were punished by their teachers several times. She told me that they expelled the non-patriotic ones from their group and insulted them. When my mother was studying, teachers opposed and even punished them, and this was done as a part of the education policy of that time. Even though we are unable to see certain aspects by only listening to my mother’s story, these facts may help us to understand some issues. The necessary issue to be taken into account here was the fact that my mother and her classmates, all the parallel classes, were grown up enough, had their own opinions, had heard from their families about Azerbaijani national values, and had the desire to resist against Soviet religious and ethnic discrimination policy. However, they were not 2nd-grade students who had to take bloody pictures as they do now. At the same time, it is necessary to take into account the fact that each student was affected by the patriotism of their families and the views of teachers did not coincide with those of students. This contradiction itself seems to have had a significant impact on their development.

Many of our teachers and parents are from the generation of that transition period. The difference between our education and upbringing, as well as their understanding of the system, is obvious. Many young Azerbaijanis have never been Soviet citizens and are unaware of that system. There are sharp differences between those who lived under Soviet rule and those who are unaware of the Soviet state system or who are simply informed about it by reading history books. Young people and those who have never seen the Soviet government grew up seeing the system of a newly liberated state, as well as a newly established system. We can call the generation born between 1966 and 1971 the sub-group of the generation of transition-period or as a super-transition group. This generation is "stuck" between the new and the old generations. In addition to the influence of one of the two generations, the networked propaganda of the general policy of the state causes a certain influence on the next generation. Paulo Freire states in his book that there is no neutral education: "Education is a tool used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of today's system, to adapt to the system" (21).

The above-mentioned examples are sufficient to demonstrate the purposefulness of this process. Each of us can guess when this policy began. The policy began after the second independence (1991) when the whole system of new Azerbaijan was established. Based on resources and interviews, I can say that during the First Karabakh conflict, that is, since the end of 1989, the education system has deteriorated due to the destruction of many schools and their use for other purposes. At the same time, with the collapse of the Soviet system and education along with it, education and the system had to remain decreased until the establishment of new ones as there was no leader with a stable government who would stand as the head of the state and determine the next policy. When I say stability, I do not mean a government that lasts for many years. The necessary government was impossible to find because the angry people, who dared to stand up, had the power to elect a president. But why, despite coming to power in 1993, an order was signed in 2002 to revive the destroyed education, and then in 2003 to revive the schools? After all, 10 years had passed.

The mentioned order is the Order "On strengthening the material and technical base of general education schools of the Republic of Azerbaijan" signed on October 4, 2002, by the President of Azerbaijan at that time. As it is seen from its name, this was a step made with the intent of influencing the development of the new generation in accordance with public policy. This Order supported the generation of a strong propaganda network that could affect not only the school system but also the education in the universities. Afterward, the Order “On approval of the program (2003-2007) on the construction of new general education schools, an overhaul of existing schools and provision of modern educational equipment in the Republic of Azerbaijan” signed on February 17, 2003, gave a boost to the system (1). New buildings and a new education system were built on the site of the destroyed schools.

When Azerbaijan gained its independence for the second time, it was already stated that education was part of the political ideology: “Now Azerbaijan is an independent state. By creating and developing the concept of its national ideology, Azerbaijan must, of course, build its education on the basis of national goals and interests ”(1). Since the propaganda that is being carried out on students in education systems is more effective, I find it appropriate to focus on this issue the most. Though I am not disregarding that adults can also be influenced by propaganda and manipulative, patriotic programs, and historical remarks. Propaganda exists in other countries as it does in Azerbaijan. Even though it doesn’t exist as it was, in Europe there used to be stories of such nature in storybooks, in newspaper stories intended for children. Especially in newspapers and magazines that were produced during and after WW2 we can stumble upon propagandistic stories and photos of this nature. As an example, we can demonstrate a drawing of an Austrian student depicting zeppelins bombing London and crowds of people cheering at it; children’s magazine published in 1917 propagating war and depicting patriotic ideas on its front cover; illustrations of children in army uniforms; and exclaiming victory slogans in German(11).

Some questions can be answered through the research that draws comparisons between changes made in textbooks in Azerbaijan and Armenia after independence. The research was done in order to extensively study the history textbooks of Azerbaijan and Armenia. 120 Azeris and 107 Armenians took part in this research. It should also be taken into consideration that the research was conducted under a certain framework and there had been limitations regarding time and resources. Obviously, the primary limitation was the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia(13). According to the research, in Azerbaijan, unlike Armenia, national history classes starting from fifth grade create an image of Armenia and Armenians. The İmage of Armenians first seen in fifth grade is developed year by year until it reaches its culmination in the last grade of school. The proclivity to use hateful expressions in parts connected with war causes these expressions to garner little attention. It’s as if these expressions are being justified. Without any regard to the actual identity of the other side, they are portrayed as “the enemy” in all wars (13). This research, to a certain extent, illustrates the state of affairs regarding history textbooks.

What effects can all this have on children? It is hard to determine what children feel or what effects it has on them. We cannot determine this. We can imagine the traumas of children who have experienced war through listening to a psychologist who has worked with children of families affected by the Second Karabakh war. Psychologist notes in his interview:

"Most of the children who have gone through bombardments, loss of loved ones or other realities of armed conflicts tend to have problems with their speech, violent or depressive tendencies in them may get stronger. There are also cases of teenagers having to wear diapers because of urinary incontinence. Psychological trauma can be developed within just a few minutes. For example, while experiencing a rocket attack, after the blast, any survivors in epicenter will suffer incredible stress. Sometimes after exposure to one minute of stress, the child may need one month of therapy"(2). 

You may argue that affecting children through textbooks, drawings, essays, poetry competitions is not the same as children who have experienced horrors of war, who carry the burden of traumas. But in my eyes they are similar. In both cases, there are children who have fallen victim to politics. In one case children’s choices, ideas, imaginary worlds, their views on Earth, and other people are sacrificed under the label of “successful education”. In the other case, their families are burdened with the trauma that they can never forget.

In the examples shown above the source of children’s drawings, of the ideas they come up with has been mentioned a few times. For example, we can make clear where my idea of drawing a swaddled baby comes from. Children can see violent images pertaining to propaganda not only in their education but also in many other places. According to researchers that have been conducted, violence viewed by people in their early childhood on television can affect their behavior in adulthood. Moreover, violence committed by the gender they identify with also has effects on children. Information obtained from this research shows us that children with violent tendencies are more likely to choose violent programs on television and at the same time watching programmes depicting violence in childhood indicates violent behaviour in future.

Through researching some violent facts certain crucial differences between gender roles have been elucidated. Especially examples containing male identities had a tendency to crime and psychical violence while female identities had a higher probability of indirect violence. However, it was found out that they carried out verbal and general violence against a partner irrespective of gender differences. The impact of aggression is reinforced through equalization and actualization of the violence carried out on TV by the same gender. We cannot always supervise what children can watch on tv(17). But, taking into consideration that they can be affected by them, instead of giving them instructions that are meant to be exhortations, we can learn about empathy, stress and effects of violence on these traumatized kids through art in these trying times.

Characters in their drawings can be very close to them and can feel what they feel. Depictions on these drawings may look very tragic to highly empathetic and sensitive kids. In fact, things that should be done to learn empathy are completely different things. We cannot truly teach our children things about empathy that they don’t know. Empathy can only be fostered through caring relationships, through communication, through reading stories, playing with them, through understanding their emotions, and with a lot of patience. As Mary Gordon, who coined the term “roots of empathy” said: “Empathy is caught not taught”(19).

Tasks instructed to children can also take shape in a different format. In this format, parents can talk about the explanatory analysis of the given task, about the details children draw, and why they draw them. This can also help parents calm down their anxiety and help them understand their kids. But we should be careful when it comes to communication with children. Without interfering with children’s ideas we should leave open-ended questions. We should avoid questions that can distract them so that they can fully explain why they drew particular detail and explain the meaning of that detail as it is, with their own words. You can ask them questions like “Can you talk about what you drew? Who are the people that you drew and what are they doing?”.

We can analyze drawings with different methods: part of the analysis that can go wrong is that some researchers purposefully avoid this. Kristen Cullen Sharma is a neuropsychologist at New York University, she explains that many therapists are leery of using drawings to determine much at all about a child because of the ambiguous nature of art. Though Sharma is not denying that art can tell us certain things. Everyone analyses children’s drawings in different ways. It doesn’t seem sound to find the truth by discussing these different analyses(18). The most touching part of the violent and tragic images that children draw is not that they have any idea about the meaning of the images they draw or poetry that they read or potential of them being frightened by these drawings. Because we truly can not answer what children are thinking. But, the fact that these drawings are made on an involuntary basis with the help of “motivators” such as grades and are openly politically propagated is indisputable. And the scary part is the propaganda is still strongly carried out while we still don’t know about its true effects on children. The reason why we witness these actions but are still silent against them, as Paulo Freire noted in his book “ Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, can be because we are those same children and we find it impossible to escape the frameworks imposed upon us when we were children.






















  21. 1993 by Paulo Freire Pedagogy of the oppressed, 181.



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