Article Place & Self

'I thought that I found an opportunity that could change Turkey'

Interview with Prof. Ali Nesin, the founder of the Nesin Mathematics Village in Sirince, Turkey

Ali Nesin

Ali Nesin is a mathematics professor who completed College Champittet (high school) and Université Paris Diderot and he has taught at several major universities of the world like University of California, Yale University, Bilkent University. He is one of the first instructors of Bilgi University in Turkey. He has written several popular mathematics books (Mathematics and Fear, Mathematics and Games, Mathematics and Camels and Donkeys, Mathematics and Truth, Portraits of Mathematicians) as well as his semi-academic books (Propositional Logic, Counting, Naive Set Theory). His scientific articles published in various magazines and also he wrote a book in English with Alexander Borovik (Groups of Finite Morley Rank). His father, Aziz Nesin, is one of the Turkey’s most important book, story and humour writers and he is the fourth author among the writers who wrote books in Turkish and whose works have been translated into foreign languages.

Nesin Mathematics Village

After his education and his studies on abroad, Ali Nesin returned to Turkey in 1995 and started teaching in Bilgi University. As he says, when he realized the lack of his student’s knowledge, he decided to host the students for giving extra courses in his house at the evenings and then he gave extra courses to the students at Nesin Foundation at the weekends. These courses began to be inadequately, he also organized 6-7 weeks summer courses every summer at various regions of Turkey. As times goes by, the cost of these courses began to increase and he decided to create a place only for mathematics and then Mathematics Village project was planned. Mathematics Village was built with the donations of Turkish people and young people worked for building the village with completely voluntary.

Firstly, you must see this wonderful village!

I want to introduce Nesin Mathematics Village which has accepted over 5000 students and lots of academics over the world in 2014. I made an interview with Prof. Nesin about the village, education systems in the World and Turkey at the end of the December 2014. I want to share the first part of this beautiful interview with Contributoria readers. This part is about Mathematics Village and the way that he sees about education. The second part is especially about the Turkish education system and the problems of Turkish Education. I am planning to publish the other part of the interview for another issue.

If you want to support the village financially or to organise an event or seminar related to mathematics, please be free to contact with them, the website of Nesin Mathematics Village is here:

I thought, If I teach mathematics for 20-30 years, it does 400 to 600 students of mine, until my retirement. Think about it, that would be a wonderful thing, it could change Turkey! Yeah, we do not reject any student whose financial situation is not good comes to the village. - Ali Nesin.

First let me ask you this, is it true that Aziz Nesin Mathematics Village built the need of Aziz Nesin’s testament?

(He gave a long answer to this question and I think it is important to clarify this issue.)

Well actually it’s not that, there is not a thing like that in his will. You know I am an academic now, mathematics, science etc… My dad said to me “You have to stay in America and go to university there.” Not even Europe, he said America especially because it is the best in education. But at the same time, the biggest problem was the future of the foundation of my father. (When I go abroad to study university) he told me “You do not come back to Turkey again.” and my answer was “I had to come back; If I do not come, who will take care of the foundation’s work?” Then he realized that if I did not come back to Turkey, there would be some important problems about the works of the foundation. On the other hand, he wanted me to go on my academic studies. Because of that, he left a will to establish a mathematics institute in Çatalca (İstanbul). But this testament was very unlikely to happen because institutes that you understand does not earn. On the contrary, it requires a lot of money. Unless you have a great support of a rich company like Volkswagen, Mercedes or a country, you cannot do separate projects in an institute.

Nesin family is not supported in Turkey, I knew that. When I returned to Turkey, I knew that this testament would not be happen. It was not even mentioned. Meanwhile, the works of Nesin Foundation had to continue. Some days we did not even know that what we would eat in the foundation, we had bad days. In this case, to found an institute not even was said. Meanwhile Bilgi University opened and I am one of the first academic teaching staff. The founders of the university wanted me to set up the Department of Mathematics. I see myself lucky because I set up the mathematics department from scratch. I wanted to do something different, the best. Because I have been in the best universities and have successful friends who graduated from the best universities of United Kingdom, China, Soviet Union, France… I know their education systems and syllabus so I created a program to train researchers at the highest level. And then I thought, -at that time I was not even 30 years old- If I taught 20-30 years, it does 400 to 600 students of mine, until my retirement. Of course, also there will be their students too, about 1,000 researchers… And of course you think of it as 1000 Fazıl Say. Think about it, that would be a wonderful thing, it could change Turkey! I thought that I found an opportunity in my hand that could change Turkey and I wanted to evaluate it. But as I have not been estimated, the students were not highly qualified. Because when the country is undeveloped; the universities, teachers and students will be the same, they cannot develop their skills.

My students did not study enough and their abstraction skills were not strong enough. They did not even know that they must study. At the first time, I did overtime at the university when I saw that is not enough for them I continued giving lessons in my house. When I realised that it was not enough too, I gave lessons at the Nesin Foundation at the weekends. Then they went to summer vacation, we met again after the summer holiday and I asked “What did you do on holiday?” They said “Here’s what we did, we swam a lot, had fun, laughed, played…” They did not even open their books to study! I saw that they still did not know how to study, were not be aware of how to be a researcher. I had waited weekends to study when I was young. We arranged a joint summer school with Akdeniz University in Antalya for them and it was very efficient. Then we started doing this every summer, we did this at different places every summer for 10 years. I was organizing, giving the majority of the course in the first place. After that there were two-three instructors and I opened these camps to whole students in Turkey and a lot of students came from all over the country.

I was going to a Turkey tour to look for the best places that are suitable for our courses on April and May. Town, seaside, mountains or woods or somewhere suitable… In Turkey, tourism had been developed by the time; the places improved their facilities and began to be too expensive so we went to Central Anatolia for affordable places. Formerly we arranged the camps in Şirince (İzmir), Bodrum (Muğla) but then we started going to Trakya, Amasya… I went to Turkey tour for finding a place for mess hall, to hold the lessons and to stay in. We had to agree with a restaurant, a hotel or pension and a school. You discuss the price and arrangement with the hotel but at the summer season, they give up because they find better customers who pay more than us. At the same time, for us, these adjustments have to be cheap, of course. We were financing that just 30-40 TRY (about 10-15 USD) and sometimes we were cooking our meal ourselves. This situation began to get more and more difficult to arrange and we did not always be happy with that. We saw the requirement to take these camps more seriously and the necessity of Mathematics Village Project because of the disrespectful behaviour of some students, student’s problems to focus on the lessons… For this purpose, I bought a village land belonged to me (I donated it to the foundation after) then we tried to get legal permission to start the construction.

The village does not have any legal status at the moment.

By the way, what is the legal status of the village? Is a private education institution? Is it an institute?

No, the village does not have any legal status at the moment. By the way, I have been convicted because of founding an unauthorised educational institution. We are making the financial affairs by the company, we give our tax but they did not give permission us to found the Mathematics Village. Actually, I knew would be a wonderful project because the summer schools were going through very efficient and fun. Sevan Nişanyan and me, we were both aware of this. This project could open a new way to Turkey on education. While I was thinking that I could educate 20 students in Bilgi University in a year; this number can be 100 thanks to the village, magnificent! We tried so hard to get the permission. I have spent 200.000 TRY (about 80.000 USD) for only that.

I do not think that there is a project like this, with the great support of the people, in the world.

You said in an interview that there is no other example in the world like Mathematics Village.

I heard one or two similar projects, but there is a rich institution behind them. The Mathematics Village project was built by collective work. Of course I gave what I had to build the village, but only 1-2 houses could be built with that money. A large financial support came from the public and the village was built with the help of a full collective work. We have to thank to them because they trust us. I do not think that there is a project like this, with the great support of the people, in the world. Before we started to construction we had said that this is a “village” because every person at the different ages could benefit from the opportunities of the village. However, institutes are more serious and they are founded for serious researches. So we gave “Mathematics Village” name because it must be like an autonomous village. Any research on Mathematics can be done at the village. It could be all sorts of things on Mathematics like studies for people in primary school or postgraduate, who do senior research or want to give conference.

What do you think about education and what is your approach to education? As you know, there are many discussions on the nature of education or how must it be.

Now, before answering this question, we have to answer another question “Education for what purpose and who?” A philosopher once said “Education should be liberating. It builds awareness.” Why? Is it a good thing to be free? On the contrary, you can be happier with unawareness. The aim of education may be only to develop a country or may be the people’s happiness or may be to teach what needs to be done to go to heaven when you die. It may be to educate people who can do great artworks which will be proud of humanity or it may be just something that gives the required knowledge to people to bring home to bacon. What I mean there is not one purpose of education, first you have to answer the question “Education for whom?” Therefore, when a person says that he determined the purpose of the education, I see that as presumption. But if he says “I think…” I respect. On the other hand, the people will be educated are different. If you say a 40-yer-old person “I will set you free.” he/she laughs.

If you say “If you take this lessons, your salary will be increased 100 TRY”, he/she gets the education. I set the goal of education in the village; I want to train academic researchers. I do not want students to be free; I want to make them prisoners of mathematics. (Laughs) By the way, governments must not have the power to decide everything about education because this leads to fascism. This is a great power especially in the countries where the political language is not ripened. You effect millions of young people’s beliefs, their behaviour; a kind of brainwashing power. This is the aim of politicians anyway. For example, the issue of education in our country has not been independent from the government any time. Has anyone said “Anyone can get education as he/she wants”? Absolutely has not. Who would say it? May be Erdal İnönü would. (He was a member of Turkish Parliament and Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1995) Why? Because he did not grow up to become a politician, he was not a politician already, he was a scientist.

For the first time, we refused instructors from abroad because of the demand. The thing I was afraid of most that to refuse an instructor from Harvard University! We did it, because we had to.

What is the number of the academics and students who come from abroad? As far as I know, anyone can organise seminars at the Mathematics Village, if he/she provides the necessary conditions. Is there a demand like this from abroad?

The number of students coming from abroad is currently not very much, but the number of academics is much. They love the village and want to come again. For the first time, we refused instructors from abroad because of the demand. The thing I was afraid of most that to refuse an instructor from Harvard University! We did it, because we had to. (Laughs) In fact, we must not reject any student, but we have to make money to maintain the village’s activities at the same time. In Mathematics Village, currently 150 people can stay in the rooms and 200-300 people can stay in tents. So there is a space for 450 people at the same time. If we did not have to do programs for high school students in order to ensure financial income of the village, we would not reject any student wants to come for academic purpose.

It is written in the village’s mission that you never reject a student.

Yeah, we do not reject any student because of money.

Philosophy and Art Villages are coming!

In an interview published last summer, you mentioned that you will build a village for Philosophy after Mathematics Village. Will it be in Şirince too?

Yes, side by side with the Mathematics Village. Infrastructure construction will be easier this time because we already built infrastructure for Mathematics Village. In the Mathematics Village, we have a kitchen, mess hall, showers, classrooms, laundry, electrical transformer, sewer pipes etc. You do not need to set up a lab for Philosophy Village. Build a house; here is the Philosophy Village. (Laughs) So it is only needed to build buildings for Philosophy Village. You know we will build an “Art Village” next year.

It is great; I hear it at the first time.

Of course. Mathematics, Philosophy and Art… The three useless professions in the world… (Laughs)


The photo was shared by Ali Nesin.

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