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Education and the Making of Modern Iran.

EDUCATION HAS ACTED as probably the most important social instrument shaping modern Iran, along with most other countries of the Middle East. The parallels and contrasts with the experience of other countries make all the more fascinating this study of the introduction and development of a secular model of education in Iran.

The classroom was a battleground for control of young minds, between the traditional ulema and the secular, Western-inspired school system introduced to Iran in stages during the 19th century. The teachers in Iranian maktabs (elementary schools) were the lowest-ranking clerics, ignorant, often illiterate men with no education to impart. Iranian intellectuals who wanted progress for their country despised the role learning of the mullahs.

Of Iran's madrasses (higher educational establishments), one Qajar intellectual wrote scornfully, "all of them together are not worth one dinar". Another wrote of his former teacher," may God bless him. He was so illiterate that we, the students, were correcting his mistakes."

The products of these two types of education were not, however, permanently opposed to each other, and over some issues members of the secular educated class cooperated with the ulema. Intellectuals of the late Qajar era were even able to impose their own ideology during the political upheavals in the decade before the Constitutional Revolution of 1906.

Education was, and still remains today, greatly appreciated by the poor in Iran, as elsewhere in the Middle East. In the author's eloquent words, education is seen "as a kind of magic to release their children from the vicious circle of poverty and backwardness in which they themselves are caught."

Popular backing for new schools and colleges made it easier for the government to introduce its changes. The stages of development of higher education in Iran are carefully charted in this study. For the urban middle classes, a university education was a way to achieve upward mobility. For the upper classes, it was increasingly regarded as a way of preserving their elite status.

Tehran University was founded in 1935, created prematurely by a political decision. The limitations imposed on it were clear. Tehran University, far from becoming a centre of creative intellectual activity, became the centre of conformism which the shah desired. Teachers were expected to speak positively of the regime and Savak, the secret police force, was omnipresent (or rather, its agents were assumed to be).

The expansion of education in Iran under Mohammad Reza Shah was rapid, even if its quality was not generally high. Iran overtook Egypt and Turkey by the mid-1970s. Even in female education, Iran almost caught up with Turkey's remarkable record. The weakest part of the system was always the secondary schools. Instead of trying to cultivate students' independent thought and analytical ability, the method relied on was the traditional one of memorising notes of lectures.

The cultural purging attempted of Iran's universities from 1980 closed down the institutions. Yet in spite of fervent rhetoric of Islamic cleansing of corrupt, Western-influenced men and institutions, they reopened eventually with their essential structure intact.

The full impact of Ayatollah Khomeini and the goals of the Islamic revolution are not studied in detail here. The effects of the thorough revision of textbooks in the 1980s were, as would be expected, felt most in the areas of social sciences and humanities. Ideological screening of would-be students brought in to higher education many students of the poorer class as well as from rural society.

However, the many continuities in education at all levels are also very striking. Sometimes, claims Menanshri, the monarchy and Islamic republic adopted similar initiatives to educational problems. Iran's Literacy Campaign has many similarities in structure, if not in content, to the Shah's Literacy Corps. Likewise the Open University is based on an older, secular idea. The conclusion of this careful study, surprising though it may be, is that the new education imported into Iran over the last century has not only survived relatively unscathed but has emerged finally triumphant in the 1990s.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Words:662
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