Iran’s ed­u­ca­tion re­form takes anti-Western tack

Over­haul to com­bat rise of sec­u­lar mid­dle class, en­force Is­lamic tenets

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY THOMAS ERD­BRINK erd­brinkt@wash­ Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Kay Ar­min Ser­joie con­trib­uted to this re­port.

tehran— Iran is over­haul­ing its ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem to rid it of Western in­flu­ence, the lat­est at­tempt by the govern­ment to for­tify Is­lamic val­ues and counter the clout of the coun­try’s in­creas­ingly sec­u­lar­ized mid­dle class.

Start­ing in Septem­ber, all Ira­nian high school stu­dents will be in­tro­duced to new cour­ses such as “po­lit­i­cal train­ing” and “ liv­ing skills” that will warn against “per­verted po­lit­i­cal move­ments” and en­cour­age girls to marry at an early age, Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry of­fi­cials say.

In uni­ver­si­ties, the cur­ricu­lums of law, psy­chol­ogy, so­ci­ol­ogy and other stud­ies will be dras­ti­cally al­tered, with of­fi­cials from the Sci­ence Min­istry, which has re­spon­si­bil­ity for higher ed­u­ca­tion, work­ing to strip out what they de­scribe as Western the­o­ries and re­place them with Is­lamic ones. Dozens of pro­fes­sors have al­ready re­tired or been fired on the grounds that they did not suf­fi­ciently sup­port the new pol­icy.

The changes are aimed at off­set­ting the grow­ing in­flu­ence of a mid­dle class that in­creas­ingly em­braces in­di­vid­u­al­ism and shares mod­ern as­pi­ra­tions. Iran’s lead­ers partly blame con­tam­i­na­tion of the coun­try’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem— which in the early years of the 1979 Is­lamic revo­lu­tion was shaped by cler­ics and ide­o­logues — for spread­ing such “Western” ideas.

Many stu­dents, pro­fes­sors and par­ents fear that the plans will un­der­mine Iran’s tra­di­tion­ally high aca­demic stan­dards. The three years of aca­demic and cur­ric­u­lar purges that fol­lowed the revo­lu­tion, they say, stalled the in­tel­lec­tual devel­op­ment of Ira­nian youths.

Plans for an ed­u­ca­tional over­haul arose af­ter sweep­ing changes in Iran’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem in re­cent years. Many prom­i­nent rev­o­lu­tion­ary fig­ures have been purged, while the power wielded by Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad and a group of key cler­ics and Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard com­man­ders has greatly ex­panded since Ah­madine­jad ar­rived on the po­lit­i­cal scene in 2003 as Tehran’s mayor.

This group en­vis­ages Iran tak­ing its place among the world’s most pow­er­ful na­tions and its peo­ple as model hu­man be­ings striv­ing for per­fec­tion while em­brac­ing faith, logic and jus­tice. Such ideas place them at odds with the large num­bers of ur­ban­ized, sec­u­lar­ized Ira­ni­ans who par­tic­i­pated in protests af­ter Ah­madine­jad’s dis­puted 2009 re­elec­tion.

The pres­i­dent and his sup­port­ers are un­der­tak­ing a ma­jor re­struc­tur­ing of the econ­omy, rais­ing prices of fuel, en­ergy, bread and other prod­ucts to mar­ket lev­els while re­duc­ing state sub­si­dies. Of­fi­cials say the move will help the poor, but the lawyers, nurses, dou­ble-shift taxi driv­ers and oth­ers who make up the coun­try’s broad mid­dle classes say it will break their backs.

The re­shap­ing of the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, from pri­mary schools to uni­ver­si­ties, is next on the cabi­net’s list. The Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry’s plan, ti­tled “ The Pro­gram for Fun­da­men­tal Evo­lu­tion in Ed­u­ca­tion and Train­ing,” en­vis­ages schools be­com­ing “neigh­bor­hood cul­tural bases” where teach­ers will pro­vide “ life” guid­ance, as­sisted by se­lected cler­ics and mem­bers of the para­mil­i­tary Basij force.

“ There will be of­fi­cial train­ing and on-site cul­tural ed­u­ca­tion and an em­pha­sis on sports, read­ing books and the Ko­ran,” the ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter, Hamid-Reza Haji-Babaei, said in May.

‘So­cial prob­lems arise’

The min­istry will also in­tro­duce new cour­ses de­signed to help stu­dents ages 12 to 17 ac­quire po­lit­i­cal anal­y­sis skills and pre­vent them from “ be­ing trapped by per­verted move­ments and en­emy plots or be im­pris­oned by satel­lite chan­nels, the In­ter­net and cy­berspace,” ac­cord­ing to an in­ter­nal min­istry doc­u­ment that was dis­trib­uted in Septem­ber by the semiof­fi­cial Ira­nian La­bor News Agency.

Ira­nian school­child­ren are to re­ceive new books ex­plain­ing that mar­ry­ing at an early age will pro­tect women from so­cial prob­lems. “At the moment, be­cause fam­i­lies are cre­ated late in life, so­cial prob­lems arise,” Haji-Babaei said in Novem­ber, ac­cord­ing to the Aftab News Web site, which is crit­i­cal of the govern­ment.

Iran’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, which mixes re­li­gious rule and di­rect elec­tions, is founded on Is­lamic tenets and calls for lift­ing the poor out of poverty.

The so­cial role mod­els held up by the state are saints and rev­o­lu­tion­ary mar­tyrs. In a Novem­ber speech, Ah­madine­jad urged Ira­ni­ans to model them­selves on the revered 12th imam, the 9th-cen­tury mes­siah fig­ure who, ac­cord­ing to Shi­ite Is­lam, did not die but went into “oc­cul­ta­tion,” a state of be­ing hid­den by God.

“In or­der to know God, it is nec­es­sary to be a per­fect man,” Ah­madine­jad said, ap­par­ently chart­ing the course for Iran’s ed­u­ca­tion over­haul.

The pro­posed changes strive to push stu­dents in this di­rec­tion, of­fi­cials say. “ There will be more fo­cus and at­ten­tion on hu­man moral­ity,” Ah­madine­jad’s top aide, Mo­jtaba Sa­mareh Hashemi, said in an in­ter­view in Novem­ber. “We need to fo­cus on de­vel­op­ing hu­man val­ues,” such as “ hon­esty,

pu­rity and truth­ful­ness.”

‘Poi­sonous’ cour­ses

Many ed­u­ca­tors, how­ever, say the plans are mis­guided. “Such cul­tural en­gi­neer­ing will not work,” said Sadegh Zibakalam, a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Tehran Uni­ver­sity and a critic of the govern­ment. “ They think they can ed­u­cate chil­dren in schools to be per­fect be­ings but for­get that dozens of other fac­tors — par­ents, friends, satel­lite and In­ter­net — shape their thoughts.”

Ma­jor changes are al­ready un­der­way at the uni­ver­sity level. The Sci­ence Min­istry has fired nu­mer­ous pro­fes­sors in the past year and taken con­trol of hir­ing for all uni­ver­sity teach­ing po­si­tions. Many dis­missed pro­fes­sors were aligned with po­lit­i­cal fac­tions that have been sup­pressed.

At the same time, Supreme Leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei has pub­licly com­plained about cour­ses such as non-Is­lamic law, psy­chol­ogy and so­ci­ol­ogy, which are called hu­man­is­tic sci­ences here. De­scrib­ing the cour­ses as “fun­da­men­tally poi­sonous,” he lam­basted their strong re­liance on Western the­o­ries.

“ Teach­ing our youth ex­actly what Western­ers have said or writ­ten — in re­al­ity, trans­fer­ring doubt and dis­trust and dis­be­lief to­ward holy and Is­lamic tenets and val­ues — this is not ac­cept­able,” Khamenei said in an Au­gust meet­ing with uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sors. More than 2 mil­lion stu­dents take such cour­ses in Iran. It re­mains un­clear how the au­thor­i­ties are plan­ning to “Is­lam­i­cize” their con­tent.

“ These cour­ses are made up of the views of thinkers from all across the world,” said Ali As­ghar Harandi, a stu­dent of phi­los­o­phy at Tehran Uni­ver­sity who sup­ports the govern­ment but dis­agrees with the aca­demic changes. “You can’t change sci­ence.”

Zibakalam, the po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor, said the revo­lu­tion il­lus­trated the dif­fi­culty of shap­ing peo­ple’s think­ing. The up­ris­ing was joined by hun­dreds of thou­sands of stu­dents who had been im­mersed for years in West­ern­ized ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams dur­ing the reign of the Western­backed Shah Mo­ham­mad Reza Pahlavi, but who ended up help­ing to top­ple him.

“It is not what we teach stu­dents which makes them sup­port some­body or not,” Zibakalam said. “How they act de­pends on how they are be­ing treated by those in power.”


Ira­nian high school stu­dents sit for the uni­ver­sity en­trance exam in Tehran. The govern­ment’s over­haul of ed­u­ca­tion will ex­ciseWestern ideas and pre­vent stu­dents from “ be­ing trapped by per­verted move­ments and en­emy plots or be im­pris­oned by satel­lite chan­nels.”

An Ira­nian high school stu­dent works on an en­trance exam. Crit­ics of the ed­u­ca­tion plan say it won’t work. “ They think they can ed­u­cate chil­dren in schools to be per­fect be­ings,” one pro­fes­sor said.

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