Iran's education reform takes anti-Western tack

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 2, 2011; A08

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 Western-backed 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."

Special correspondent Kay Armin Serjoie contributed to this report.

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