Part I: Iran's Education Overhaul

Interview with Shervin Malekzadeh

       Shervin Malekzadeh recently received his Ph.D. in Government from Georgetown University. His dissertation, based on nearly two years of research in Iran, deals with the politics of education in Iran and the ways in which efforts to produce the New Islamic Citizen through schooling facilitates both consent and protest to state rule.
  • Why is the Islamic Republic creating a new curriculum?
The failure of Iran’s schools to produce either good or useful Islamic citizens is the immediate impetus for a new curriculum. But the core problem—more than three decades after the revolution—is that the regime has still not figured out exactly what such a citizen should look like or how best to teach Iran’s revolutionary ideology to young children.  The new curriculum is part of a broader education reform project to address those questions.  The new curriculum is also a reassertion of the supreme leader’s power and authority over a school system that he  considers to be a failure because of its supposed imitation of "foreign" educational systems.
The idea of reform is not new. The latest reform initiative began well before the Green Movement opposition emerged in 2009, after a disputed presidential election. In 1986, the Islamic Republic established the first “Council for Fundamental Change in the School System.”  Since then, the education system has undergone several changes under successive ministers of education. But few new ideas were fully formed. Most initiatives did not last long.  As a result, the school system has lurched from one major reform to another in an ongoing series of crises.
Education has become an increasingly contentious political issue.  Over the past six years, three education ministers have been run out of office under political pressure, either impeached or nearly impeached by parliament (Majles) on grounds of incompetence or trying to cater to factional interests. The purpose of the national curriculum is to end the politics of education in Iran.
  • What are the changes being pursued?
Government planners want a blend--an Islamic educational system that is both scientific and research-driven but also in line with religious values.  The proposed reforms should be seen as the latest of many attempts to demonstrate that the revolution can deliver a modern school system without sacrificing the country’s putative Islamic-Iranian identity.
For the first time, the new curriculum will weave a consistent thread of instruction from kindergarten to high school, moving beyond revolutionary slogans and tying textbooks together in a single course of Islamic education.  Planners also want to move beyond rote learning. Heavy reliance on standardized testing encourages classes in which the superficial memorization of testable facts takes precedent over the internalization of religious belief and ideology. With schools running two or three shifts, teaching staffs have a hard time just making it through the school day.  Teachers and principals—burdened by overcrowding, cowed by an increasingly charged domestic politics, and unwilling to unleash disruptive factional rivalries on campus—are often content to meet students’ needs by teaching to the text. 
  • How does the current overhaul in education differ from the cultural revolution in the early 1980s, when the regime tried to purge primary education and university curricula of Western influence and un-Islamic ideas?
The Cultural Revolution sought to remove the ideas, structures, and personnel from the monarchy.  It dealt almost exclusively with state efforts to discipline student activism at the universities, most famously through the closure all of the country’s campuses between 1980-1983. 
Ironically, however, the Islamicization of elementary and high school curriculum was already underway before the Cultural Revolution began in June 1980, which was facilitated by Islamist penetration of the monarchy’s ministry of education in the years leading up to the 1979 revolution. Unlike the universities, the schools never closed down after the revolution, to the great dismay of many students who had hoped that the end of 2500 years of monarchy in Iran also bring an extra long summer holiday!
The current overhaul deals with problems that have emerged exclusively under Islamic rule.  The regime is particularly concerned about so-called credentialism, or madrak-gerai, the use of education for private social or financial gain rather to serve state interests.
Education minister Hamid Reza Haji Babaei defined education as a duty to “bring children’s hearts closer to God.” But many families today expect schools to focus on academic training—the key to jobs, independence and a future—with morality and religion best handled at home.
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