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Tehran, TX: Another Connection

by SHERVIN MALEKZADEH

23 Sep 2011 23:19Comments
MWG_Gobber_IranTexas.jpgClassroom wars: Similar efforts at curriculum control, but guess who has greater respect for the experts.

[ comment ] Late last May, the Texas Board of Education finalized revisions to the state's social studies curriculum, changes that members of the board have openly described as an effort to insert conservative values into textbooks in order to redress past distortions. For the Republican members of the board, the adoption of the new standards was nothing less than an act of retrieval, the rescue of a putatively authentic American identity from years of liberal bias and hostility toward certain inalienable historical truths, including the Judeo-Christian origins of the country as well as the importance of the free market system and its leading modern apostle, Ronald Reagan, in making the United States the most successful country in the history of the world.

Texas is not the only place where political leaders seek to restore public school curricula to a more pristine state. For the past five years, state planners in Iran have been pursuing a massive overhaul of that country's school system, including a top to bottom revision of all textbook materials. Well before the Green Movement demonstrations, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had called on the country's educational leadership to bring about "fundamental change" to a school system deemed to be in the thrall of Western methods of schooling. Three decades after the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, Khamenei accused the schools of having failed to uphold the values of the Revolution, even going so far as to accuse elements of his own Ministry of Education of being "anti-religious" and "anti-revolutionary."

Comparisons between the former Lone Star Republic and today's Islamic Republic of Iran might seem to be a perilous business, but there are a number of striking similarities between the two. Leaders in Texas and Iran see their interpretation of a national identity rooted in religious values as being authoritative and veridical, and believe that passing on these values to future generations offers the only hope of saving the country from ruin. Above all, educational planners in both places are driven by an indomitable faith in the power of the textbook to shape future generations. Getting textbooks "right" is the key to national salvation.

There is, however, one important difference between the purifications currently under way in Texas and Iran: The Islamic Republic pursues its program of ideological indoctrination under the guise of scientific research and expert opinion, a course of action that the current Board of Education in Texas has famously eschewed. In Iran, no revision to the textbooks or the structure of schooling would be possible without the validation of academic experts. The idea that a dentist, such as former Texas Board chairman Don McLeroy, could have decisive authority over matters of literature or history would be unthinkable and anathema to the Islamic regime.

Of course, the majority bloc on the Texas Board of Education didn't see it quite that way. Much of the controversy in Texas hinged on what the meaning and worth of "expert opinion" is and whether there is any role for academic scholarship to shape what young children learn during their school years. Far from seeing submission to the advice of academics as a form of freedom, board conservatives tended to conflate learned opinion with liberal opposition. By this thinking, an ordinary dentist and former Aggie from the small city of Bryan represents just the kind of "regular folk" needed to decide what is best for Texas's children. As one outspoken defender of the board put it, "History education is too important to be left to the historians.... Shall we continue to have a government ruled by the people, or shall we instead yield to a self-perpetuating caste of 'experts'?"

For the Iranians, expert opinion is not only a virtue; it is seen as a necessity, a possible remedy against the endemic politicization that has in recent years paralyzed the Ministry of Education. Despite the perception that the regime is successfully indoctrinating future generations of revolutionaries, there has in fact never been a consensus as to what constitutes the ideal Islamic society or how best to teach the state's ideology through the schools. The consequence has been a school system in constant tumult, undergoing not one but a successive series of fundamental changes over the past 30 years. A common refrain heard in Iran is that the educational system consists of "a structure but no system." Each new administration brings with it a string of education ministers determined to fix the schools once and for all, invariably throwing out all of the reforms made by their predecessors in the process.

For those Iranians toiling away within the educational structure, all roads lead to the concours, the yearly high-stakes university entrance exam that stands between millions of students and a coveted slot at one of the country's public universities. Not unlike the statewide TAKS test in Texas, the school system in Iran is increasingly geared toward preparing students for this exam, primarily through a battery of multiple-choice tests administered throughout the school year. And like the TAKS, the issues being contested between politicians rarely have any bearing on the makeup of the concours. Indeed, Iran's strict regimen of standardized testing offers teachers safe harbor, a refuge from the politics of schooling swirling above them at the ministerial level. Instead of trying to navigate the shifting winds of reform, beleaguered instructors huddle down and teach to the test, above all, the concours.

This suits most students just fine. A number of scholars, including the Iranian sociologist Mohammad Rezaei and Djavad Salehi-Isfahani of Virginia Tech have detailed how a school system that was once an ideological structure in the service of the state is increasingly seen as a private resource for the social and economic advancement of families and their children. Indifferent to the official ideology, many young students have little use for what they see as grown-up controversies with little bearing on their everyday lives and care only that they do well enough at school to advance to the next level of their education. For parents anxious about their children's future economic well-being, all that matters is that their sons and daughters get accepted into university. They expect teachers to feel the same way.

There is an expression in Farsi, "Texas bood," roughly, "like Texas," that refers to situations of extreme, out-in-the-open conflict, potentially accompanied by gunplay. While high noon shootouts over textbooks are not likely to occur anytime soon in Austin, there is every reason to believe that Iran offers a glimpse of what is likely to be Texas's future. By openly and unapologetically raising the stakes of schooling, the Board of Education has set into motion a corrosive cycle of conflict. The vote to change the standards marked not the end of the politics of schooling in Texas but its beginning, and there are signs that progressive opponents of the new standards are mobilizing to "take back the board" in the next elections. Not to be outdone on the right, and driven by a judicious concern that the controversies surrounding the new standards will undermine conservative values, not preserve them, alarmed conservatives have already made their move against the board's most strident members, most notably Dr. McLeroy, the now former chairman who was defeated in a 2010 primary challenge by a fellow Republican.

Having lived in Texas and Iran, gone to school and participated in the Friday rituals unique to each place, I know all too well the stereotypes that adhere to the fine people who live there. Outsiders too often seem willing, even eager, to take the presumed worst of each place as its truth. In the case of Texas, the actions of the Board of Education have only exacerbated caricatures of the Lone Star State as a haunt of gathered reactionaries, religious fanatics hostile to science and the free exchange of ideas. Board members do not seem to realize that the greatest distortion to the identity of Texans comes not from the corrupting influence of academics or left-wingers, but from those who would seek to impose a uniform identity on a society far more diverse and certain of itself than anything found inside of a textbook could teach them, or that its own leaders are willing to recognize.

Homepage photo by Will Yong, Tehran, 2008.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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