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Education | The Foucault Made Me Do It


02 May 2012 23:59Comments

The demonization of the humanities (and fetishization of the degree) in Iranian higher ed.

Shervin Malekzadeh, a visiting assistant professor at Swarthmore College this fall, is finishing a study for the U.S. Institute of Peace on student movement groups in Iran and university education as a state strategy for securing the quiescence of Iranian youth. IDÉ is where ideas are discussed in the magazine.
[ IDÉ ] The first significant break in the cycle of protest and counterprotest that came to be known as the Green Movement occurred on June 25, 2009. After 12 days of nationwide unrest and upheaval, including a day in which more than three million marched in Tehran alone, and with many months of demonstrations yet to come, Iranians across the country observed an informal truce during the administration of the annual concours, Iran's high-stakes university entrance exam.

Of the 1.3 million students taking the exam, fully one third would sit for the humanities section of the test, second only to those trying to enter engineering programs. These same students would draw unusual attention some months later as national leaders cast about for reasons to explain what had gone wrong the previous summer. Domestically, the focus turned to academia and the imagined menace of a humanities literature hostile to religion, led by retrograde professors committed to stripping young people of their faith.

In a major speech to academic leaders just before the start of the 2009-10 school year, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei described the humanities literature as being "based on philosophies whose foundations are materialism and disbelief in godly and Islamic teachings." He added that teaching those disciplines "lead to propagation of skepticism and doubt about religious principles and beliefs." Comments made by the editor of the hardline newspaper Resaalat and fellow traveler Morteza Nabavi were typical: "Many of our universities are under the influence of the humanities, the same humanities in which God is dead. In their...books they say openly 'God is dead and has no place in the political sphere, only humans are central [to such affairs].'"

State planners seeking to retrench the humanities face a thorny challenge. The Islamic Republic has long viewed the expansion and growth of the university system as a cornerstone of its strategy to preserve and strengthen the Revolution. By any measure, the state has been phenomenally successful. More than 30 percent of youth aged 18 to 24 are enrolled in some form of higher education, well on pace to reach the state's goal of 60 percent by 2025, an impressive ratio given that as recently as 1996 less than half of high school age students were enrolled in secondary education, much less going on to university. Where rebellion and war defined the first generations of postrevolutionary youth in Iran, the shared experience of the current and future generations will be the pursuit of the university degree.

Universities not only provide for the state's economic and technological self-sufficiency, they also function as bulwarks in the so-called cultural war, waged against Iran by the Great Satan in Washington and her European allies. The problem is those bulwarks are being manned, for the most part, by humanities majors. Of the nearly 3.8 million students attending universities across Iran during 2009-10, more than 1.6 million were enrolled in humanities departments, representing some 45 percent of the total student population. Whereas Iran's university population saw a 17-fold increase between 1978 and 2007, in that same period the number of humanities students increased 25-fold.

Cheaper to organize and support than the sciences, the humanities have provided the leaders of the Islamic Republic with a quick, efficient way of bringing social and educational justice to underserved villages and urban areas, while providing a major point of entry for nontraditional populations into the university system, in particular for women who now comprise some 65 percent of all humanities students. By far the preferred choice of female students, during the 2009-10 school year 648,713 women were enrolled in humanities departments; engineering came in a distant second, with 176,303 students.

Anxiety over the pernicious effects of the humanities thus comes into conflict with efforts to secure state legitimacy at home. The drive to place limiting quotas on the number of students accepted into humanities departments -- the official policy is to have it down to 14 percent by 2015 -- risks undermining the broader gains made in the field of higher education.

Along with all the hand-wringing over the harmful effects that the humanities are having on Iran's youth are hints of empathy and forgiveness, the sense that the kids know not what they do. Adults are to blame for the addling of youth by academia: "These were children," Nabavi lamented, "who had been nurtured by the Islamic Republic. Suddenly [one day] we opened our eyes and saw that they were soldiers in the anti-religious [Green] movement, willing to take on all manner of risk..."

The notion that young adults are fully impressionable, little more than putty to be molded by the hands of grownups, is a curious conceit given that getting into college in Iran takes a remarkable amount of determination and self-motivation. Iranians commonly refer to the metaphor of a reverse funnel when describing their country's university admissions process. Few can pass through the funnel's narrow opening. Once in, however, the payoff is a guaranteed and easy exit out of the wide mouth of the system, after which, in theory at least, there awaits a secure, well-paying job.

While college degrees still offer their bearers on average greater social and economic opportunities than those available to non-degree holders, there is mounting evidence that the long-term benefits of going to university are approaching balance with its social and economic costs, seen most dramatically in the phenomenon of "waithood," the delayed entry of youth into the labor and marriage markets, and by extension, adulthood. With unemployment rates for young college-educated Iranians greater than the average for the entire country, increasing numbers of youth are living at home with their parents while they await work, not unlike their American peers.

Unlike in the United States, where the current discourse reflects a growing sense that young people who played by the rules but now face diminished prospects in the job market have been sold a bill of goods, young people in Iran appear to be doubling down on the promise of higher education. Bottlenecks that once existed at the undergraduate level are steadily being pushed upward to the graduate level. Of the approximately 900,000 students who apply each year for master's programs, only 60,000 are accepted, some 6 percent. The figures for Ph.D. programs are even worse: fewer than 5 percent of those seeking doctorates make it through, a meager 6,000 students out of 127,000 applicants.

One explanation for this contradiction, not easily measured by employment data, is the phenomenal social pressure upon families to get the badge of the college degree. "Most parents in Iran," writes economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, "have a simple yet ambitious educational objective for their children -- to enter university." For ordinary Iranians, there exists ample anecdotal evidence that "uneducated" sons and, increasingly, daughters face diminished prospects for marriage and entry into adult social life if they don't finish (at minimum) their studies at the bachelor's level. Parents, concerned for the welfare of their children and anxious over losing face with their friends, family, and neighbors, spend what are often limited resources on their children's education, including private schools and tutors. If the children fail, at least it will not be because they weren't given the best possible shot. "The rest," as one father put it, referring to the perilous job market for young people, "is the fault of society."

The thinking of many kids and their families seems to be, Well if Ali and Sara are not working and are living at home because they can't get married (because they're not working), they might as well "improve" while they wait. Under such circumstances, keeping busy or sargarmai (literally, keeping one's head warm) by getting educated becomes a pragmatic choice.

Analysts regularly depict young Iranians, the overeducated and underemployed 70 percent of the population under 30, as a tinderbox waiting to explode, forever on edge. For now, it would seem, the Islamic Republic doesn't need to deliver jobs, so long as it delivers access to universities. It may prove to be the case that the pernicious influence of universities lies not in the classroom or the inscrutable musings of 20th-century French philosophers, but in the pressures exerted by societies of merit that, from a young age, train their children to blindly pursue a credential more than an education.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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