Today’s guest author is Saeed Aganji, an Iranian independent journalist, researcher, and former editor-in-chief of the Saba student publication.
Based on a new agreement between the Ministry of Education and Tehran seminaries, some public schools will start to be managed under the supervision of the seminary. This nascent arrangement has caused a great level of controversy and debate among its opponents and supporters. Many religious organizations have expressed their satisfaction, however, the educators of the country have cried out in protest.
According to the agreement, “Public schools covered under this plan will be rebranded as ‘Seminary Affiliated Schools’ and the management of the school will be permanently transferred to a cleric present on school grounds. Each year more schools will be added following the seminary’s approval.”
A representative of the Council of Cooperation between the Ministry of Education and the seminaries elaborated by stating, “This plan is being implemented in accordance with the Islamic Republic’s regulations and religious edicts. Additionally, [the agreement] aims to enforce foundational change in the education system with the focus of disseminating ideas that result in spreading the ideology of theVelayat-e faqih [Guardianship of the Jurists]…”
The current discourse, which is led by the seminary, is essentially rooted in their desire to maintain their own social status and advance their religious worldview. The intellectual and ideological reasoning of the religious class in Iran, which is generally associated with social, financial, and political advantages, has been damaged due to the overall intellectual and political growth of the Iranian society. If this process continues, the status of the clerical class will continue to deteriorate. This is why they are attempting to delay the inevitable by implementing the aforementioned plan.
The story of clerical involvement in Iran’s education system begins long before the 1979 Revolution. Prior to the advent of the modern education system in Iran all levels of education followed the seminary model and were supervised by clerics. However, beginning in the early 1850s, the first examples of nonreligious, Western-style schools began to operate. This process gradually removed the clerical class from the education system and left them in charge of the seminaries. However, the attempt to take back what was once their domain has continued since this separation. As an example, clerics acted as consultants for the writing of textbooks even before the 1979 Revolution.
Collaboration between the seminaries and nonreligious schools was strengthened after the Revolution due to the strong religious aspects of the ruling regime. In 2006, during Mahmoud Farshidi’s tenure as the Education Minister, this cooperation finally bared practical fruits. During that period the Amin Plan was introduced, which encouraged greater collaboration between seminaries and universities. This plan began its implementation phase in 2009 and ignited great levels of debate in the society. No official data is available on the exact number of universities that are participating in this program.
Furthermore, the background and social foundations of the traditionalist movement in Iran has been based on the pre-modern and pre-capitalist social classes. A substantial portion of the traditionalist class is made up of the clergy. The ideology of the traditionalists is an amalgamation of the ideals of the old aristocratic landowners, the clergy, elites, small shopkeepers, and peasants. Their ideology consists of elements such as social stability, social justice, and emphasizing the hierarchical and patriarchal social and political order.
This traditional movement has two ideological tendencies that are, at times, contradictory. One leaning is the radical egalitarian orientation that expresses petty bourgeois aspirations and the lower traditional classes. The second leaning has a conservative and somewhat elitist orientation. (The former trend was dominant until 1990 and the latter orientation has taken over since.)
In any case, since such groups are always subject to change and prone to collapse, they tend to want to control their own destiny by promoting complete organizational independence. This is one of the main reasons for their discomfort with secular and nonreligious educational centers.
Additionally, the mindset of the traditionalist movement in Iran could be seen in the sense of insecurity, defenselessness, and disunity of this class within today’s society. The clergy class, as the prominent symbol of the traditionalist movement, has always been under a great amount of psychological pressure.
The traditional bonds between the clergy and its supporters have dwindled over time due to the process of modernization and the rebirth of social and political movements. When these traditional ties weaken, a sense of insecurity overcomes the clerics. This sense of future uncertainty, which may result in elimination of their higher social, political, and financial status, causes them to react. Their attempt to penetrate the education system of the country is a means for ideological survival.
Naturally, there is an intense debate happening among the opponents and proponents of this plan. The supporters often argue the following points in defense of their position:
- The students’ religious and theological foundations will be strengthened.
- The education system will be used to its full capacity to promote the development of all aspects of the students’ lives, which includes spiritual growth.
- Healthy competition will be created between public schools.
- The government’s hegemony over the education system will be reduced.
A quote from an interview with Mohammad Hassan Nabavi, the Public Relations Deputy of the Qom Seminary, sheds some light on other potential reasons for the plan. “The average aptitude of the admitted students to the seminary is low. If we create schools that attract talented individuals, we will encourage students with high aptitude to join such education centers. If implemented correctly, this plan could get rid of the impractical practices of the current system of student submission. We have started our work in high schools and middle schools, but we believe that a comprehensive training process needs to begin from the first day of education. We have to enter the process as early as possible. We believe that such education centers should even start in preschool,” Nabavi stated.
The opposition, which mainly consists of teachers and educators, has been very outspoken. Their reasons can be summarized in the following four points:
- There was a strong emphasis on the independence of the two entities in the previous cooperative agreement between the seminary and the education system. However, the current arrangement undermines the independence of the Education Ministry and it has the potential to break the regulations of this department. Therefore, this agreement is actually illegal. Additionally, this accord ignores the opinion of parents and the preference of students.
- This agreement is indicative if the government’s lack of trust towards the country’s teachers and educators. The seminary’s interference in the education sector and its executive matters will, in a way, create a dual management structure, which will cause a great deal of confusion. The school principle will be receiving his direction from the Education Ministry, while the clergy at the same school receives his orders from the seminary. This dichotomy will only harm the students.
- Placing religious clergy in schools will draw from the Ministry of Education’s resources and will be a costly item in its budget. Particularly since the Ministry already faces financial troubles, there is no need to take on additional costs.
- The continued presence of a spiritual authority with special influence at schools will certainly disturb the organizational and educational procedures already in place. This arrangement will reduce the effectiveness of these education centers.
Such an arrangement has already proven to be ineffective at the university level and it will fail again. Due to their ability to access updated information from across the world, Iranian adolescents are moving away from religious teachings. Compared to previous generations, they have a much less fervent attitude towards religion. The clerics understand the effectiveness of religion as a tool to influence the public, but they are essentially fighting a losing battle with the ever-changing world of information technology and the youth’s insatiable appetite for contemporary knowledge.