From the Archives: The following was written by Joel B. Slocum, Columbia University, and first published in Volume XXVII, No. 7 of the NAFSA Newsletter from April 1976.
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One of the most important events in my life, both personally and professionally, occurred in 1965, when I received a grant from the American Friends of the Middle East to visit Iran and to gather material for a monograph on Iranian education to appear in AACRAO's World Education Series.
Before I made the trip, I was inclined to regard Iranian students with a mixture of suspicion and hostility. They always seemed to be up to something; one never knew what. It was just as well, I finally decided, to expect the worst from them. One would then not be caught off guard.
The trip could not have been more enlightening. Not only did I experience a great broadening of horizons in a general sense, but in particular I lost my prejudices about Iranians and acquired in their place affection and respect.
The first thing that impressed itself upon me was the harshness of much of the land. Except for the lush Caspian littoral, the Iranian landscape is mostly rugged and not readily adapted to agriculture. There are large areas of desert or semi-desert. For the majority of the people who live in the countryside, making a living can be a difficult, precarious business. I could imagine that such living conditions might give rise to traits which a Westerner, accustomed to comfort and a living easily gained, would view as overly shrewd, aggressive, or self-serving. I could also appreciate, however, that such traits would simply have survival value and no more when seen in their proper context.
Yet it already sounds as though I must concentrate my efforts on apologizing for Iranians, and nothing, for me, could be further from the truth. Iranians are among the most gracious and hospitable people I have met. I have many pleasant memories of Iranian friends and of social occasions with them, in their homes and elsewhere, and the style uniformly is one of seeing to the comfort of the guest or stranger and putting him or her at ease.
Let me try to draw for you a composite portrait of an Iranian student, based on my own reading and my own impressions. Bear in mind that the impressions were formed ten years ago and that many changes have been taking place in Iran and in Iranian education. Those with more recent experience in Iran may well question the validity of my portrait. My own feeling, nevertheless, is that the changes have been neither so many nor so profound as completely to invalidate what I have to say. The portrait, by the way, will imply certain ways of responding to Iranian students on the part of FSA's [foreign student advisers]. I will conclude by giving some explicit suggestions.
The Iranian student in my eyes is individualistic, fatalistic, and outwardly submissive to authority. He is fiercely loyal to his family and close friends, but feels little of that emotion towards any level or representative of government. Above all, his outlook is colored by what I think of as the "bazaar mentality." The bazaar, of course, is the central market where everything under the sun is sold, at prices which are arrived at only by a process of haggling between buyer and seller. The mentality is one characterized by seeing all of life as a bazaar, where nothing has a fixed price or value and everything is subject to negotiation. Usually associated with this outlook on life is a high degree of persistence. Many FSA' s or faculty advisers can recall dealing with Iranian students who would keep pushing for what they wanted, apparently not realizing that fixed rules or procedures made it impossible for them to attain their objective.
How did Iranians get to be this way? I am not a cultural anthropologist, except by amateur inclination, but I think the combination of land and history goes far to account for the character of the people. I have spoken of the land. The history has been an extraordinary one of maintaining an Iranian identity for 2,500 years in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds. Time after time the country was conquered by outsiders, yet each time it was the conquerors who eventually were lranianized rather than the other way around. Survival in such situations no doubt puts a premium on ingenuity, stubborn persistence masked by affable compliance, and diplomacy, among other skills which one might guess at. Another important aspect of Iranian history has been the autocratic rule which has characterized (and still does) the periods in which the country was self-governing.
Such a context seems to me entirely adequate to account for the traits of individualism, home-centered loyalties, submission to authority, and to some extent, fatalism and the "bazaar mentality" as well. The last two, however, have other roots. Fatalism stems from the Moslem religion, to which about 97% of the Iranian people adhere; the "bazaar mentality" stems in part from some of the economic arrangements the culture has made for itself. The turning inward to the family, incidentally, is expressed in the domestic architecture of the country. Given sufficient wealth, Iranians live in walled-in houses. Their home life takes place around an inner court, often featuring a garden.
The Iranian as a student is the legatee of a manifold tradition. This tradition is summarized by the Iranian educator Issa Khan Sadiq in his book Modern Persia and Her Educational System (Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, 1931). I quote my own paraphrase of Sadiq from my study of Iran in the World Education Series:
- Religion–Education historically was always closely associated with religion and had a religious character.
- Private initiative–The government was for all practical purposes uninvolved in education until within little more than the last century.
- Discipline–It has been characterized by extreme severity and rigidity, with free use of corporal punishment.
- French influence–Iran has turned to France more than any other nation for access to Western culture. French influence dates from Louis XIV, who sent an ambassador in 1664, and has affected many aspects of education. It is to be seen in the organization and administration of education, methods of teaching, curriculums, examinations, and standards. (Only since the early 1960's has the counter-influence of the United States been felt in education.)
- Centralization–A strong central government has been felt to be essential in order to hold the country together. This feeling is reflected in the educational sphere. (Iranian eduis highly centralized.)
- Unenlightened attitudes toward teachers and children–Teaching has not been regarded as an art. Anyone who is old enough, well-behaved, and knows something has been assumed capable of teaching what he knows. As for children, they have been expected by the mass of the people to be productive as early in life as possible.
- Deterministic view of learning–It has been thought since the time of the poet Sa'di (13th century) that if an individual has ability, education will have an effect upon him; otherwise it will not. Education has thus been felt to be only for those who can profit from it. As Sa'di said, 'Where the innate capacity is good, education may make an impression on it; but no furbisher knows how to give a polish to bad-tempered iron."
One might think that something written 45 years ago could have no relevance to conditions today. I would disagree. In my opinion, Iran is just beginning to break away from the centuries of tradition that have shaped so many Iranian students, even to this day. The break away is being accomplished with U.S. help and influence. More and more frequently one sees Iranian records expressed in terms of credit hours and letter grades. One hopes that more substantive changes are taking place as well, as increasing numbers of Iranians with U.S. degrees return home, and as the Iranian educational system feels the influence of exchange arrangements it has made with some major U.S. universities.
One change that is badly needed–and to the occurrence of which other observers than I will have to testify–is in basic educational methodology. The cornerstone of Iranian education has always been rote memorization. One of my vivid memories of Iran is that of university students pacing up and down with a book in hand, doggedly memorizing before an examination. Completely absent from most school or university training until only very recently have been the techniques of scholarship that we take for granted–individual study and research, the regular writing of papers and reports.
In recent years the number of Iranian students in the U.S. has grown tremendously. The 1974-75 lIE census showed that Iranians are now the most numerous foreign student group in the U.S. The Iranian secondary school system is producing graduates at rates far beyond the absorptive capacity of the higher education system. As a result, U.S. post-secondary schools which a few years ago had hardly heard of Iran might now have one or two hundred students from that country.
What can the FSA do to improve his ability to deal with lranians? It seems obvious to me that one must start by putting aside the Western set of values and the Judeo-Christian morality that is as much a part of us as our blood, muscles, and bones. Iranians see the world differently and think differently. We hear again and again in our field of work–so often, perhaps, that the words have lost their meaning–that we must try to put ourselves in the other person's place, see what he sees, feel what he feels, think what he thinks. But no matter how often they are said, they are as true as they ever were.
More specifically, the FSA might try to comprehend the process of bargaining for a price. This is difficult, and most North American visitors to any country where bargaining is the rule find it is a strange and uncomfortable business at first. (Many, myself included, come to enjoy it after some practice!) You will not, of course, be engaged in bargaining with Iranian students. Nevertheless, I think it helps to know how natural the process is to them and to have some appreciation of it.
Also helpful would be much more knowledge of Iranian history and culture than the superficial bit I have given here. Both the history and the culture are rich and diverse, and will amply repay anyone's efforts to understand them.
Advisers should be aware thaf some Iranian students are stoutly opposed to the regime currently in power in their country. They may be quite active in their opposition to the regime, and they may want to avoid contacts with their Embassy and with other agencies which purport to be interested in them for "educational" reasons. Other Iranian students may support the current government in their country, and "infighting" among the Iranians on a given campus is not unusual.
Finally, the Iranian as a student requires some special attention. In addition to the problems of adaptation posed by his educational background, he is likely to have less than a fully proficient command of English. So his first term, at least, should probably be one of either intensive English, or part-time English and a reduced academic load. Any additional help that can be provided in the way of orientation to U.S. academic life will be all to the good.
Iranian students can do as well in our colleges and universities as any students from any country in the world. the best of them are as bright and able as any teacher could hope for. The point of my article has been simply that maximizing their potential requires sympathy, understanding, and careful academic programming on the part of their advisers.
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