Education is as old as the history of humanity itself. Human beings have always been thinking of the best ways to teach and to learn. That’s probably why there is no single history of education. The history of education is as diverse as the history of nations. Education in Iran, as one of the most ancient civilizations on the face of the earth, has a long history. In this article, we’re going to see what’s it all about.
Humans have lived on the plateau of Iran for at least fifteen thousand years. Little is known about how the people who lived in this land before the Aryans were educated. Nearly four thousand years ago, Aryans, including the Medes, Persians, and Parthians, migrated to Iran. The Medes remained in the west, the Persians in the south, and the Parthians in the east of the Iranian plateau and formed governments.
The Medes conquered the lands of western Iran around 700 BC and established the Medes government. In the Median period, children and adolescents learned the way of life, work, and war at home and in the tribe. Formal training was only for the clergy. In addition to reading and writing, clerics learned and taught religious principles and rituals, astronomy, and the methods of predicting the fate of others in religious centers. Other people were deprived of reading and writing. The Medes had a way of writing similar to cuneiform.
Little is known about the education of children during the Achaemenid period. In two Elamite documents obtained from Persepolis and related to the twenty-third year of the reign of Darius I (499 BC), the phrase “Persian boys who write texts” is mentioned. These boys may have been familiar with the Persian cuneiform, in which only a few scribes were probably well-versed at the time because it was mostly used for inscriptions of royal matters. Even high-ranking Iranian aristocrats and employees were illiterate, and writing did not play a role in the usual education of Iranians.
Similarly, there is no strong evidence of education during the Parthian period. But it can be said that it was similar to the Sassanid era. Our knowledge of the Sassanid era is limited to the training of princes, nobles, priests, and court secretaries. Most of the villagers were illiterate, but most urban men of trade were probably familiar with writing and calculating.
The Gundishapur or Jundishapur Academy was one of the important education centers during the Sassanid era. With more than 17 centuries of history, it remains one of the oldest universities in the Middle East and the history of education in Iran. The university offered training in medicine, philosophy, theology, and science. These teachings were based on the Zoroastrian, Persian, Greek, and Indian traditions. The novel institution of the hospital as a center for treatment and medical education was formed in this university. It had a great impact on the history of medical science. In addition, the university hospital was the most important medical center in the ancient world in the 6th and 7th centuries AD.
Public education emerged after the Arab invasion and was the beginning of Islamic education. Until then, education was only for a specific group of elites. The arrival of the Arabs in Iran made education available to the common people. As a result, they learned the basics of reading and writing, as well as the Qur’an and the principles of religion.
However, even after the Arab invasion, Iranians continued to be at the forefront of literacy and knowledge, with most of the administrative and written work of the court of the Arab rulers being done by the Iranians. The emergence of great poets such as Ferdowsi, Rumi, Khayyam, Nezami, Hafez, and Saadi, put knowledge and wisdom into poetry. This had a major role in preserving the Iranian language. Great philosophers and scientists in the history of education in Iran such as Ibn Sina, Abu Rihan al-Biruni, Khayyam, Mulla Sadra, Farabi, and hundreds of others flourished during this period.
Khawaja Nizam al-Mulk, the famous, tactful minister of the Seljuks, ordered the construction and equipping of schools that became known as the Nizamiya. The Nizamiyas were built in Baghdad, Neyshabur, Isfahan, Balkh, Merv, and Amol. They operated on a 24-hour basis and the government paid them. These schools had a coherent training program that was set up under the supervision of Khawaja Nizam al-Mulk. This program was followed for up to 150 years with minimal change. One of the shortcomings of these schools was that little by little, free speech and dialogue faded in them, and more emphasis was placed on learning Shafi’i jurisprudence, grammar, Arabic literature, the Qur’an, and hadith. Gradually, centers for teaching Qur’an were established in the country. For example, the Nizamiya in Baghdad was the central school for teaching Qur’an.
After establishing the central school for teaching Qur’an, there were more and more schools in the country until Islamic schools were established under the name of Maktab Khane (the house of writing). Initially, education was in two styles: one was professional and occupational and the other was teaching and reading Qur’an, which was done at Maktabs. Maktabs were also established in villages. The principals of the Maktabs were the same people who were educated in them and returned to their village to promote literacy. Maktabs followed the same rules and had the same characteristics: Qur’an-centric curriculum and informality (having no systematic way of planning for education).
There were differences between what girls learned and what boys learned in Maktabs. The girls were not allowed to learn writing, because the common belief was that the girls who know how to write start to write love letters! Boys learned almost everything that a curriculum had to offer.
In 148 AH, Mansour, the second Abbasid caliph, contracted a serious illness that doctors could not cure. Therefore, Georges, the son of Bakhtishu, the director of Gundishapur Hospital, was invited to Baghdad for his treatment. After Mansour’s treatment, the Iranian doctor stayed in Baghdad for four years and taught Iranian medicine in Baghdad. Thus, Iranian medicine entered the Islamic world.
During the Qajar period, the Iran-Russia wars took place. These wars were accompanied by the defeat of the Iranians and the loss of many parts of Iran. After the defeat, Iranians came to realize they needed to have access to the knowledge outside of Iran. Apparently, there was something in the world beyond the borders that they felt they lacked here. In 1231 AH, five students were sent to England; the first lead printing press was used in 1227 AH in Tabriz; the first newspaper was published by Mirza Saleh, one of the students sent to England, under the name of “Kaghaz-e-Akhbar” in 1253 AH; and the first school in a modern way with the efforts of Mirza Hassan Khan Rushdieh in 1254 AH in Urmia and the following year in Tabriz began its work.
The first modern schools in Iran were formed during the reign of Muhammad Shah Qajar. The first school was built by an American priest named Perkins in Urmia in 1254 AH. In this school, in addition to some new sciences, carpet weaving and blacksmithing were also taught to children. Later on, Eugene Bouret (a French priest) built the second school in 1255 in Tabriz.
Dar ul-Funun marks a turning point in the history of education in Iran. It was an education center for modern science and technology, founded in 1231 AH by Mirza Taghikhan Amirkabir in Tehran. The school’s first teachers were European, mostly Austrian. First, a total of 100 students were selected from the children of aristocrats and government dignitaries to study in the fields of military, medicine, pharmacy, mining, and engineering. Dar ul-Funun had a laboratory for physics, chemistry, and pharmacy, as well as a glass and crystal factory, a candle factory, and a printing press. In addition to theoretical studies, the students also engaged in practical activities. For example, the Austrian artillery and math teacher Monsieur Krishch, with the help of his students, built a telegraph machine that was the beginning of the spread of telecommunications in the country.
The modern educational structure of Iran was formed in the beginning years of the 20th century. From the beginning of the Pahlavi government, the formation and development of the Iranian educational ministry have seen many changes. There are public and private schools in Iran now. There are, of course, many challenges in the system of education in Iran as is the case with many other countries around the world.
The University of Tehran is a state university and the largest higher education center in Iran. This university is referred to as the “mother university” and the “symbol of higher education”. The initial proposal of this government body was made by Ismail Sang in 1927, and after conducting initial studies by Issa Siddiq, it was established in 1935 by the order of Reza Shah Pahlavi. The University of Tehran currently has 25 faculties, 9 campuses, and 11 research centers. Other universities were established later. Nowadays, Iran is home to many great universities: Sharif University of Technology, Shahid Beheshti University, The University of Science and Technology, and Amirkabir University are among the best universities in Iran.
Prior to the Constitutional period, the general public in Iran believed that education was not necessary, permissible, or desirable for girls. It was Bibi Khanum Astarabadi who started the first girls’ school in the history of education in Iran. She named the school “Dooshizegan (the maidens)” in 1324 AH, but her bold action was met with much opposition and severe criticism. Eventually, despite her resistance, the pressures led to the closure of the school.
“Namous (honor)” was another school for girls built in 1326 AH. It was Touba Azmoudeh this time who built the school on Farmanfarma Street in Tehran. After much resistance demonstrated by women against the wrong norms of that time, all primary schools in Tehran became state-owned in 1327 AH and were officially supervised by the Department of Culture. It was then that 46 new schools were established for both girls and boys.
It was not until the 1950s that the Iranian people realized there must be a way for adults if they want to get educated. Back then, there were many people who didn’t have any education due to being poverty-stricken. The year 1927, the time of the formation of the first adult classes, can be considered as the beginning of literacy activities in Iran. On October 1, 1927, the first adult education courses under the supervision of the Ministry of Education began as night classes in ten schools in Tehran with eight hundred students. Four stages mark the fight against illiteracy in the history of education in Iran.
First, the Organization for Adult Education is the first organization that was officially established in 1937 for adult literacy in the history of education in Iran. During this period, night classes for adults were organized using the existing school space. The activities of this organization continued until the occupation of Iran in September 1942.
Initially, literacy was only aimed at reducing the number of illiterates, regardless of socio-economic considerations. During this period, which lasted from 1315 to 1341, the link between primary education and adults was broken.
In the second stage, i.e. in the period 1963 to 1965, literacy was considered as a tool to achieve the goals of the development of the country. The establishment of the Knowledge Corps in 1963 seems to have been done with this goal in mind.
The third stage has special features, the most important of which is the formation of a global organization called the National Committee to Combat Illiteracy. At this stage, the economic effects of literacy were considered and the literacy organization evolved. The activities of the National Committee to Combat illiteracy were mostly focused on the implementation of educational programs. Experiences gained from the implementation of literacy programs in this period necessitated the adoption of a new strategy: the executive affairs of literacy programs had to be entrusted to government departments and organizations, and the National Committee to Combat Illiteracy acts as a planner and designer of executive plans and literacy. However, not all of these measures achieved the expected results, and despite rising literacy rates, the number of illiterates continued to rise.
After the victory of the Iranian Revolution in 1978 and the resumption of literacy activities, new hopes arose, but the 1986 census revealed that despite the expansion of primary education and literacy activities in urban and rural areas, especially among girls and women, Illiteracy had increased from 14.2 million in 1976 to 14.7 million in 1986. Nevertheless, the literacy rate rose from 41.7% to 62% in the next decade.
Therefore, the fourth stage started with the establishment of The Literacy Movement by the order of Imam Khomeini to fight illiteracy in Iran. The movement continues. Classes are still available to give opportunities to those deprived of educational means.
Today’s Iran has two ministries for education: one is responsible for schools (Ministry of Education), the other for higher education (Ministry of Science and Technology). Nowadays, you can find all kinds of schools in Iran. The most common one is the public school that is governed by the government and every child can attend for free once reaching the age of 7. Private schools are there too, but they are too expensive. For foreigners and religious minorities, there are schools where children can be more comfortable with their peers. There are also schools for adults: those who need a high school diploma but never had the opportunity to get one.
Today, the variety of educational disciplines in Iran is very high and those interested in higher education can choose from these disciplines. There are very good universities and educational centers in each of these fields, and the country has been able to make significant progress in each of the fields of science. Iranian students now seek computer science and mathematics, all kinds of engineering majors, humanities, medical sciences, and many other majors.
Due to the great popularity of higher education in Iran, a university called Azad University was established in Iran. It is different from others since you need to pay huge amounts of tuition to get your degree from Azad University. Azad University has 31 provincial university units including 400 university campuses and research centers in Iran as well as 4 overseas centers in the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, and Lebanon. There are other types of universities operating in Iran under the name of non-profit and applied universities. In non-profit universities, tuition fees are lower. The applied universities are tailor-made for organizations to educate their employees in specific areas of practice.
You can seek education in Iran. Iran offers a wide variety of disciplines and universities if you are interested. Plus, when you travel to Iran, you can visit the universities. Many of the campuses are beautiful and you will get to know Iranian students, a cool generation highly different from the stereotyped middle-eastern youngster whose picture the media has always promoted.