Back to School in Iran: How to Deal with a Bad Summer

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Nikoo Harf Maher / Corbis

Iranian schoolgirls during the first day of school in Tehran

The first day of class in Iran comes with its own traditions, designed to help students ease into the academic year. First-graders have it the best. The children are designated as shokoofeh (literally, blossoms), and the teachers give each child a stalk of a fragrant flower. The principal raises a microphone and calls all of the kids into rows, regimented by grades. Then, at exactly the same time across the country, an official strikes a metal plate with a small hammer, the aural signal for the year to begin. The kids pass under a Koran and into their new classrooms, redolent with the smoky swirl of burning esfand, a fragrant herb for warding off bad spirits.

There is comfort in these rituals, in knowing what the first day will bring. But this year will be different, the opening-day rituals troubled by the events of the past summer. This was not a good summer. For many, school will be the first time to confront in a formal social setting what has happened to the country since the controversial presidential election in June. As the principal of a Tehran high school put it to me in his own understated way, "We will surely have problems."

"What will I tell the kids when they come back?" he asks. His school, known for its piety and commitment to the Islamic Revolution, lost a parent to errant gunfire during one of the protest marches, a mother who had gone out in search of her son. Another student was struck in the stomach and remains in critical condition. This school teaches its kids that they live in a just society and that their education will build a more ethical world. What would the adults say to their students?

I remember grappling with similar questions as an elementary school teacher in Washington, D.C. Three days into the new school year, Sept. 11 occurred, ending school before it could begin. We asked ourselves, What would we tell the kids when they come back? How do we explain ourselves? We found that the answers lay in the ordinary — and the kids were learning the lessons even before we taught them. Teachers acknowledged what had happened, then carried on with the school year as soon as possible. The kids were ahead of the adults.

In Iran there can be no moving on, not yet, because what has happened is not over. Not with show trials being broadcast on state television, the cautionary call of a worried regime, met every night by the response across rooftops, "Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar" (God is great, God is great). Not with every holiday, religious event and memorial day an opportunity, a possibility, for protest. Things are not yet over in Iran. The phrase "Atash zire khakestar" (There is yet fire under the ash) is heard a lot these days.

Accounts of schooling in Iran by the American media tend to depict classrooms there as assembly lines, factories of indoctrination and fanaticism quietly churning out fully formed citizens. A pair of reports published in 2008 dubiously claimed that Iranian schools were preparing future generations for self-immolation, a youthful cadre of suicide terrorists ready to hurl themselves into salvation. It was said that schools fostered in young people an intolerance that would surely undermine any movement toward democracy. These reports received considerable coverage by newspapers and television stations throughout the United States and Europe. A year later, many of these same outlets would, without irony, breathlessly cover the story of young people in Iran struggling bravely for democracy against an ideologically rigid regime.

Without access to the daily lives of teachers and their students, studies on Iranian schooling have proven to reveal more about their authors and our shifting preconceptions of Iran than any sort of reality on the ground. The truth is that postrevolutionary schooling in the Islamic Republic has not gone according to plan. The country's public schools face many of the same challenges as U.S. schools: a largely urban school system sagging under the weight of a too-large student population (two- and three-shift schools are not uncommon), poorly paid and demoralized teachers constrained by a highly centralized curriculum, and the destruction of academic creativity under a ever-stringent testing regime. Schools are failing, both ideologically and academically.

Meanwhile, private schools are exploding in popularity as parents who can afford it pull their kids out of the state system, driven not by religious concerns but by a desire to maximize their child's chances for doing well on the university entrance exam, seen as the first step to a more secure social and financial future. One longtime educator explained to me that for most public-school principals just getting the kids into the building in the morning, then out in the afternoon, and perhaps having them make it to the end of the school year, is what passes for accomplishment. Who has time for indoctrination?

What does Iran's pedagogical state produce after 12 years of schooling? Certainly not the "Islamic Citizen" envisioned by state planners, nor the fanatical partisan imagined by the Islamic Republic's critics in the West. At best, schools contribute to a shared framework for consent and opposition to the state. This is a regime put forever at risk by its own taught principles of justice and Islamic democracy, lessons that members of the Green Wave eagerly incorporated into their protests this past summer. It is not by accident that demonstrators shout "God is great" every night or recycle chants made famous during the 1979 revolution.

In recent days, there has been growing speculation that schools and universities will not open their doors for the fall semester out of concern that students will extend the allegedly Western-inspired protest movement to Iran's many campuses. The reality is that the Islamic Republic has no one to blame but itself. There is a quote by the late Ayatullah Khomeini that greets kids at the beginning of each elementary school textbook: "Omid e man ba shoma dabistani hast" (My hope lies with you). Iran's latest social upheaval is not yet a revolution. If it does become one, it will do so because the students are once again ahead of their teachers.

Shervin Malekzadeh, a Ph.D. candidate in government at Georgetown University, was recently in Iran.