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Giving birth to the University of Tehran: espousing ideas, one baby with many fathers, a lengthy pregnancy, and a premature child

Ideas and concepts

The idea that education, namely western-style education, was indispensable for the progress of the nation gained currency in Iran in the course of the nineteenth century. It became more widespread in the second half of the nineteenth century with the emergence of a new generation of thinkers who had acquired knowledge of western education and its advantages not only from reading books but from their own personal experiences and education in Europe. In their writings we find traces of French philosophers, such as Rousseau, along with concepts borrowed from the German educationalist Pestalozzi and the American founding fathers. Many of these Iranians tried to combine the new western principles of education with Islam and to avoid possible criticism of proposed reforms by citing religious works. Only few of them dared to present their demands without recourse to Islamic values and categories or to call for the dissociation of religion and education. At the turn of the century the calls for new, western education became more and more common and loud. Many of the liberal westernized intellectuals hoped that the new constitution would above all lead to the introduction of western education, which would then result in prosperity, order, and independence and thus become the panacea for all social problems in Iran. The advocates of amongst the ‘olama generally acknowledged the importance of education but considered western education as a threat to Islamic civilization and their own status.3

With very few exceptions, those who reflected on the Iranian educational system were not the same as those who took the initiative and founded schools or took other measures towards the practical dissemination of knowledge and education.4 The politicians and teachers involved in the founding of the University of Tehran and earlier institutions preceding it never referred to the ideas of Iranian educational reformers. That the military superiority of the West originated in the sciences, that Iran would only by adopting western education be able to take possession of the achievements of the West, and that the acquisition of knowledge (‘elm) would lead from darkness to light and result in Iran’s admittance to the sphere of the civilized world (tamaddon) - all these ideas were common knowledge.

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