18 April 2010

The Forgotten Schools

The urgency of investigating Baha'i contributions to modern Iranian education can, perhaps, be encapsulated in two facts. First, that Reza Shah, the most powerful man in Iran, a country where the people of his time couldn't bring themselves to utter the word "Baha'i", sent his own children to Baha'i schools, the Tarbiyat Schools of Tehran. This means that Muhammad Reza Shah, who ruled Iran from 1941 until 1979, was for a time educated in a Baha'i school. Second, that the same Reza Shah, seeing that Baha'i educators gave their loyalty first to Shoghi Effendi and only secondly to him, ordered their closure across Iran, forcing him to send his children elsewhere.

"The Forgotten Schools: the Baha'is and Modern Education in Iran, 1899-1934" tells the story of how the Baha'i community went from being among the foremost advocates for the modernization of education in Iran in the late 19th century, to being its foremost practitioner in the early 20th, and to finally being shut out from the operation of schools after 1934. Many historians have noted the impact Europeans, Christians, and reform-minded Muslims have had on the rapid transformation of Iranian education in the opening decades of the twentieth centuries. But no one, not even Baha'is, have taken note that the most successful and most popular endeavors of this time were led by Iran's most hated minority.

**As a side note, I'm realizing how hard it is to review a book I haven't had immediate access to in over two months.

There are of course a number of things that could be said about this book. I would like to picque people's interest in reading it for themselves, but in order to do so I can't give everything away. I'll limit myself to two observations from the author, Soli Shahvar, and some commentary of my own on its relevance for Baha'is of today.

The first observation is that at the turn of the twentieth century a handful of reformist thinkers were vigorously theorizing about schools that taught modern sciences, reading and writing, hygiene, music, athletics, and a range of non-theological fields. And in every community there were plenty of individuals practicing the same narrow theological education, in squalid conditions, relying mostly on rote memorization. But very few people besides Baha'is were taking steps to practice modern education. One consequence is that Baha'is were often pioneers in practices that now seem commonplace. Girls' schools, maps, chalkboards, physical activities, and kindergarten were all either first introduced to Iran or first popularized by Baha'i schools. The magnitude of such contributions is grossly out of proportion with the relatively tiny number of Baha'is in Iran. Baha'is let deeds not words be their adorning. And at least one historian is now taking note.

The second observation of the author is that the strong vision of education embodied in the Baha'i writings, the broad support of the entire Baha'i community for such endeavors, the assistance of experienced Western Baha'i educators, and the spirit of sacrificial service among participants combined to earn Baha'i schools a reputation for offering the highest standard of education wherever they were established. This of course, was happening under very difficult circumstances. Faced with the oppression Baha'is endured, most parents would be afraid to let their children out of the house to attend one of these schools, let alone be at the forefront of establishing them, and teaching in them. Presently, Baha'is around the world are engaged in offering spiritual education to young people in their communities. Almost none of them face opposition anything like what the Baha'is of that time endured. If Baha'is could earn a reputation for offering the highest standard of education, while at the same time being hated by the broad majority of the population, then certainly today in much more favorable circumstances, Baha'is can win even greater victories if they draw on the power of the Baha'i Writings and arise sacrificially to put their teachings into practice.

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