30 April 2010

Free Speech Worth Engaging

Essential to any prosperous society in this day is freedom to discuss matters of public interest in an atmosphere of tolerance and non-coercion. When this occurs, unreflective power gives way to thought as the impelling force driving the evolution of a society. This is common sense now, apparently. But, it seems to me that the common vision of "freedom of speech" is inadequate to the concept it invokes; Its means cannot bring about its ends. Here in the United States this dilemna can be seen in the river of nonsense that the First Amendment is always protecting. We can all agree on freedom of speech. But how to make sure that that speech is worth our time and energy engaging is something that I think eludes the American body politic.

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.

Baha'i History: The View from Outside

Two books I've read this year have changed the way I think about Babi/Baha'i history. In the past I approached the topic in a basically inward looking fashion. I would read books by Baha'is, for Baha'is, and about Baha'is and sometimes about those individuals who persecute them. Now I'm beginning to approach Baha'i history in a more outward looking way with the help of two Iranian scholars "looking inward" to the Baha'i community from outside. The first of these is Soli Shahvar, who teaches at the University of Haifa and whose work "The Forgotten Schools: The Baha'is and Modern Education in Iran 1899-1934 was just published this past October. The other is Negar Mottahedeh, who teaches at Duke University, whose work "Representing the Unpresentable: Historical Images of National Reform from the Qajars to the Islamic Republic of Iran" has been out since 2007. I finished "the Forgotten Schools" a couple of months ago. And at the moment I'm about halfway through "Representing the Unpresentable." I'd like to do a brief review of both. But Mottahedeh's book should probably wait until I actually finish it.

Shahvar and Mottahedeh are very different types of scholars. Shahvar's work is dry, detached, and thorough. He sees that Iranian studies has almost entirely neglected the contributions of Baha'is to the modernization of Iran, and has gathered together a treasure trove of facts and anecdotes for scholars looking into their contributions to the field of education. Mottahedeh's work is adventurous, iconoclastic, and occasionally lurid. Drawing on psychoanalysis, post-modern social theory, and Walter Benjamin's ideas on historical memory and dramatic performance, Mottahedeh demonstrates that "Babis" are the abject and repressed Other, that veils nothing and introduces foreign influence, against which Modern Iranian identity constructed itself over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, both scholars share a common conviction: that Babis and Baha'is have played an enormous role in the development of modern Iran, and Iranian studies must get past its taboos and anxieties in discussing the nation's repressed Other.

One of the most helpful aspects of these books is that they locate Baha'i activity within a much broader social context. They show the complex interactions between Babis, Baha'is and the society around them, thereby demonstrating what about them was/is unique and is worthy of further investigation. They present a way of thinking about Baha'i history that blends well with today's renewed focus on reaching out to society, listening to its needs, and taking action to address them. At this juncture, over half of the animators in the Junior Youth program are "non-Baha'is." In many places, coordinators in the same program are beginning to think on the scale of how they can raise the capacity of the generality of young people in their communities and not just a few individuals and groups here and there. Perhaps then, it should come as no surprise that scholarship looking into a similar process from a different generation is being spearheaded by non-Baha'is.

Shahvar and Mottahedeh do not draw attention to Baha'i history because they are promoting own religion. After all, it's not their religion. Rather, they draw attention to it because it is a reality they are convinced the world must face. Listening to their insights can help galvanize Baha'is and clarify their vision in their efforts to make this a reality in every other nation, a reality that future scholars one day might also feel compelled to face.

13 April 2010

Rational Motivation

I found this discussion and critique of Jurgan Habermas's philosophical evolution to be thought provoking. Here are a few of the excerpts:
In his earlier work, Habermas believed, as many did, that the ambition of religion to provide a foundation of social cohesion and normative guidance could now, in the Modern Age, be fulfilled by the full development of human rational capacities harnessed to a “discourse ethics” that admitted into the conversation only propositions vying for the status of “better reasons,” with “better” being determined by a free and open process rather than by presupposed ideological or religious commitments: “…the authority of the holy,” he once declared, “is gradually replaced by the authority of an achieved consensus.

What secular reason is missing is self-awareness. It is “unenlightened about itself” in the sense that it has within itself no mechanism for questioning the products and conclusions of its formal, procedural entailments and experiments. “Postmetaphysical thinking,” Habermas contends, “cannot cope on its own with the defeatism concerning reason which we encounter today both in the postmodern radicalization of the ‘dialectic of the Enlightenment’ and in the naturalism founded on a naïve faith in science.”

04 April 2010

Monkey Brains

The University of Liverpool did a simple study with profound consequences. They looked at monkey brains.

You see, monkeys hang out in groups. First is the social group, which is the tribe size where you work collectively for resources, ask for monkey favors, and defend each other when attacked. Then there is the social clique, which is the posse of monkeys who let you eat bugs out of their hair.

Researchers observed several kinds of monkeys and the size of their social groups. They also looked at the size of the neocortex in the brain and found a correlation to group size. The largest chimpanzee social group is about 50, with a small group size of 3. Then comes the important part, they looked at the human brain and asked the question, "What is the group size of this animal?" The result: a social group of about 150, and a small group of about 12.