Originally posted July 2010

In the past, there was no need for learning a foreign language. Today, however, learning foreign languages should be included in school curricula … Today is not like yesterday, when our voice could not reach beyond the national boundary. Today, we can stay in Iran but publicize [our ideology] and export our revolution to other parts of the world in different languages.

Ayatollah Khomeini, 1980[1]

After the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, which put an end to a 2,500-year old monarchy and replaced it with the governance of the religious jurisprudent (velāyat-e faqih), the attitude towards English language was profoundly negative as it was closely associated with the United States of America, or the “Great Satan.” The attitude toward individuals who were fluent in English was equally negative, as they were perceived as Westoxicated, upper class, secular liberals alienated from their own great Islamic heritage.[2]

Within such a climate, there was a heated debate among the members of the newly established ruling party about what to do with English. Eventually, a consensus was reached — English remained in school curricula and continued to be offered from the first year of junior high school (grade six) onward.[3] Yet the goal, or aspiration, was to create an “indigenized” and “homegrown” model of English education free from the influence of English-speaking nations — a model that could be used to promote Islamic ideology and disseminate the “revolution” to other parts of the world and that could be lent to other nations, Muslim countries in particular. To achieve this end, the authorities took several measures. First, foreign experts and teachers of English, the majority of them Americans, were expelled from the country. Second, foreign-run and private-run English language institutes were shut down, and, over time, converted to state-run language institutes.[4] Third, teaching English in school curricula became largely restricted to the phonological, morphological, and syntactic aspects of the language. The socio-cultural aspects of the languages were regarded as “unwanted” and “undesired” and thus were all eliminated from school textbooks and curricula. Fourth, by order of Ayatollah Khomeini, a state-run publishing house (SAMT) was established to produce indigenized and homegrown textbooks for local use. Fifth, as a counterweight to English, Arabic, the language of scripture, was expanded in school curricula as a means of promoting a religious identity on the part of students. Thus, in the absence of private-run and foreign-run language institutes, the state became in charge of teaching English via home-grown textbooks and curricula throughout the country.[5]

However, the climate began to change gradually in favor of the private sector with the implementation of school privatization in 1991. School privatization came as a surprise for a country whose leaders had claimed unconditional support for the deprived and dispossessed.[6] Yet, the gloomy reality at the time — with Iran suffering from a war-ravaged economy (Iran-Iraq War, 1980-88), the rapid increase in the school-age population throughout the 1980s,[7] and the failure of the country’s public school system to provide free education for all — set the stage for then-president ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1988-1997), an advocate of free-market economy, to abandon some of the early revolutionary promises and accept some technocratic solutions to domestic problems.[8] The result was the importation of policy decentralization and privatization of state-run establishments — a function of World Bank loan conditionality.[9] The objectives and rules of school privatization were first outlined in the country’s First Five-Year Development Plan (1989-1994) and were later elaborated further in the Second (1995-1999), Third (2000-2004), and Fourth (2005-2009) Five-Year Development Plans. It should be noted that school privatization never entailed a decentralization of curriculum, which at all levels — from K-12 to post-secondary education — remained under the close supervision of the state. Thus, it is still highly centralized, nationalized, and top-down.[10]

The result of school privatization has been the rise of private English language institutes throughout the country since 1991. Unlike their counterparts in the secondary and post-secondary education system, private English language institutes — which target fee-paying students across all age and proficiency levels who desire to acquire English for their own personal reasons — were permitted to offer their own chosen curricula and textbooks as long as they complied with the numerous rules and regulations set by the state. This was, in fact, a leap forward for the private sector — albeit indirectly and on a limited scale — in the educational decision-making process, in which the government had had a virtual monopoly.

In order to attract fee-paying students, private language institutes began to look abroad for promising English Language Teaching (ELT) models to emulate. The result was the importation of English-teaching methodologies, including Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) English textbooks (e.g., Headway and Interchange, among many others), together with many audio-video products from various English-speaking nations, the United Kingdom in particular. The borrowing process was accelerated due to the absence of a copyright convention for foreign-produced materials in Iran.[11] The influx of pirated foreign textbooks placed the country’s politicians in an awkward situation — their absolute monopoly over English education was dwindling. To prevent a wholesale borrowing of ELT materials from abroad, the state put the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in charge of supervising the production of all pirated English textbooks.

Yet, in spite of the many obstacles that the authorities created, Iranian private English language institutes have continued to emulate the so-called “best” ELT models from aboard, and students have continued to attend these institutes regardless having to pay fees. Today, the private language institutes have even gone one step further — portraying themselves as representatives of foreign English language institutes such as Oxford, Cambridge, and Longman in particular and even promising students admission to a foreign university upon the completion of English courses.[12]

The private language institutes should perhaps be considered pioneers and the most active forces in shaping the destiny of English education in post-revolutionary Iran. It would be misleading, however, to assign absolute agency to them. It is hard to imagine the accomplishments of the private sector without considering the enormous interest shown by Iranian youth in attending these institutions. The reason for such profound interest is the failure of the state-designed “homegrown” English textbooks and curricula offered at the secondary and post-secondary school levels. The so-called “indigenized” textbooks and curricula hardly promote anything but the satisfaction of the ideological needs of the country’s politicians. They only teach reading skill and grammar via the outdated Grammar Translation method and ideologically-driven passages with no reference to the socio-cultural or communicative aspects of English. The insight of an Iranian English professor alerts us:

Teaching a foreign language cannot be done in a void. It necessarily involves teaching the culture(s) in which the language has flourished. The biggest drawback to teaching English as a foreign language in Iran [secondary and post-secondary education] is that this culture and literature does not exist and has been entirely ignored; hence, the language that is taught is flat, lifeless, and dead.[13]

 

Unlike the country’s politicians, Iranian youth have displayed an enormous desire to engage the outside world. They wish to acquire the type of English they want to learn, not the type of English the government wants them to learn. This has been a major concern, especially for those individuals who wish to go abroad for study or for other reasons. Given that Iran has one of the highest rates of “brain drain” among the developing nations, with an annual estimate of 150,000 emigrants per year,[14] it is evident that the type of English which Iranians want to learn is sharply different from the one offered to them by the government.

School privatization has created a unique situation for Iranian sub-national forces, and private language institutes and students in particular, to be able to resist the top-down pressures by voicing, albeit indirectly, their concerns, likes, and dislikes. This has in turn allowed them to participate in the educational decision-making arena, at least in the realm of English education, where the government had exercised a monopoly. Yet, the negative implications of school privatization upon the sub-national forces, especially upon the fee-paying students and their families, remain to be determined by further research.

 


[1]. Quoted in P. Birjandi and A. Soheili, The 8th Grade English Textbook (Tehran: Organization for Educational Research and Planning, 2000); author’s translation.

[2]. The best illustration could perhaps be the imprisonment of Dr. Mohsen Shokuh, the founding director of Shokuh Language Institute. This was the first English language institute established by an Iranian in Iran (in 1950). It was one of the most popular language institutes in pre-revolutionary Iran. Dr. Shokuh, who was arrested, charged with the promotion and dissemination of cultural and linguistic imperialism (i.e., offering English courses via his language institute), and sentenced death, was freed after several years of imprisonment, At the request of the government, he was invited to re-open the Institute (Personal interview, winter 2008).

[3]. It should be noted that, over the past decade, English has begun to dwindle in secondary and post-secondary curricula in Iran. At the secondary level, teaching English was delayed one grade, from sixth to seventh grade, while at the post-secondary level, English for General Purposes (EGP) was reduced from two courses (each of two credits) to one three-credit course.

[4]. Perhaps the best example was the closure of the Iran-America Society (Anjoman-e Irān o Amrikā), the most active American center of English language in pre-revolutionary Iran. Later, a governmental-affiliated entity with a new name, Iran Language Institute (Kānun-e Zabān-e Irān), was established in its place.

[5]. M. Borjian, English Education in Post-Revolutionary Iran (1979-2009): The Politics of Educational Borrowing and Lending, unpublished doctoral dissertation (New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 2009).

[6]. See also G. Mehran, “Education in Postrevolutionary Persia, 1979-95,” in E.Yarshater, ed., Encyclopedia Iranica, Vol. 8, Fascicle 2 (2007).

[7]. Iran witnessed a high rate of fertility, with an annual rate of 3.4% since 1979. The country’s population increased from 34 million in 1976 to an estimated 66 million in 2009.

[8]. H. Amirahmadi, “From Ideology to Pragmatic Policy in Post-Revolutionary Iran,” in H. Amirahmadi and M. Parvin, eds., Post-Revolutionary Iran (Boulder, CO and London: Westview Press, 1988), pp. 1-10.

[9]. M.A. Weiss and J.E. Sanfor, “The World Bank and Iran,” CRS Report for Congress, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RS22704.pdf.

[10]. See M. Borjian, English Education in Post-Revolutionary Iran (1979-2009): The Politics of Educational Borrowing and Lending.

[11]. Ayatollah Khomeini is known to have issued a fatwa allowing a person who purchased a book to copy or reproduce it as his property. See K. Emami, in E. Yarshater, ed., Encyclopedia Iranica, Vol. 6 (Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 1993), pp. 264-66.

[12]. See M. Borjian, English Education in Post-Revolutionary Iran (1979-2009) The Politics of Educational Borrowing and Lending.

[13]. TEFL Professor, Electronic Survey, Winter 2008; cited in M. Borjian, English Education in Post-Revolutionary Iran (1979-2009):The Politics of Educational Borrowing and Lending.

[14]. F. Harrison, “Huge Cost of Iranian Brain Drain,” BBC News, January 8, 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6240287.stm.