General Assessment: The educational system in Iran continues a process of philosophical transition that began with the revolution in 1979. Since the inception of Islamization, the government attempted to balance between the desire for cultural and spiritual independence from the West, and the desire to succeed as a modern nation in competition with the West. In the 1990s, economic demands and labor force necessities created some changes in the attitudes and goals of the fundamentalist administration. Both Rafsanjani and Khatami began to stress the need for expertise in the workforce, cultural awareness of western ideas, and a revitalized concept of modern Islam. This change was most evident in their attitudes toward women. While women were still encouraged to serve traditional roles in the family and subject to severe restrictions concerning dress and movement, they were also encouraged to pursue education and limited professional development.
In 1998 the freshman class in Iranian universities had more women than men. Between 1987 and 1994, the ratio of female students to total students for the educational system as a whole rose from 38 percent to 45.8 percent. Women's literacy has also shown significant improvement, rising from 25.5 percent in 1976 to 72.4 percent in 1996—largely due to the concentration on women's education in the LMO. The role of women in education in a key indicator of the tenuous balance the regime has attempted to strike between the maintenance of fundamentalist values and the pursuit of knowledge—both ideals inherent to the Shi'a faith. Other indications of liberalization in the educational system included a slight opening of opportunities for students to study abroad and the reinstitution of a private school system. By the year 2000, enrollment in private schools rose from 1 percent to 5 percent.
The most impressive achievement of the Islamic Regime in terms of objective data has been its Literacy Movement Organization. Though estimates vary, literacy in Iran rose from roughly 45 percent before the revolution to roughly 80 percent by 1996. Between the ages of 10 and 24, that percentage rises to roughly 93 percent. Considering the youthfulness of the population, this statistic holds great promise for the future. The success of the LMO has received international acclaim, and in 1998 The Corresponding Services Project of the Literacy Movement was awarded the Malcolm Adiseshiah Literacy Prize for innovative postliteracy and continuing adult education initiatives.
The regime has also made improvements in overall enrollment since the revolution. In 1991 the number of students enrolled in primary education was 9.1 million, and by 1996, enrollment at primary schools was almost universal. Enrollment at secondary schools and upper secondary schools had risen from prerevolutionary figures of 62 percent and 27 percent to 99 percent and 50 percent. Also, despite the initial effects of the revolution in driving down university enrollment, the number of students in postsecondary education from 1978 to 1995 rose from 175,000 to 1.2 million—though that figure decreases to roughly 600,000 for exclusively academic disciplines. Still, the education system of the IRI has significant challenges resulting in part from the split goal of education as a both a search for knowledge and as a device for the propagation of fundamental beliefs. An emphasis on tradition and commitment may encourage cultural stability, but it can also be a major inhibitor to innovation and development. Teaching techniques in Iran, for example, have remained somewhat stagnant, and too often the most highly qualified teachers are passed over for the more highly committed. This reality, coupled with the lack of employment opportunities for many educated Iranians, has resulted in a restive youth population and the emigration of some of the best minds in the country. One of the problems with women's education in Iran, for example, is that while the educational opportunities for women have increased, their opportunities to work outside the home remain limited. The Ministry of Education also admits to a teaching shortage, particularly in secondary education, caused by a lack of interest in the profession.
The future of education in Iran is difficult to assess because the country continues to undergo cultural change, although the Ministry's stated commitment to decentralization is promising. With the election of reform-minded President Hojjatoleslam Seyed Mohammad Khatami in 1997, there could be further philosophical and even institutional changes forthcoming.
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—Joel Peckham, Jr.
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