Who Was Behind the Idea of Modern University in Iran?

  January 20, 2022   Read time 3 min
Who Was Behind the Idea of Modern University in Iran?
“The night in which the university was born” is the title of a chapter in ‘Ali Asghar Hekmat’s memoirs where he claims that it was he who had the idea of establishing the first modern and western style university in Iran in February 1934, only one year before the official inauguration of the University of Tehran.

In reality many others had come up with the same idea before him, and some Iranians, statesmen as well as private individuals, had already taken the first steps towards its implementation. But did a master plan for the transformation of the existing institutions of higher education into the University of Tehran exist, including its extension and consolidation? In order to answer this question the first part of this article follows the steps towards the creation of the University of Tehran chronologically, focussing on the ideas, concepts, and contributions of two Iranian statesmen who played pivotal roles in its formation.

The first significant player was ‘Isa Sadiq who had written his doctoral thesis on “Modern Persia and her Educational System” at Columbia University in 1931. Upon his return to Iran at the end of the same year, he was employed to prepare the first draft of the university law and appointed head of the Teachers’ College which was to become the nucleus of the new university. The second figure was the minister of education, ‘Ali Asghar Hekmat, who supervised the legislative process and presided over the official inauguration ceremony in 1935. Analysis of the contributions made by these two statesmen will be followed by discussion of the role played by Reza Shah and his motives. By looking at the actual implementation of the University of Tehran the second part of the article aims at contextualizing some characteristics of the modernization of the educational system that were paradigmatic for the modernization process as a whole during the era of Reza Shah.

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.

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. 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.