The Indigenous Solution to the Modernization Dilemma: The "New" Schools in 19th Century Iran

In late 19th century Iran, several dozen European-style schools were established in Tehran, Tabriz, and elsewhere in Iran that marked an important departure from past educational initiatives. These "New" schools manifested an important shift in the discourse of modernization--a shift that is often overlooked in the scholarship of this period of modernization and reform. The author suggests that in the late 19th century, a new approach to the modernization dilemma was proffered by Abd al-Rahim Talebof and others which indicates a much more sophisticated and complex understanding of the issues of modernization on the part of the reformers than is often recognized. This "indigenous approach" found its practical expression in the establishment of these "New" schools.

While these schools did include European subjects in the curriculum which were not found in the traditional curriculum-- mathematics, foreign languages, sciences-- they were not simply imported European schools. In fact, their hallmark was their synthesis of European and Iranian subjects. They also reflected the fact that intellectuals and educational activists recognized some of the difficulties in importing foreign institutions. The successful synthesis of subjects in the New schools constituted their greatest threat to the traditional educational system and the religious establishment. They also directly challenged the existing social and political elites. The possession of new, scientific knowledge and the status and prestige associated with it also translated into a degree of cultural and moral authority in society, outside of the preserve of the ulema.

By proposing to synthesize tradition with modernization, Islam with constitutionalism, and religious instruction with sciences and foreign languages, and by publishing journals which sought to reach directly to the public, these theorists usurped the moral and cultural authority of the traditional elites and effectively ended their monopoly on the creation and interpretation of culture.

Monica Ringer
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