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Shervin Malekzadeh On Parallels Between Elementary, University Education In U.S., Iran

Iranian schoolgirls wearing headscarves, background, gather in a courtyard at a female school as schoolboys play soccer in their school in this photo taken in Feb. 2002 in Tehran.
Hasan Sarbakhshian
Iranian schoolgirls wearing headscarves, background, gather in a courtyard at a female school as schoolboys play soccer in their school in this photo taken in Feb. 2002 in Tehran.

Before he started graduate school and became a university professor, Shervin Malekzadeh taught public school in low-income and minority communities in Washington, D.C. and California.

Many of his students were born outside the United States and recently arrived in the country. He identified with his pupils’ backgrounds - Malekzadeh was born in Iran and moved to the United States before his first birthday. Part of his job involved teaching English to his students and helping them become literate, while providing them with accurate information about the American narrative and what it means to be a citizen.

Malekzadeh says that got him thinking about how to educate youth in his native country, especially after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He told KGOU’s World Views the stakes in Iran are much higher.

“Let’s say you were born and raised under the Shah’s regime, and now you’re under a very different regime, and you manage to keep your job as a first-grade teacher,” Malekzadeh said. “What happens when you have to negotiate between the state which gives you a curriculum and the community that you’re serving?”

The 1979 revolution also changed the role of women in the Islamic Republic, with the new theocracy cracking down on female educational opportunities. But Malekzadeh argues that very system allows some women to break particular glass ceilings.

“If you’re going to have a society that’s segregated by gender, you can’t have a scenario where women aren’t physicians, where women aren’t attorneys or participating in the public sector or even the private sector,” Malekzadeh said. “This is again where we can draw parallels to the U.S. They blow the boys away. I’ve seen here at the elementary level, when I taught at the university level, women do very well in education and schooling in terms of participation, enthusiasm, and testing, et cetera. However you want to measure it. And it’s the boys in many ways who are being left behind.”

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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Shervin Malekzadeh, welcome to World Views

SHERVIN MALEKZADEH: Thank you for having me.

GRILLOT: Well, it's a pleasure to have you here talking about education in Iran, particularly primary education, secondary education, and higher education. It's something we haven't really covered before. So tell us a little bit about your work and how you became involved in studying education in Iran.

MALEKZADEH: Well, I mean, my involvement - the study of schooling in Iran begins with me being in a first-grade classroom in California, and then later in D.C. Born in Iran, but raised in the U.S. since 10 months old. I'm standing in front of class of mostly, and in the case of California, all Latino kids. Many of whom are just learning English, or their parents don't speak any English at all. So part of my task is to teach them literacy, obviously. This is a public school, a charter school, but also to make them American citizens. I'm old enough - a Gen-X guy - to have bridged the sort-of traditional narrative - what it means to be an American - the sort-of stories that we learned growing up. And I think these are very important, these sort-of "myths" if you want to call them, or if you want to be more cynical, "lies" that sort-of hold society together. But on the other hand, I've been exposed in college and beyond, in terms of revisionist history, who was Columbus, right? And the sort-of awfulness around his story. So the bottom line is how do I teach 6-year-olds about Columbus coming over to the Americas? And I ended up sort-of negotiating between this sort-of traditional story, "We're all Americans, this is what holds us together" and giving them "accurate" information. Quote, unquote, because I didn't go that much into detail, into the sort-of politics of it. But yeah, so it got me thinking, this is in the U.S., the stakes are relatively low. What's it like in Iran when you have to teach about a revolution? And let's say you were born and raised under the Shah's regime, and now you're under a very different regime, and you manage to keep your job as a first-grade teacher. And I have family in Iran who've had this similar scenario. What happens when you have to negotiate between the state which gives you a curriculum and the community that you're serving? And I think teachers really have two bosses, right? You have the administration or the state entity, but you have the families who have certain expectations about what they want for their children. So that story for me was very fascinating, and it gave me an excuse to get money to go back to Iran and hang out with my family and be fed well. (LAUGHS) So that's the less impressive part of the answer, but yeah, and I ended up hanging out with a lot of Mexicanists, historians who work on the Mexican Revolution. You have a very similar story of Mexico in the early 20th century. So that intellectual framework I then applied to the case of Iran. It's rarely talked about, which is shocking to me. We think of schooling either as a place where kids go to be brainwashed, to be shaped like putty. And it’s surprising to me that people think that. If you've stood in front of 6- or 7-year-olds, you know that they have a lot of power, right? But then at least in the case of Iran that all changes once the student, especially female students, enter university. Then it's assumed that they become rebels, right? They turn against the state, or the system. They're no longer brainwashed. So trying to reconcile those two conflicting stories has been a lot of my work, I think.

GRILLOT: Well, we're going to get to this notions of girls in education in a minute, because your work on that is really interesting. But going back to some of the things that when you're comparing what's going on here and your experience in the U.S., and then of course going back to Iran and studying education there, that you found some similarities. One of the things you've talked about in your work is education in Iran, the debate about whether it's a public good or a private resource. And we clearly are facing that in the United States as well in terms of decreased public funding for education, higher education, common education. And passing the burden, if you will, of that support on to families and individuals. So do you find some similarities there? And how do the Iranians come down on that in terms of public good versus private resource?

MALEKZADEH: Absolutely. So this is really an important point that you're raising. And this is where I think a lot of us working on Iran are really keen on making Iran ordinary rather than this sort-of extraordinary place. A scary place, if you will. And I think the angle on schooling that you just described is a great way of doing that because the story of education worldwide, modern education I think is what was previously a private enterprise, right? People who could afford it, who were blessed enough or smart enough to have access to education. The 18th or 19th or 17th centuries. By the time we get to the end of the 19th or early 20th centuries, again, globally, it starts to become this sort-of public enterprise, right? We need to make a nation, a state. We need everybody educated, women as well, mothers as well, so that we can prosper as countries. And this is precisely the story of Iran. Of course, influenced by the Europeans and then later the Americans. So the project of schooling in Iran, once it becomes a sort-of public enterprise, you see a very consistent pattern where the state is trying to get folks to be loyal to the state, to whatever regime's in charge, as well as skilled, right? So identifying talents and preserving loyalty I think is very similar across all societies in terms of the function of schooling. It has a sort-of conservative element as well as a very progressive or innovative element in terms of what we teach kids. But what you see in Iran, I think, over 100 years almost at this point, is a consistent pattern where families send their students, their children to school so that they can have good lives. And I think this is very often forgotten. We take this for granted when we talk about the U.S. context, the European context. But when we talk about openly ideological states like Iran, the former Soviet Union, Cuba, we just assume students go there to be brainwashed, or having failed to brainwash or inculcate ideas, to put it more nicely, the students become rebellious, right? Dissidents, etc. No, families send their kids to school so they can get a good job and get married. I think the evidence is clear, and if you interview Iranians you see this pretty consistently. So I've written a lot about this sort-of commodification of schooling and education in Iran. The transformation of what is a state resource back into a private. We've come full circle. Schooling was private for only the select few. It becomes a sort-of mass enterprise. And once again we see it going back private in that as in the U.S., I think, parents send their students and they're willing to spend tons of money, right? It's a $3 billion industry at this point in Iran. And I think 80-85 percent of the universities are fee-based. Even the state-sector ones. We see a very similar pattern here in the U.S., because the point is, "I've got to get that paper." This is the peril of the meritocracy, right? I've got to get that paper so that my young son or young daughter is established and then can go out into the marriage market, the labor market. In fact, it's sort-of an escalating arms race. Now, in Iran at least, just as here, the bachelor's is no longer sufficient. Now you have to get a master's, right? Then you have to get a Ph.D., etc. Or go overseas and study, in the case of Iranian students. So I see incredible similarities, and I think it's based on a similar logic of what the purpose of modern schooling is and the sort-of relationship it has with, specifically the labor market, but I think also the marriage market, very often. I don't want my daughter to marry an ill-educated guy, whatever that means, right? We have this sort-of notion that you're a good person if you've been to university, I guess.

GRILLOT: Well, it's an interesting narrative, and it really resonates with me as an educator, as somebody who works in higher education, has spent my entire adult life in higher education, as a student and then as a professor, but obviously higher education in the United States, and to me personally, was a very important way in which I was able to improve my life. This is clearly what we do in the United States. It's becoming more and more difficult because of that private requirement rather than that public resource. But I want to get to your work on women in particular as you're talking about marriage, and marriage prospects. You want your daughter to marry somebody who's educated, so therefore she must be educated. But you've also talked about how participation and education, I would presume, makes you a modern girl. And so what it is that you mean by that, and how does girls' education fit into this picture?

MALEKZADEH: That title is a rip-off of Carrie Brownstein's book Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. It's me being playful with the talk, but really what I'm....the inscription of modernity, the notion that women's role in society, their sort-of external features as well as what they do in terms of their citizenship in Iran I think has become the standard benchmark for where Iran stands in terms of what we think of modernity. And of course, that's a big word, right? And we have many notions of what that means. But it's often measured or benchmarked through the participation or the lack of participation of women. It's assumed that if women are becoming modern in Iran it's in spite of the system, that this is a system that denies modernity to all citizens, but specifically to women. And my claim today, and it's a provocative claim, but I think it's perhaps defen...there's empirical evidence for this that it's through this very system that allows women to achieve certain gains. The advancement of individual agency, the capacity to make individual choices, to participate in society in a more full manner I think is through this seemingly agency-denying system. And it's premised on the idea that the logic of the Islamic Republic needing to demonstrate that it is the path to democracy. The path to a modern or progressive outcome. Which sounds weird to our American ears, perhaps, right? But within the regime thinking, the state's thinking, this is very much its principle. One of its founding...and this could be cynical, right? Maybe they don't believe any of this, but it's out there. And so therefore, if you're going to have a society - particularly a society that's segregated by gender, you can't have a scenario where women aren't physicians. Where women aren't attorneys or participating in the public sector or even the private sector. So what I...the rates of participation for women, and this is where we can again draw parallels to the U.S. They blow the boys away. As we see here in the States, and I'm sure you see here at OU. I've seen at the elementary level. When I taught at the university level, women do very well in education and schooling in terms of participation, enthusiasm, and testing, etc. However you want to measure it. And it's the boys in many ways who are being left behind. So this has been really a big story in Iran in terms of women's success. Overall they're 50 percent of the student population, but at the elite schools they're well over 50 percent, approaching, I think, 60, maybe even more than 60 percent. So the top students in Iran are women. Now, sorry this is long-winded, but the contradiction here is that the greatest indicator of unemployment is to be a young, educated female in Iran. So that raises a very interesting question, doesn't it?

GRILLOT: Well exactly. And this is the whole point. I mean, I see exactly what you're saying. I've experienced exactly what you're saying. But the question is, is the opportunity post-education, right? Or as one's education continues post-graduation or whatever it is. As you're moving through life, then do you see in Iran like we often see in the United States that then women tend to drop off or drop out or end up that pipeline becomes smaller and smaller as we move up through - whether it's the ranks in the corporate world or in higher education or wherever you may be? The opportunity that exists afterwards is really in question, is it not?

MALEKZADEH: I think for me personally, the focus on economic outcomes maybe was too narrow-focused for me. To answer your question directly, no, they don't drop out. They double down. We had bottlenecks in Iran at the university, at the bachelor's level. Acceptance rates, historically, in Iran have been about 10 percent. 13, 15 percent. Now it's basically 100 percent. Still at elite schools, what would be considered elite in Iran - University of Tehran, for example - it's still about 10 percent acceptance rate. So going to university is now normal. But the doubling down, and by that I mean masters, Ph.D., there the bottleneck is very much in effect. Five percent, 6 percent. And what we see are women and men, but mostly women still pursuing that advanced degree. So they're not giving up, despite these sort-of economic outcomes that we've been talking about. And I'm not sure why. I assume it's because of the sort-of sociology of the situation in Iran. To be a full human - to be a good person you do need to have a sort-of education. But if you can't get a job, then why bother? Anecdotally, what you'll hear when you're in Iran is that this is to keep women busy until they get married and settle down and become a mom or whatever. This is all sort-of performance. I doubt that young women think that way when they're sitting down for that high-stakes entrance exam for the Ph.D. or whatever they're pursuing. So...

GRILLOT: Have you explored that, though? Do you know what perhaps women are thinking about that? Maybe that's the next phase?

MALEKZADEH: I am exploring. That's a tough question, yeah, and I appreciate you asking. It's clear that the economic explanation is not sufficient, right? Because it doesn't logically make sense why...I think we could ask the same question here in the states, though, right? Just be a little mischievous about my answer. I do think that worldwide, but especially in Iran, it's become "normal" to become educated. And that definition has expanded increasingly for women from a sixth grade education to a high school diploma to university, et cetera. What I think is really exciting, the poli sci part of it for me is how women are appropriating that. As a scholar, [Afsaneh] Najmabadi, who's written about crafting an educated housewife. Originally women were educated to be good housewives. To stay at home. But they took advantage of that logic - this is the early 20th century - to become more educated. You want to have a good citizen or citizenry? Well then I need to have a high school diploma. Well, I need a university diploma, right? So you keep moving that bar up. And I think the logic of the Islamic Republic also allows, or facilitates, the rise of women in terms of educational standards and measurements. But why do they persist if they're not getting a job or if they're not able to get married right away. That's a good question. I don't know the answer to that yet.

GRILLOT: Well, I imagine it'll look...I'll look forward to having you back because I think this is some very interesting information about women in Iran and their educational levels. And just education in general in Iran. Some interesting comparisons. But I think it'll be interesting to hear what women are thinking as they're moving through the system because we're asking more and more often what women in the U.S. are thinking, for example, about their opportunities going forward. Well Shervin, thank you so much for being here with you today. It's been a pleasure meeting with you and having you share your research with us. Thank you.

MALEKZADEH: Thank you. Thank you for having me, yeah, this is great.

Copyright © 2016 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.  

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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