The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Cultural Factors in the Education of Ancient Iran
Dr. Franklin T. Burroughs
National Defense Fellow at the University of California at Los Angeles
early Iranians began to train their children as infants. Farming fathers taught
their sons how to plant, care, and harvest the crops. The desert dwellers
instructed their sons in ways to cope with the numerous thieves who wandered
from camp to camp, stealing anything in sight. The mountaineers warned their
sons against the danger of canyons. They taught them to care for the sheep and
to protect themselves in time of storm and crisis.
early form of education was entirely individualistic, and the institution of
modern education did not exist. The main purpose of this individual type of
education was to transmit the means of survival, according to the personal
needs. The farmer used one set of ancient lesson plans. The desert dweller
instructed his son in light of his own interest. And the mountaineer showed the
ways of meeting his needs by vivid illustrations.
first glance it would appear that a set of personal values took precedence over
the institutional role-expectations. The farmer valued a bountiful harvest since
it was by this means that he was able to transact his business. The mountaineer
valued his sheep because they were his means of exchange. The value which the
farmer or mountaineer placed upon the basic needs dictated, in part, his role
expectations. The more value he placed upon the exchange of goods and gaining in
the exchange the more diligently he worked to produce, and this would lead one
to believe that integration, as it is defined today, was considered more
important than adjustment to the role-expectations. However, upon examining the
situation a little more closely one begins to wonder if this is true.
first generation of farmers, desert dwellers, and mountaineers no doubt built
the instruction upon their needs and according to the values which they held.
But even as the first fathers instructed their sons a certain institutional
flavor could have begun to creep in. Soine authors give accounts of sons who
viewed their needs as being different from those which their fathers dictated,
but the fathers represented an alter group, and in a sense perpetuators of
values or need-dispositions. Institutional roles began to develop.
was little or no mobility in the early social structure, and the training of the
children from infancy decreased the possibility of conflict between the
youngsters and their parents as to the importance of certain values. Those
youngsters who did question the judgments of their parents were soon restored to
the customary ways of thinking since there were few opportunities to drift too
far from the family circle. In reality it was the family institution which set
down the educational curriculum and which established the institutional roles
and permitted few deviations from them.
generations the family continued to dominate the educational institution, and it
was not until the family detected the need, or developed the need or value, for
a more standard type of education that the advent of teachers and classes
the more highly institutionalized form of education developed the social
stratification became more rigid. The masses were made slaves and lacked the
funds to secure the formal type of education for their youngsters. The children
of these masses enjoyed the small amount of training provided at home, but the
boys and girls of the landed aristocracy were offered the wisdom of the sages.
schools which developed at this time were similar to those in which Plato,
Socrates, and Aristotle discussed and questioned. The classrooms were located in
any convenient place and the teachers and students merely sat upon the ground or
upon crude stools if they were handy.
The classroom often changed locations several times each month.
institutional roles became more pronounced although in one sense the youngsters
were allowed to seek their own sets of values more freely and openly. It was
primarily young men who were educated, and these young men were allowed and
encouraged to hurl challenges at their instructors at any time. They were
permitted to disagree with the judgment of the teacher and to offer ideas which
they felt would improve the instruction.
permissive attitude toward education contrasted sharply with the approach taken
when the family represented the sole source of information. Perhaps this shows
the role-expectation, in part, of the instructor as viewed by the parents. Since
the aristocrats and monarch had hired the sage, they felt that he should give
their children something which they themselves were unable to offer.
the Sassanian dynasty the teachers were expected to instruct primarily the
priestly caste. The educational system was built around the temple and the
priestly duties, and all the teachers were to be guided by the great religious
principles. If a teacher were to play his role effectively, he was to seek after
knowledge to the exclusion of other activities. The greatest teacher, the people
of this time felt, sat throughout the night and read and contemplated and then
rushed to his classes early the next morning with some grain of truth to offer
his eager students.
the instructors were forced to work so diligently, they in turn required a great
deal of their students. The pupils learned their lessons by rote. They
regurgitated their lessons word for word or were severely punished. Memory was
essential to a successful school career.
this period the role-expectations of the women changed to a degree and many of
them were taught the basic subject-matter. Some of the ladies displayed a great
talent for learning and advanced to the more difficult courses. Later they were
permitted to substitute as priests.
classrooms of this period were similar to those of the more ancient times.
Almost any place sufficed and room furniture was not considered important.
Social mobility remained, for all practical purposes, non-existent. People were
born, lived, and died in the confines of their own villages and did not
experience the thrill of great achievement. The teacher-class was so fixed that
only the priests who were associated with the local temples were allowed to
teach, and the social demands made upon these teacher-priests were so great that
only a person of strong constitution could survive. It has been stated that the
teacher was expected to be a great scholar, but, in addition, his character and
code of conduct had to be almost flawless.
social stratification which so greatly influenced the educational system
continued in existence until the time of Darius. However, Darius and his
successors began to consider the idea of education outside the
privileged-classes. This great concern for universal education grew out of fear
that an uneducated class would weaken the strength of the king, but still the
people who had been denied an education previously were raised from their
poverty into an educated poor-class.
state form of education ushered in a dictatorial type of institution. The king
himself determined what the curriculum would be, what qualities the teachers
would possess, and in what locations the classes would be held. The students
were expected to perform certain duties without question for the king in
gratitude for the years spent in educating them.
Thus, not only were the roles of the students strictly defined during the years
of their education, but the roles following the completion of their education
were as highly developed and mandatory. No one deviated from his
role-expectation without punishment or even loss of his life.
the educational system in Iran is in a state of change. The upper-classes still
enjoy the greatest benefit from the schooling, but the lower-classes are making
a definite attempt to raise their standards via education. Teachers are held in
very low esteem and their roles are often poorly defined. Memory plays an
important part in the education. Teachers demand many more details from their
students than do the teachers here in America.
M. N. Dhalla, Zoroastrian Civilization, “Education” (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1922).
Emory S. Bogardus, The Development of Social Thought, "East
India and Persia;" 3rd ed. (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1955).
Copyright © 1998-2015 The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS)