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Cultural Factors in the Education of Ancient Iran


By Dr. Franklin T. Burroughs

National Defense Fellow at the University of California at Los Angeles

January 1963



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The 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.


This 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.


At 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.


The 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.


There 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.


For 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 occurred.


As 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.


The 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.[1] The classroom often changed locations several times each month.


The 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.


This 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.


Under 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.


Since 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.


During 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.


The 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.


The 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.


This 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.[2] 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.


Today, 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.




Bogardus, Emory S. "East India and Persia." The Development of Social Thought. 3rd ed. (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1955).

Burroughs, Franklin. "Iranian Schools Seek Change to Comprehensive." Journal of the California Teachers Association (January, 1961, Volume 57, Number 1), pp. 28-29.

Dhalla, M. N. "Education." Zoroastrian Civilization (New York: Oxford University Press, 1922). 


[1] M. N. Dhalla, Zoroastrian Civilization, “Education” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1922).

[2] Emory S. Bogardus, The Development of Social Thought, "East India and Persia;" 3rd ed. (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1955).



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