Ancient Roots of Education in Iranian Culture

  December 05, 2023   Read time 5 min
Ancient Roots of Education in Iranian Culture
Education flourished in both ancient and medieval Iran. It was more than mere instruction and schooling, for education was closely identified with the process of socialization and personality development, not only in the home but in the school and in religious and state programs for youth.

The Arab Invasion in 642 A.D. severely disrupted Iranian life and led to a fierce antagonism between the people and their foreign masters. Family and community institutions took over many of the functions that had previously been supported by the state and local government. Not until the sixteenth century did local and state institutions once more unite to promote nationalism and encourage a state program of training and indoctrinating youth. The development of education in any nation has seldom proceeded smoothly, but in Iran the process has been especially vicissitudinous. A casual glance at Iran's long history reveals a country harassed by Greece in the West, then by India in the East. Indeed, a discussion of Persian cultural achievements is inseparable from her associations with the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Indians, Turks, and in recent times with Russia and Western Europe. A study of education generally proceeds with an analysis of the three main agencies responsible for socialization: the home, society, and state institutions. In Iran the home has traditionally had the most to do with socialization. Yet in ancient Persia all institutions, both private and public, worked closely with one another, and this whole educational process created a strong pattern of citizenship. In contrast, education in medieval Iran promoted regional loyalties and preserved the Persian cultural heritage in the face of counterefforts by the Arabs to superimpose their own administrative control.

The culture of ancient Persia was well integrated, particularly in the Achaemenian Empire (546 B.C. to 330 B.C.) and the Sassanian Dynasty (226 to 641 A.D.). The society sought to build a great nation by developing citizens who were religious, of good moral character and patriotic. This cultural pattern existed and flourished because of a tight-knit kinship structure, which stressed good behavior and deeds, the religious teachings of Zarathustra and an authoritarian state. Such a cultural pattern provided a well-coordinated program of socialization, which in turn aided the development of a stable, integrated adult personality. The limitations of a rigid family structure and immobile class system served merely to strengthen the individual's relations to his family, to both his equals and superiors, and to the state itself. The personality of the child was decisively formed and he received his education more by practice than by instruction. Education advanced because the family accepted responsibility for child-rearing, the father participated in community games, the child performed religious duties, and the militant state took an interest in its youth.

The state and home imposed such multitudinous duties on the citizen that he had to conform to the social order. All youths moved toward a common goal, determined by the integrated policies of the state, the community and the home, whose common underlying aim was basically that of "live and contribute to life." Like most strong kinship societies, old Iran patterned the child's life largely after that of the adult members of the family. Even the young child was expected to participate in the group and demonstrate his loyalty and pride in group activities. Family ties were close, especially between the child and his mother, although after the age of five other institutions took a more active role in educating him. Yet, throughout his life the parents keenly felt their responsibility to develop a happy child and one who would contribute to his family and country.

It was also important for a child to develop good moral qualities and parents offered such daily prayers as: Oh, Ahuramazda, endow me with an educated child; a child who will participate within his community; a child who will fulfill his duty in society; a child who will strive for the happiness of his family, his city, and his country; an honorable child who may contribute to others' needs. As the child grew older sources outside the home increasingly contributed to his education and citizenship training. The religious tenets of Zoroastrianism provided a guiding moral philosophy and an authoritarian government instituted strict educational measures.

Zoroastrian doctrine exerted a profound influence on early Iranian education. It taught that physical perfection was as important as mental. UA good mind should have a healthy body to live in" led the believers to pray first for the strength of the body, then for their minds. Utilizing the geographical position of the Iranian plateau, the government introduced a large number of physical exercises such as: running, archery, horseback riding, polo, javelin throwing, spear hurling, stone slinging, lassoing, chariot-racing and swimming. The methods employed in physical education began with observation, perfect imitation, continuous practice, activity in the field and in hunting, and performance in public contests and tournaments. The center of such training was generally the agora or assembly place. Every day the young child with his age mates observed the older youths and adults perform before starting to practice himself under the guidance of an expert. By the time he was fifteen he participated more actively in sports: he practiced zealously, vied with others in his group, sought fame and joined the public contests. These contests were held weekly, monthly and annually for the different age groups to test their skill. One such test judged the ability of a contestant to cross a river carrying his dry clothes. Contests of this kind helped youths enter society, for the spectators cheered those who had performed well and the state bestowed prizes; even their childhood teachers received recognition.