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Certificate chasers
What matters is not learning, but the degree

December 5, 2003
The Iraniaand

TEHRAN -- If it was the old days, the new school year, which started on first of Mehr-23rd September, would come to the end of its first term soon and students would be busy getting ready for the first term exams.

Recently, I have being having a cyber discussion with a friend far away. Our discussion evolves around how things can improve here. He believes that a better and fairer distribution of wealth will solve it all. I agree that although this is most desirable, even if it was possible. However, in itself it will not be sufficient. I think that to maintain socio-economical parity, we must work on other groundwork issues. The most important of which is education.

Once all children have been properly educated, it is a good bet that, social, economical and political progress would follow. When we can earn our livelihood, from some work that we know well and is in demand, we feel good about it. Once we feel positive and good, we may refrain from blaming everything and everybody, and take responsibility for what happens to us and that we care about. Since, we realize that, we can make a difference.

Education in my opinion in divided into two types, formal and informal. Academic education is the formal one where, at low levels, we learn to read and write use our brains a little. Through higher education, we learn a trade and means of earning a living and hopefully, how to engage our minds.

Indirect education is more subtle. It involves what we learn collectively and individually. This may come from families, society and lessons from experiences that we, and maybe others, go through.

Here, I would only refer to the second part of formal education, higher education at colleges and universities. What I call JAM on top of the bread and butter education.

With such a young population, Iran needs more and better schools, universities and of course teachers. We need teachers at all levels of education who are, not only well trained and familiar with new techniques, subjects, issues and approaches needed for a modern world, but also look upon their chosen occupation as a career rather than a job and enjoy doing it too.

I am sure we all remember such teachers in our past, and the affect they had on our education and our lives. When I went to school, being a teacher was one of the most respectable professions one could choose as a career. We can only hope that teachers would soon find their proper status again.

The education system that presently prevails in Iran does only partially accomplish its intended task. The higher we go, the shortcoming become more visible. The system produces many thousands of graduates each year; some have actually learnt something and can do something with their degree. However, majority of graduates fails to earn their living from the studied subjects. This is a great tragedy in a country with limited educational resources.

At present it costs a great deal to get an education but in the end it is hardly useful or put to use. Social science and art courses flourish. One reason is that it is cheap to run them for relevant institutions. Students study and read many out-dated books. They sit and listen to the lecturers, instead of being encouraged to engage their minds, learn new ideas or have a go at new things to entice their interests further.

The reason for this national disaster may rest in education policy. Even if there is such policy, it has many holes. Students sit in class not because they actually like the subject. They sit because they were among the smartest 10 percent who got accepted after taking the university entrance exam. It is not surprising that their learning and achievements are not optimized.

All they are doing is chasing after a certificate. This mentality is so strong that it is sickening. Families go into a great deal of financial hardship to make sure that their children get a university degree. It is not the education but the degree that matters. Even if this means they will never work in the related field of their study.

How did we get to be this way, I shall never understand. I know of a woman who finished medical scool, got her work license, and then handed her degree and work papers to her father who wanted a doctor in the family. Since then she has been involved with childrens books and translation, and has never practiced medicine.

I know of another, who got his PhD in geography and now writes pop songs for local artists. Those who are lucky or clever enough to be studying the subjects they want have another story. About half of them end up leaving the country either for further studies or for another type of life. Most never come back to work. This widens the gap in respect to the required technical expertise in the country. Our educational resources are limited, so one can only cry when we hear such cases.

Although there is a serious shortage in manufacturing experts, our universities produce armies of graduates with art degrees. I love art and art subjects. But, generally speaking, students are subjected to the old "maktab" lecturing method where there is very little room and time, if any, for discussion or analysis.

Exams do not assess knowledge on a subject but rather short-term memory. Worst of it all, when students graduate from universities, for some strange reason, many are under the impression that now they are artists and have great talent! Graduates with a degree in art or graphic design pour out in hundreds every year. It is no wonder that one of the biggest and busiest sectors of the economy is advertising.

We can hope and pray that policy makers realize these obvious shortcomings and invest in technical courses that the country badly needs. This must be done vigorously, through building better institutions, more advanced hardware and software, new laboratories and educational approaches and learning/teaching methods. This may be achieved by employing lecturers in related fields whose knowledge is up-to-date.

But more so, we need to create an encouraging atmosphere for those who have left the country, and at the very least for those who graduate and want to stay and help build a better place for all.

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By Syma Sayyah



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