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IRAN: U.S.-Iranian relations seen through the prism of high school textbooks

January 16, 2010 |  1:53 pm

Iran-textbooks 005 

In 11th grade history classes, Iranian high school students are required to read a textbook that devotes 100 pages to the history between the United States and Iran, citing 32 different sources painstakingly footnoted.

American high school history classes, by contrast, devote little if anything to the history of Iran, said Mohammad Marandi (above center), the head of North American studies at Tehran University, who was in Beirut recently for a conference

"History textbooks in the United States are very problematic when it comes to Iran and I would assume that the same is true with other regions of the world where the United States has issues," Marandi told a small crowd of scholars gathered from around the world at American University of Beirut.

Iran-textbooks 013.jpg  The Obama administration and the West have vowed to use diplomacy to untangle decades of mistrust and  resolve longstanding differences with Iran, especially over its nuclear program. The U.S. State Department and other government agencies have pledged to hire more Persian speakers and learn more about the Islamic Republic.

But Marandi, an Iranian-American who has emerged in Iran's post-election unrest as an eloquent spokesman for the government position on Iran's domestic political troubles as well as Iran's nuclear program, suggested that Americans also need to brush up on their understanding of the Islamic Republic.

Marandi said he's writing a scholarly paper comparing Iranian and American high school history textbooks.  "A People and a Nation," a popular high school text book in the U.S. is a typical American example of how Iranian history is treated, Marandi said.

"What we have are two paragraphs," he told the scholars. "One is that, 'A revolution led by Shia fundamentalists forced the Shah to flee to Europe. The new head of Iran was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a 79-year- old and a religious zealot who rapidly turned the government into a theocracy that condemned modernization and preached against traits of the West."

Marandi looked out at the audience.  

"This is all you get about Iran in this history textbook," he said. "That’s basically it."

Marandi refrained from delving too deeply into the ideological bent of Iranian textbooks, which have come under fire in the past for allegedly distorting history.

But he noted that much of the material about the U.S. comes from American sources, including books by American or Iranian-American writers about the history of Iran. 

"For the most part, I felt that the language was not loaded," he said. 

By contrast in some American text books there's nothing about Iran. Not one word in the index. A few only mentioned Iran in the the context of the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the administration of former President Ronald Reagan was embroiled in a multi-layered scandal over the covert shipment of arms to the Islamic Republic, the sales of which funded the right-wing Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

"A Companion to 20th Century America" only mentions Iran once, in reference to former President Bush's speech condemning Iran, Iraq and North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" in 2002. 

Other scholars critiqued Marandi's paper. One Italian academic noted that his country also gets short shrift in American history books. 

And obviously Iranian high school students are getting a higher level of education than your typical American if their 11th grade textbooks contain footnotes! 

But Marandi said the end result of the disparity is that a typical Iranian youth has a far better grasp on the U.S. than a typical American. 

"Perhaps one way forward would be to have scholars, alternative sources of information and scholars perhaps from outside of the United States somehow involved," he said, "to have a more broadened scope in that which is presented to 18-, 17- and 16-year-old Americans," Marandi said.

Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photos: A top, Mohammad Marandi, center, spoke at a conference in Beirut recently. Credit: Los Angeles Times.

Below the front cover of "Contemporary Iranian History," a Persian language textbook used in Iranian high school history classes. Credit: Iranian Ministry of Education office of textbook printing website