As the United States withdraws from the Iran Nuclear Deal, a major foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration, historian Richard Garlitz examines a time when outreach from universities and academics played a role in international administration and the advancement of peace through education in Iran. Garlitz looks closely at a period during the 1950s when three Utah research universities helped develop an initiative in Iran to set up schools in nomadic communities. While it’s unclear whether the programs were a success, the endeavor was a unique cooperation between two nations.
President Harry Truman’s Point Four Program offered American universities new opportunities to expand their global reach during the 1950s. Point Four provided technical assistance to countries threatened by international communism; the goal was to raise standards of living and demonstrate the superiority of American development strategies over those of the Soviet Union. More than eighty universities supported Point Four development contracts in thirty-five countries. While the government saw this work as an extension of US foreign policy, it also contributed to the internationalization of postwar American higher education.
Utah’s three major research universities—Brigham Young University, Utah State University, and the University of Utah—all contributed to Point Four’s rural development initiatives in Iran, a country that was then emerging as a key Cold War ally of the United States. Dozens of Utahns and their families lived and worked in that country for periods ranging from two to eight years between the fall of 1951 and the summer of 1964.
One of the most innovative aspects of that work was a collaboration between Glen Gagon, a school teacher and graduate student at BYU, and Mohammad Bahmanbaigi, an Iranian lawyer and educator, to extend public education to the country’s mostly non-Persian nomadic tribes. Bahmanbaigi, who was also a member of the nomadic Qashqai tribe of Fars province, envisioned a system of portable tent schools that would accompany nomadic groups on their annual migrations from summer to winter pastures.
Bahmanbaigi understood well the challenges that Iran’s tribal nomads faced in the middle of the twentieth century. He and his family were forced to settle in Tehran during the 1930s when the Iranian government tried to impose state control over the tribes and terminate pastoral nomadism. Though his family was thrown into poverty in the nation’s capital, the young Bahmanbaigi was able to attend school and eventually graduated from the University of Tehran with a law degree in 1942. After briefly practicing law, he found his real passion in promoting modern education for his people.
Literacy was low among the Qashqai in the 1940s, as it was for most of the nomadic people of the Middle East at that time. Literacy offered limited advantages to pastoralists. A handful of tribal officials could read and write well enough to keep necessary records, but the education of children largely revolved around horses, livestock, hunting, and weaving—the sources of their wealth and power. But the experience of the 1930s, when the Iranian government used crushing military power to coerce the tribes into abandoning nomadism, taught Bahmanbaigi that Qashqai children had to adapt to a rapidly modernizing society. Literacy and access to professions would be their ticket to prosperity.
At first, Bahmanbaigi received little cooperation from the Iranian Ministry of Education, which was only interested in urban-based sedentary education for tribal children. He then approached Point Four officials, who were just getting started in Iran in the fall of 1951. They made arrangements, and the newly arrived team of education professors from BYU assigned Gagon to the project. He worked out of Point Four’s Shiraz office near the Qashqai’s main summer pastures.
The tent school experiment had to weather intense political turmoil during its early years. Point Four work began just months after Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. While that momentous event made Mossadeq a national hero, it touched off an international dispute that ultimately led the US and British governments to organize a military coup that overthrew him in the summer of 1953. Violence broke out in the major cities, including Shiraz, throughout 1952 and early 1953 as Mossadeq’s supporters and opponents frequently clashed in the streets. Angry mobs ransacked the Point Four office in Shiraz in April 1953, which dealt a major blow to the work Gagon had been doing.
American leaders feared a military crackdown in the region following the coup because most of the Qashqai leadership supported Mossadeq. The State Department even required the wives and children of all Point Four advisers to leave the country. Gagon’s own assignment ended in September, though he did manage to secure another two-year appointment the following January.
The tent schools that Gagon helped create educated more than 112,000 Qashqai youth between 1953 and 1978. Point Four data suggests that tribal children performed as well as, and in some cases better than, students in urban schools. Western observers celebrated the program as a remarkable success. Paul Barker, an American Peace Corps volunteer who worked on nomadic education in Shiraz from 1973 through 1977, called the schools “the most exciting successful educational experiment in Iranian history.” James Dunhill of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) wrote that the schools were “the most astonishing single feat of education I have ever seen.” Gagon himself believed the schools held an important place in the modernization of Iran.¹
Iranian observers, however, have often been less laudatory. The Pahlavi Dynasty that ruled Iran from 1925 through the Iranian Revolution of 1979 saw public education as a means of asserting centralized state power at the expense of non-Persian tribal identities and the religious establishment. Anthropologist Soheila Shahshahani calls tribal education under Pahlavi rule an “oppressive pedagogy” in which many teachers cared little for student development. She notes that most tribal schools were sedentary by 1978, which reflects the government’s main concern of ending nomadism. One former teacher described the tent schools as “like a military camp.” Other scholars have emphasized that the ultimate goal of tribal education was to “Persianize” tribal children and turn them away from their ancestral way of life—much like the Native Indian boarding schools in the United States.²
Glen Gagon was just one of the hundreds of American academics who gained valuable international experience working on Point Four technical assistance projects during the 1950s. Like the tent schools for the nomadic Qashqai of Iran, many of these projects showed limited results. Some contributed to the authoritarianism of many Cold War American allies in what was then called the “Third World.” But one lasting legacy of Point Four was that it contributed to the enhanced global reach of postwar American higher education.
1. Barker and Dunhill quoted in Richard Garlitz, A Mission for Development: Utah Universities and the Point Four Program in Iran (Louisville: University Press of Colorado, 2018), 124. The original references are Paul Barker, “Tent Schools of the Qashqai: A Paradox of Local Initiative and State Control,” in Modern Iran: The Dialectics of Continuity and Change, ed. Michael E. Bonine and Nikki R. Keddie (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981), 155; James Dunhill quoted in Farian Sabahi, “The White Tent Programme: Tribal Education under Mohammad Reza Shah,” in Tribes and Power: Nationalism and Ethnicity in the Middle East, ed. Faleh Abdul-Jabar and Hosham Dawod (London: Saqi, 2003), 247; and Clarence Hendershot, White Tents in the Mountains: A Report on the Tribal Schools of Fars Province (Tehran: United States Agency for International Development, 1965), 8. Return to text.
2. Shahbazi and Shahsahani quoted in Richard Garlitz, A Mission for Development: Utah Universities and the Point Four Program in Iran (Louisville: University Press of Colorado, 2018), 124–25. The original references are Mohammad Shahbazi, “The Qashqa’i Nomads of Iran (Part II): State-Supported Literacy and Ethnic Identity,” Nomadic Peoples 6 (2002): 37–63; and Soheila Shahshahani, “Tribal Schools of Iran: Sedentarization through Education,” Commission on Nomadic Peoples Nomadic Peoples 36/37 (1995): 147–52. Return to text.
Richard Garlitz is associate professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Martin, where he teaches courses on the history of United States foreign relations and the Middle East. He is author of A Mission for Development: Utah Universities and the Point Four Program in Iran and coeditor of Teaching America to the World and the World to America: Education and Foreign Relations since 1870.