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Iran revamping schools to cut Western influence

Iran is overhauling its education system to rid it of Western influence, the latest attempt by the government to fortify Islamic values and counter the clout of the country's increasingly secularized middle class.

Starting in September, all Iranian high school students will be introduced to new courses such as "political training" and "living skills" that will warn against "perverted political movements" and encourage girls to marry at an early age, Education Ministry officials say.

In universities, the curricula of law, psychology, sociology and other courses will be drastically altered, with officials from the Science Ministry, which has responsibility for higher education, working to strip out what they describe as Western theories and replace them with Islamic ones. Dozens of professors have already retired or been fired on the grounds that they did not sufficiently support the new policy.

The changes are aimed at offsetting the growing influence of a middle class that increasingly embraces individualism and shares modern aspirations. Iran's leaders partly blame contamination of the country's education system -- which in the early years of the 1979 Islamic revolution was shaped by clerics and ideologues -- for spreading such "Western" ideas.

Many students, professors and parents fear that the plans will only undermine Iran's traditionally high academic standards. The three years of academic and curricular purges that followed the revolution, they say, stalled the intellectual development of Iranian youths.

The plans for an educational overhaul follow sweeping changes in Iran's political system in recent years. Many prominent revolutionary figures have been purged, while the power wielded by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a group of key clerics and Revolutionary Guard commanders has greatly expanded since Ahmadinejad arrived on the political scene in 2003 as Tehran's mayor.

The president and his supporters are currently undertaking a major restructuring of the economy, raising prices of fuel, energy, bread and other products to market levels while reducing state subsidies. Officials say the move will help the poor, but the lawyers, nurses, double-shift taxi drivers and others who make up the country's broad middle class say it will break their backs.

The reshaping of the education system, from primary schools to universities, is next on the cabinet's list. The Education Ministry's plan, titled "The Program for Fundamental Evolution in Education and Training," envisions schools becoming "neighborhood cultural bases," where teachers will provide "life" guidance, assisted by selected clerics and members of the paramilitary Basij force.