Friday, April 9, 2010

A "Surfing University" for Iran?

An entire generation has come of age in Iran with little opportunity to join the mainstream intellectual discourse in the rest of the world. That may not bother traditionalist clerics nor their conservative supporters, but it should be an ongoing concern for people who would like Iran to draw closer to that global mainstream rather than to continue to drift aimlessly in its current educational and cultural isolation. Meanwhile, a hugely vibrant and creative Persian diaspora reminds us of how aberrant the current situation really is.

As our conference on "Iran's Blogosphere and Grassroots Voices" will undoubtedly underline, private efforts to encourage contacts and exchanges with Iran have been mostly stymied, particularly in recent years. So the imperative now should be to come up with creative approaches for promoting people-to-people connections, perhaps relying in part on the potential of the new media and social networks.

For instance, what about a cyber-age version of Poland's venerable "flying universities," which once provided an unofficial outlet for honest academic discourse, both during the 19th century Tsarist period before Poland's independence, and then again during the Cold War, when university education was strictly controlled by the pro-Moscow Polish communist authorities?

These gatherings of independent-minded professors and students were always on the move, from one apartment to the next, "floating" just out of reach of the secret police. They helped sustain an independent intellectual life in Poland, free from censorship and official restrictions, until the moment came when Poles could choose an open rather than a closed society. The flying university counted among its "alumni" many of the leading Polish figures of our era: the future Pope Karol Wojtyla,
poet Zbigniew Herbert and Adam Michnik (pictures top to bottom).

Were a consortium of like-minded universities, institutes and foundations in Europe, North America and elsewhere to band together in a broad initiative to help Iranians access quality educational offerings online, something important might happen. The idea would be to make available lectures and other courses in free, digital form, with Farsi subtitles -- perhaps the basis for a new "surfing university" to take shape.
A global network of university websites or something more akin to iTunesU could host the course offerings, with financial resources for the required production and translation work generated through the foundations, which could solicit both private and government funds. A multilateral private-public board would make decisions about what disciplines and courses to emphasize by polling Iranians about their needs and interests, rather than following someone else's playbook for fomenting Twitter revolutions. This would be educational and intellectual engagement for the long-term, or at least until Tehran was ready to move away from its current authoritarian model of thought-control.

Would Iranians embrace a "surfing university," either by directly accessing the video and audio courses, or organizing themselves into virtual academic institutions that would take on board the distance education content the consortium would make available on line, while integrating it into an Iranian-led educational whole? Impossible to tell, I'm sure.Yet the type of investment that would be required is far less ambitious, in both budgetary and in moral terms, than the grim scenarios that some Iran watchers feel may result from continued stalemate over the volatile nuclear issue. While the international community may well need to confront Iran's rulers, it should not fail to boldly and creatively engage the Iranian people, however difficult that may be at present. As our conference keynote speaker Azar Nafisi once observed, "You need imagination in order to imagine a future that doesn't exist."

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