03 January 2010

When being a star student is not good...

The government of Iran cracks down on bright students which might present a threat to them, stealing a play from successful tyrants throughout history, including that of their former nemesis. The Wall Street Journal reports:

On Wednesday, progovernment militia attacked and beat students at a school in northeastern Iran. Since last Sunday's massive protests nationwide, dozens of university students have been arrested as part of an aggressive policy against what are known as Iran's "star students."

In most places, being a star means ranking top of the class, but in Iran it means your name appears on a list of students considered a threat by the intelligence ministry. It also means a partial or complete ban from education.

The term comes from the fact that some students have learned of their status by seeing stars printed next to their names on test results.

Mehrnoush Karimi, a 24-year-old law-school hopeful, found out in August that she was starred. She ranked 55 on this year's national entrance exam for law schools, out of more than 70,000 test-takers. That score should have guaranteed her a seat at the school of her choice. Instead, the government told her she wouldn't be attending law school due to her "star" status.

As the WSJ notes, the Iranian government's fear of student uprisings is actually quite real--academic institutions have often sown the seeds of revolt and rebellion, to include Iran's students some thirty years ago. Where's the "irony" tag?

Iranian students have a long track record of political activism. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979 toppled the then-king, Shah Mohamad Reza Pahlavi, universities underwent massive purges of students and professors considered disloyal to the Islamic regime. The process was known as the Cultural Revolution.

Students accepted to public universities (which are generally better and more competitive than private schools) were screened for moral behavior and for loyalty to Islam and the new regime. Still, the practice, known as gozinesh, didn't ban individuals. Applicants could reapply again and again.

Gozinesh ended in 1997 when new leadership came to power and rolled back some social restrictions. Today, activists blame Mr. Ahmadinejad not only for resurrecting the screening process but also for adding an element of punishment by imposing the lifetime education ban on star students.

"The government is extremely terrified of student uprisings because they are young and idealistic and have shown over and over that they are willing to stand up for injustice," says Saleh Nikbakht, a lawyer who represents several star students, reached by phone in Tehran. "Iranian universities are like a ticking bomb."

The suppression of bright performers reminds me of something I've touched upon in a previous post regarding the ancient Greek tyrant Trysabulus, and a characteristic common among many dictators. Herodotus the historian writes that, when asked how he kept order in his kingdom, Thrysabulus did not answer. Instead, he went into the garden and, with a scythe, proceeded to lop the tops off the highest of the weeds. In this way, he demonstrated that one needed to remove or intimidate those who stood above their peers, as they would be the most likely threats to him. Indeed, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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