Majoring in Mansour

What Mansour Farhang has taught and learned in his three decades at Bennington by Lee Hancock MFA ’14

Kevin Green ’13 keeps notes from Mansour Farhang’s classes on Iranian politics and rattles off favorite lessons from the former Iranian diplomat. Peter J. Hoffman ’91 aspires to emulate his Bennington mentor’s curiosity and rigor as he teaches international affairs. Even before his first class at the College, Jonah Lipsky ’06 says he decided to take an alum’s advice to “major in Mansour.” And Farhang’s admonitions still echo daily for Catherine McGath ’10 as she pursues a master’s degree in public policy analysis and management.

“I hear Mansour pushing me to think critically about how to get the things done that I want to see happen,” says McGath. “He encouraged me to deeply understand the context of every issue in order to take a rigorous, holistic approach to problem solving. Mansour has undoubtedly played a significant role in making me the kind of thinker and actor I am today.”

The senior faculty member retired this spring after thirty years at Bennington. Since 2006, he has held the Catherine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching.

Yet it takes a fair amount of negotiation to get Farhang to talk about himself. He is uncomfortable when a conversation turns to former students’ descriptions of his influence in their pursuit of passions from academia

to art, from politics to public policy. When convinced to recount his journey to Bennington, he declares his happiness that younger relatives are within earshot and thus can hear details of his story for the first time.

He describes himself as an eternal student, his life’s work as a constant process of rethinking, his sacred text the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “When you teach a subject that involves modern history, the policy in the middle east region, and the whole human rights discourse, one has to learn continuously,” he says in a phone conversation. “Oftentimes I ended up sharing my confusion and uncertainty.”

“I could not relate to the designation of a ‘political scientist’ because intricacies of political life do not lend themselves to the application of scientific methods,” he later adds in an email. “Yet, I never stopped trying to make the case in class or in lecture halls that there is sense to be made in human affairs. That is to say, perceptions and actions in matters political are not always random, unique, or idiosyncratic. They can also reveal patterns, regularities, correlations, causalities and re-occurrences. And I routinely claimed that such findings can contribute to rational and realistic thinking in apprehending challenges facing the society.”

He describes himself as an eternal student, his life’s work as a constant process of rethinking, his sacred text the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Farhang traces his lifelong devotion to human rights, fascination with politics and foreign policy and love of teaching to his activism as a high school student in Tehran. After the 1953 overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh by pro-royalist forces backed by U.S. and British spy agencies, Farhang joined a group of students in distributing documents detailing Mosaddegh’s defense in his secret prison trial. Caught with fifty copies, Farhang refused to reveal where he got them. He ended up being held in juvenile detention for nearly three months.

Farhang was soon conscripted into the Iranian army. He jumped at an offer to teach and was assigned a class of twenty-four soldiers. It was a daunting assignment for a 19 year old to teach Persian to a group of conscripts that included nine illiterate people and five Kurdish or Turkish speakers. Farhang says he drew inspiration from his mother, who had taught herself to read and write after marrying his businessman father. By the end of his Army class, every one of his soldier-students could read and write in Persian, and several went on to university. “That’s how I came to love this job,” Farhang says.

Though he won a military prize for teaching and was eager to study abroad, it took several years to convince authorities to give him an exit visa. He finally made it to California in 1959, and from his first comparative government class, became fascinated with the Declaration of Human Rights. He earned a PhD in political science at Claremont Graduate School and was drawn once more into activism. He joined Amnesty International and the American anti-war movement. By the end of the 60s, he also had married, divorced, and become a single parent. He speaks with pride about one son becoming a banker and the other a public policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

In 1979, Farhang took a sabbatical and returned to Iran to witness the revolution that followed the fall of the Shah. After the takeover of the American Embassy and detention of embassy staff, Farhang began working with associates on a negotiation plan. He met with the Ayatollah Khomeini and received his promise to support mediation for the hostages’ release. Farhang then agreed to serve as Iranian Ambassador to the UN to guide diplomatic efforts. He left his tenured university post in California, relinquished U.S. citizenship and spent four months in New York as Iranian envoy before realizing that Khomeini had reneged. Farhang resigned his ambassadorship in protest, returned to Iran, and was forced underground. He eventually escaped across the Turkish border on foot, and he was invited in 1981 to a temporary teaching post at Princeton University.

In 1983, Bennington invited Farhang to be a visiting instructor. Within a month of arriving in Vermont, he recalls, he hoped to be asked to stay. He says Bennington is the only academic institution where he felt completely at home.

“I loved the idea that we could teach whatever we wanted within our field, and students were not required to take a course—people were completely free to choose,” he says. “It was so different from places where you have to play a game within certain constructs, to please other people.”

During his time at the college, Farhang served on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch and served as a Middle East commentator for the BBC and Radio France International. He also made frequent appearances on national media ranging from CBS’ 60 Minutes to the PBS NewsHour, ABC’s Nightline, and Democracy Now! He wrote dozens of academic journal articles and regularly contributed opinion pieces to The New York Times, The Nation, The Los Angeles Times and The Christian Science Monitor.

In the process, students and faculty alike have come to admire his contributions to the intellectual life of the College. Isabel Roche, dean of the College, says his deep engagement, inside and outside classrooms, is an embodiment of Bennington’s educational model. “And even more directly the importance of knowing who you are and what you believe in,” she adds. “He has shown us all what it means to make a life as a teacher and a scholar, and has done it with great generosity and humility.”

Elizabeth Coleman, former president of the College and director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action, cites Mansour’s gift for opening up complex subjects and his insistance to any suggestion that special knowledge was required to join in serious discussion.

“You might have people say you can’t possibly talk about what’s going on in Iran, if you don’t immerse yourself in the culture of Iran and Islam. And these are ways of shutting people down as well as ensuring you are responsible to the subject,” she says. “But Mansour would always say, ‘If you want to understand what’s going on in Iran, you have to understand power. And one of the ways that power is used is religion. And we all understand that. So what he would do at that moment is invite you into the conversation, to use what you had.”

She recalls watching him captivate parents at an alumni weekend gathering by telling how his dream of becoming a teacher sustained him through dangerous days as a teenager in the Iranian military. In the midst of running and fighting and trying to stay alive, he told the parents, he kept himself going by thinking about how he might one day use such experiences in a classroom. Coleman says it was classic Mansour, transmuting something terrifying into a teaching moment. His commitment reached “an order of thinking and magnitude that is unimaginable,” she adds. “I think of myself as a teacher, in so much that it is my craft, but he was the master.”

Farhang’s students say he inspired them not only to think deeply about global events but also to develop personal visions for engaging with the world beyond Bennington. Jeff Peer ’06 said that led to his work in a 2006 congressional race in Illinois and in Iowa for the 2008 Obama campaign before he entered a PhD program in comparative literature. Lila Cutter ’15 credits Farhang for her continuing inquiry into how literature can affect social change.

“It takes a pretty unique professor to allow a student to do their final political science course thesis on Alan Ginsberg’s ‘Howl,’” she says. “Mansour was trusting enough to let me explore what excited me, offering resources, counter-views, discussion, and support, every step of the way.”

Hoffman recalls Farhang helping him convince his parents to let him travel to Nicaragua to pursue an interest in the Sandinista revolution for his undergraduate thesis. Hoffman adds that his appreciation of Farhang has grown since he began teaching, first at Bryn Mawr and now at The New School. “To have someone of his stature is quite rare, someone who has had a scholarly as well as a diplomatic career all rolled into one, teaching introductory classes, teaching advanced classes, and mentoring students.”

In the midst of running and fighting and trying to stay alive, he kept himself going by thinking about how he might one day use the experience in a classroom.

Lipsky says Farhang was one of the most generous and open minds he encountered at Bennington. “The brilliance of Mansour is that he balanced the messy, confusing, and often horrible world of political phenomena with a deeply spiritual, creative, intellectually excited, and compassionate mindset,” Lipsky says. “This insight remains essential to me because it unifies two deep currents that run in my life—the interest in deep intellectual experiences and the interest in enthusiastic, emotional and creative experiences.”

The College will honor Mansour Farhang’s rich and lasting contributions to the field of international relations on Saturday, October 4, 2014, when alumni and invited guests will come together, with Mansour, to talk about the intellectual imprint and importance of Mansour’s work on their own.