CAPA, Faculty News

How Students Brought a “Once in a Lifetime” Class to Bennington

Experts on Iranian culture and politics blur the lines between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Image of two men in front of chalkboard

In the fall of 2022, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, died under suspicious circumstances shortly after having been stopped by Iranian police for not wearing a hijab in accordance with government standards. In response, Iran erupted in violent and deadly protests. Bennington College’s Iranian students Parsa ’26 and Marzieh ’25, who are using only their first name or a pseudonym to protect themselves and their families in Iran, were shaken. Political tension and suspicious deaths continue even now. 

“It’s a great blessing that I am far from home, but I still carry the hurt,” said Parsa, who studies politics. “My family is there and suffering. It is a pain that only my Iranian friend and I understand.”

In addition to the sadness and grief, they were also moved to act. 

“We really wanted to inform people, and we really wanted to help the people in our country,” said Marzieh, who studies architecture. “We didn’t want to be just people who stand and look, because a lot of teenagers were dying; and we didn’t want to witness that. In our language, we say, ‘we didn’t want the blood to go to waste.’” 

Xiomara Giordano, MSed., Director of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, recommended Marzieh and Parsa meet with Susan Sgorbati, the Director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action. In addition to planning and executing a well-attended informational session on the Iranian protests, Marzieh, Parsa, and Sgorbati conceived of a class that would help other students understand the conflict and the broader Iranian culture. 

“That’s a great way to educate people and let them know what is happening,” Marzieh remembers thinking. “We were very, very excited about it.” 

Sgorbati called friend and long-time Bennington faculty colleague Mansour Farhang, who is, according to Sgorbati, “one of the most knowledgeable people on the history and politics of Iran and its future.” 

Based on a 2014 article detailing Farhang’s impact after 30 years at Bennington, he is also a Bennington legend. Students went so far as to direct underclassmen to take every class Farhang offered or, as they put it, to “major in Mansour.” 

Farhang Comes to Bennington

Farhang grew up in Tehran and earned his Ph.D. in the United States. He was on sabbatical leave from a teaching position at California State University, Sacramento, when he learned about the hostage crisis in Iran. He and his colleagues proposed that Iran allow an envoy to the United Nations to help mediate and resolve the conflict. Farhang was tapped to lead the negotiations.

“I had absolutely no intention or desire to work for the government at all,” Farhang remembers. Out of a sense of duty, he agreed to serve as Ambassador on a conditional basis. “I said I would take the position only if I hear in person from Khomeini that he would accept the mediation and suggestion or recommendation of the United Nations.” 

Farhang traveled to Iran for a face-to-face conversation with Ayatollah Khomeini. 

“I explained to him what the UN was doing, and he unconditionally and clearly said, ‘Yes, we will accept the recommendation of the UN, if they condemn American foreign policy in Iran.’”

Even after Farhang explained that the requested condemnation would likely be symbolic only, rather than having any political or legal weight, Khomeini agreed. Farhang started work at the UN in December 1979. He formed the commission, which traveled to Iran and resolved the conflict. 

“Unfortunately, Khomeini had either lied or changed his mind,” Farhang explained. “So [the commission] returned to the United States empty handed and humiliated, and I immediately resigned on April 26, 1980.” 

Farhang escaped from Iran and was offered a two-year teaching position at Princeton. He went on to teach as a visiting faculty at Bennington, which he loved. As his visiting faculty term at Bennington reached its end, Farhang remembered, “I went to bed every night for three weeks hoping that they would ask me to stay.” They did ask, and he did stay, for 30 years, until his retirement in 2014. 

Farhang Returns

When Sgorbati reached out with an invitation to return to Bennington, Farhang was interested. He introduced Sgorbati to his friend and colleague John Limbert, who he says, “obviously has a very rich and informed and really insightful view of what is happening in Iran both as a scholar as well as as a diplomat.” 

In addition to his scholarly contributions to the understanding of Iranian culture, including Shiraz in the Age of Hafez, John Limbert was one of the hostages Farhang had tried to free. 

“I was one of the people held at the American Embassy,” Limbert shared. “I still considered myself a diplomat, even under those conditions.”

Limbert was among the last Americans to serve at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. He worked for 34 years in the United States Foreign Service, including as Ambassador in the Middle East and Islamic Africa. He also taught Middle Eastern Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy and held the Gruss-Lipper fellowship in Middle East policy at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.

During the crisis, Limbert explained, “unbeknownst to me, Mansour met with some of my family members in New York, and basically told them, ‘You think this is bad? I think it's much worse than you know,’ which was not what they were expecting to hear from a representative of the Islamic government.” 

That extraordinary candidness inspired Limbert to meet with Farhang when he returned to the United States in spring of 1981. From there, Farhang spoke to Limbert’s classes at the U.S. Naval Academy. Farhang used Limbert’s books in the classes he taught. 

“And really, we've been friends since,” Limbert said. “So when Mansour came and said, ‘Would you like to teach this class at Bennington?’ it didn't take a lot of persuasion.”

When he heard about the teachers for the class, Parsa was impressed. 

“So we had the Iranian who was in New York trying to free the American held hostage in Tehran.” Smiling, he added, “It was like having Spiderman and Batman in person.”

Curiosity Drives Enrollment

The three-week course launched this past spring. It was called Iran: A Theocracy in Crisis. It didn’t take long to generate interest. 

Ivy Dunn-Fyler ’25, who is studying music and ethnomusicology, was first interested in the class because she has some friends from Iran. When she met with her advisor, Joseph Alpar, she knew she had to enroll. 

“We were going through the class offerings, and Joe saw that Mansour was teaching. He got so excited about it,” Dunn-Fyler recalls. Alpar read some of Farhang’s online bio outloud. She remembers, “I was like, ‘there's no option. I have to be in the class. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.’”

June McCall ’23, who studied painting, was among the last of the 20 or so students to enroll. Her interest arose from having taken a peace-building class the previous term. She also wanted to gain a broader understanding of International issues. She requested to join just a week before the class started.

“I didn’t know how lucky I was when I signed up for this class,” McCall said. “I am really happy that I did.”

Learning about Iran

Farhang and Limbert were impressed with how curious the students were and how quickly they grasped unfamiliar concepts. 

“The fact that women were playing a leading role in these demonstrations had particularly impressed the students,” Farhang said. “More than that, the students are intelligent enough and experienced enough to know [not only] dictatorship but the idea of a government interfering in the private sphere of life, telling people what kind of music they can listen to, what kind of relationship they can have, how they could dress, and on and on.” 

Limbert’s goal as a teacher is “to make the unfamiliar familiar and the familiar unfamiliar.”  

“We had a number of students in the class from majority Muslim countries, and they said, ‘Wait a minute, these are the same kinds of debates that we are having at home,’” Limbert shared. 

Then, in light of issues in the United States, what is taught in schools and the recent tightening of abortion regulations, for instance, the American students had the same realization. 

“What was fun in this class for me was watching the expressions on students’ faces when it came to them,” Limbert said. “‘Wait a minute. This isn't just happening in some exotic place 7,000 miles away. This is very familiar to us. We're seeing a variation of the same thing right next door.’” 

While the struggle between tradition and enlightenment values is recognizable worldwide, Iran’s situation is still unique. Other authoritarian regimes limit access to information and education. By contrast, Iran, starting 43–44 years ago, used the education system, from primary schools through universities, to indoctrinate students against modern values. 

“Iran has nearly 4 million university students. Sixty percent of them are women,” Farhang said. “Critical attitudes toward traditional or religious values relate to the extent that they're used as public policy.”  

This resonates with Marzieh and Parsa. Both love their country, its rich culture, and its people. They object to the regime in power, the corruption it perpetuates, and its assault on individual freedoms.

“I am a person who wears a hijab outside of the country, and I am proud to be a Muslim; but at the same time, I don’t support anything that my government does,” Marzieh shared. “The reason I chose to wear a hijab was for my personal reason. I don’t ever want another person to be forced to wear it, because that just takes away the whole meaning of wearing the hijab.” 

Students appreciated the understanding they gained from the class. With insights from Farhang, Limbert, and Parsa, who audited the class and added first-person accounts from the youth perspective, McCall felt as if she got a very well-rounded picture of the entire situation. 

“I always felt very much like I was walking into a very deep [pool]… it felt weighty. It felt significant,” McCall said. 

Dunn-Fyler appreciated Limbert for his encouragement to resist simple answers. He advised, she remembered, that the true experts begin their answers to questions about Iran with phrases like, “it’s complicated” and “I don’t know.” 

Taking the Lessons Forward

While it is a small success in the grand scale of the country’s conflict, twenty students now have a much better expert-informed understanding of Iran, both the beauty of its culture and its political and societal challenges. 

Limbert thinks the class will stick with students. “They are not thinking ‘Okay, that class is over. We did our paper, we did the exam, we got our grade… Now, on to the next.’ I think, in most cases, the students did better than that.” 

Fulfilling Limbert’s expectation and echoing Farhang’s students of the past, Dunn-Fyler said, “I'm going to remember this class forever, and live my life a little bit differently now.”  

Marzieh and Parsa continue to follow the country’s story closely through a combination of news reports and stories from home. Protests and crackdowns have eased. Internet access has been largely restored. 

Marzieh communicates with her family via text nearly every day. She explained how they second guess reports of people having died by suicide, suspecting instead that they had been killed for dissenting. 

Parsa notes the constant low-key political tension. 

“From an outsider’s perspective, I am just waiting for something to spark that,” Parsa said. “I think people in Iran are braver now, and that gives me hope.”