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You need just a microscope to start a whole nation on the path to healthful living.

A true story of what I experienced first hand in Iran and Pakistan


Not many people know this but the Shah of Iran had established a Wisdom Army whose task was to teach in remote villages. The deal was that since the young people were required to spend two years in the regular army, the Shah gave them an alternative: Spend two years instead in my Wisdom Army. People who were in this Wisdom Army were called Soldiers of Wisdom or Sepah-e Danish as they are called in the Persian language.


I met one of the Sepah-e Danish, a young girl, in Tabriz Iran and since I had known of the program this meeting was no less than a miracle for me because I always wanted to   see the program in action. When I told her that, she immediately invited me along with my wife and our son to visit her village and stay with her.


Her village, like other villages in the program, had two schools; one for the boys which became the school for men during the night and a school for girls which became the school for women during the night.


The housing for the Sepah-e-Danish was provided by one of the village families who had given her a private room in a small building attached to their house. We stayed with her in that room where she also cooked a rather simple but nutritious food for all of us. Her hospitality was heart warming and unforgettable till today.


I being a microbiologist am convinced that unless people get to see the germs under a microscope they will have hard time believing what harm these little critters can do to them, to their health, their farm animals and their crops. For this purpose I brought along one of my microscopes.


Stressing just the disease aspect of microbes, however, will be one sided for they also have to know all the good microbes do in agriculture, in waste disposal, in fermentation such as making wine and vinegar and in fermented dairy products which are the nutritional mainstay of many people throughout the world. Being an old culture, they were also aware of how to preserve food such as the grape juice by concentrating (increasing) its sugar content by boiling which gave them a thick syrupy product that can be kept in earthenware jars without fear of spoilage and from which they can get a glass full of delicious drink by diluting a tablespoon or two with water.    


After resting the night and seeing the most spectacular sky full of stars in the early morning, I went to the Boys school with my microscope and showed them some microbes from my mouth. After a bit of giggling and kidding around wondering had I cleaned my teeth that morning, they all wanted to see what was in their mouths. Every one wanted to see, the curiosity was deafening.


During this hustle and bustle of an activity, I sneaked up on them suggesting “let us see what is in that water” that is running down the street where they washed their clothes, watered and bathed their animals and perhaps even themselves also.


After seeing what was in a drop of water, there was a hush of a silence when a boy about ten years old who was mostly quiet during the whole presentation stood up and said “so that is why my mother is always sick”!


Need I say more? The news of my visit and my microscope spread to the neighboring villages and I was inundated with requests to visit their village also. Even though I could not go, the word of mouth and the description they gave of the experience opened many more minds.


There was similar overwhelming interest in Pakistan where I left my microscope outside a mosque as I went inside leaving a friend in-charge to see that the microscope stays in focus as people peer through it. There as a line fifty people long as I came out of the mosque and more were coming!


Global health and education issues of today are no different than those around 1850 or thereabouts. People had to see to believe and also had to see the microbes in action to know what they do. This type of open communication took place during the early days of microbiology because the scientists like Pasteur did their experiments, e.g., with the chicken cholera in the open air like a road show. Results of his experiments and also those from the other laboratories such as that of Robert Koch went directly to the public with further dissemination by the news media of the time. This trend persisted in Europe and also in the United States where knowledge of Microbiology was brought around early 1900 with the opening of the first Public Health laboratory in the city of New York around 1930’s.   


There was tremendous interest in this new found knowledge so much so that it was taught as a required introductory science course of practically all students including the professional ones as well as those majoring in Home Economics.


Courses in those days were extensive and strictly hands-on. A typical course would have anywhere from fifty to sixty lectures and as many as sixty two to three hour long hands-on labs where students did everything themselves under the guidance of a watchful instructor.


Students coming out of such courses were the ones who made discoveries leading to the fields of Immunology, Molecular Biology, Microbial Genetics, and Genetic Engineering. These were the people who also won the Nobel Prizes who all had their beginning learning Bacteriology the predecessor of what is Microbiology now.


This was also the period when people were knowledgeable, not only enjoying good health but aiding the government and other private citizen agencies in formulating and  establishing public health  standards and combating diseases such as the polio and the tuberculosis to name just two of many. This was also the period when America had an enviable economy.


Teaching of this extensive nature, however, did not last long as the courses began to be watered down or altogether eliminated starting with mid sixties of the past century. This was done to make room for research because the new found DNA molecule held an enormous yet untapped potential for finding more specific cures for what ailed humanity. This was also the time when penicillin was mass produced and insulin also became available enabling diabetics to live somewhat normal lives. A number of other antibiotics especially streptomycin from Selman Waksman’s lab soon followed.  


Doing research was thus expected and it was fine to take that route especially when no one objected to this emerging trend and also because the cutting down or eliminating courses had no noticeable affect on the quality of human knowledge, health and economy. The trend to cut teaching to make room for research thus not only continued but also gained momentum.


Little did anyone then realize that the affect of cutting down courses will not be evident until many years later? This is analogous to the residual affect so often seen when we study biochemical mutants in microbial genetics. The loss of a gene which used to produce a given enzyme will not be seen until the accumulated enzyme produced by the gene when it was present in the cell is used up.


It is the same phenomenon in education; learned traits remain and keep on manifesting their affects until the population of such people dies out. Generally it takes two to three generations because the knowledgeable people within the population do transfer some of their knowledge to their children who may not manifest it as firmly as their parents did but manifest some of it nonetheless.


So the affect of watered down or altogether eliminated courses did not begin to manifest until the mid eighties or early nineties of the twentieth century. A time when AIDS showed up along with the resurgence of some of the diseases such as tuberculosis earlier brought under control.


I believe that it will be a bit of a shock to anyone when they realize the extent to which courses have been watered down or altogether eliminated by our universities and colleges. For example, a typical science course which during the sixties consisted of sixty lectures and as many as forty to sixty hands-on labs has now been cut down to thirty or so lectures given by different professors and only eight to ten labs which are mostly demonstration with little to no hands-on component. It is also important to know that this is not an introductory science course for the undergraduate students but a professional and a graduate level course.


You can well visualize the affects of this sort of limited exposure to the essentials of knowledge and skills. What kind of science teachers graduates of such watered down courses will make and how extensively will they teach?


Isn’t this the biggest problem in science education today which is likely to get worse if steps are not taken to contain it by reverting to teaching wholesome, extensive hands-on courses the kind we used to teach during the fifties and earlier years of the twentieth century?      


In this regard all teachers and administrators of academia at all levels need to realize that no child is born with the knowledge only with the potential to acquire the knowledge provided he or she is exposed to it.


Without the transmission of such a knowledge not only the masses are being deprived of realizing their hopes and potential whereby they could have become self sufficient but now in the absence of the needed knowledge they are becoming dependent wards of the state costing untold amounts of money to take care of them which cost is also progressively skyrocketing, with no end in sight.


In addition to that, and we generally give no credence to this, the unfulfilled students are suffering from untold anxiety, stress and even depression. Add to that the lost hopes of their parents who despite expenditure of vast sums of monies, often taking food from their own mouths have been sending some or all of their children to the schools sold to them as their sole hope for the future.


What about their anxieties, frustrations and anger which doubles and even triples up when they are told that their darling children were not smart enough to do well in school! This is like sprinkling red pepper on their wounds.


All educators thus need to begin not from the prescribed curriculum which may be designed to meet the needs of the prospective employers but from the needs of the struggling and aspiring students and the masses.


If we did that, education will once again become true education producing self sufficient analytical masses that will be a boon not a burden to the society.


Contrary to the prevailing belief, it is not that expensive to do. See story of the Science Skills Center at the following link where we teach practically the whole of science through only 150 concepts and skills which when learned first make all the science subjects including the now popular Biotechnology, a piece of cake to savor, learn, use and grow with


Lets net work to bring that kind of education locally and globally. That may be our only hope for global peace.



Riaz-ul Haque, Ph.D.,
Associate Professor (Emeritus)
University of Illinois at Chicago
Founder Center for General and Applied Education and
The Science Skills Center
729 S. Western Avenue
Chicago Illinois USA 60612
Phone: 312-243-7716 Fax: 312-243-2041
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