War Wounds and Political Salt in Divided Education System

In the wake of last month’s events related to the Western Balkans, I have found myself opening old dilemmas and questions about this odd and almost cursed geography. On 22 November, the International Criminal Tribunal for Formal Yugoslavia delivered a verdict related to the crimes of Ratko Mladić, the former Bosnian Serb army commander. The man nicknamed as the “Butcher of Bosnia” was found guilty of 10 of the 11 charges for crimes against humanity during the war between 1992 and 1995. Soon after this, followers of international news witnessed a bizarre suicide of another criminal, this time a Bosnian Croat, Slobodan Pranjak, who drank poison after his sentence was upheld by the court for atrocities done against the Muslim population during the war in Bosnia.

While these verdicts brought different reactions to the region, and for the families of the victims they were long expected and long overdue, I do question what the future holds for the deeply divided country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. As someone who studies education, I look for answers in the education system.

Short info on Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina (also referred to as Bosnia, B&H or BiH) was one of seven constitutional republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1945-1992). Yugoslavia was ethnically and nationally very diverse, yet arguably the most diverse of all seven republics was Bosnia and Herzegovina. Prior to the war, the Yugoslav Constitution made a great effort not to have deep divisions between its different nations. With its communist roots, religion was not particularly favoured in Tito’s Yugoslavia, especially publicly, and there was a preference towards everyone identifying as Yugoslav rather than the nationality of their republics. During this time and after, there were three dominant nationalities: Bosnians (also as Bosniaks), Serbians and Croatians coexisting on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This diversity was misused to fuel ethnic antagonisms led by a handful of morally-corrupted political leaders and it caused terrible suffering, death and displacement during a three-year long war. The negotiations that should have happen much earlier than in Dayton in 1995, carved the country into three parts: Republic of Srpska (Republika Srpska), Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and District of Brčko. Have a look at the change in ethnic landscape as it transformed in three years.

My conclusions presented the heaviness of the political content within almost all school subjects.

During my master studies in Lifelong Learning: Policy and Management, I was inspired by a great course on Comparative Education to look into the education system and structure of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This was in 2009 and back then I was still a naïve master student, thus I may have bitten off more than I could chew. My inquiry came out of a curiosity to dig into and analyse a context in which I lived for a short while. Furthermore, it stemmed from my concern that this divided state was growing further antagonisms with the help of education. In this student paper, I analysed the three respective curricula of the three constitutive ethnicities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, namely the Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. My conclusions presented the heaviness of the political content within almost all school subjects, but primarily in history, geography and language. Even with the existence of the Core Curriculum designed to be a unifying factor for the three ethnicities, Serbian and Croatian children in Bosnia were taught that their “motherlands” are across the border and as such they are part of greater nations, while Bosniak children were taught within their victimising political narrative.

A quote from the conclusion of the essay, Kovac H. (2009). unpublished manuscript:

As the analyses indicate, Bosniak curriculum develops the feeling of comfort only on the Islamic part of Bosnian territory, whereas in accordance to “the others” Bosniaks are victims of aggressive attacks and oppression. In the Croatian case, the curriculum creates the sense of displacement and belonging to another country accompanying the nostalgic feelings for the “homeland” and alienation from the entire BiH, especially from the Serbian parts. Throughout the curriculum, Croats are victimized and attacked by others, forced to fight for liberation and preservation of their culture. […] Serbian curriculum […] shows the elements of national superiority and “the others” are looked with ambivalence or as national separatists (as it is case for Croatians). Even though there are many references to the neighbouring Serbia, for ethnical Serbs in BiH the entity of Republic of Srpska is as equally valued and perceived as one of the Serbian lands. 

Unfortunately, I confirmed my initial argument that the divided three-sided curriculum was largely contributing to the creation of further ethnic segregation within the war-thorn country. I concluded with a call for discussion that asked, “where is this leading the state of BiH and for how long will the nations be able to share the same roof, as well as who is the beneficial party in such a state?” (Kovac, 2009, unpublished). Inspired by the avalanche of news that referred to Bosnia and Herzegovina in the last several weeks, I recently attempted a small inquiry into the system as it is today, 8 years after my initial essay and 22 years after the end of the war.

It should be noted that this was not a stringent scientific inquiry nor does it provide robust evidence-based conclusions as I do not have the luxury to dive into a comprehensive data analysis. But I have dedicated a few hours to briefly look at some traits in curricular material of the three entities upon which I can draw a few non-scientific observations.

To my surprise, in all three curricula I have found elements that were previously either not there, or were very weak to begin with. These are related to the framework of Bosnia and Herzegovina in which the three ethnic communities coexist, such as reference to three different nations, religions, languages, etc. For instance, the curriculum on Croatian language refers to “the two other languages” next to Croatian, to their specific linguistic characteristic and development. There is a section which refers to Cyrillic alphabet (used by Serbians) with an aim to learn it, and also in the fifth grade a subsection on people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with a direct reference to the constitutional ethnicities (Croats, Bosniaks, Serbs) and other minorities. Also, the curriculum of Republic of Srpska seems more adjusted to the reality of Bosnia and Herzegovina than before. For example, in the fifth grade, through the social surrounding classes (познавање друштва) that covers mainly history and sociology, the curriculum prescribes lessons about position and identities of both Republic of Srpska and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as the correlation of these two. The geography covers entire Bosnian and Herzegovinian landscape (not only the parts of Republic of Srpska), as well as different customs and religions within both the Serbian entity and through the entire state, and does not seem to have a preference to parts belonging to Republic of Srpska and Serbia. The curriculum on Bosnian language follows similar principles of the other two, and for the 9th grade prescribes civic education through which elements such as authority, government, responsibility, participation and justice are discussed. In previous grades, it covers both history and geography of the neighbouring countries as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina through understanding the Dayton agreement.

The overall skim-through the three curricula gave an impression of significant improvement.

These few indicators are neither definitive nor conclusive, yet an overall skim-through the three curricula gave an impression of significant improvement. Nevertheless, it is important to know that the written curriculum is just one of multiple elements in education that affects student learning; the ways teachers teach along with the handful of elements of hidden curriculum (e.g. signs and symbols, values, norms, classroom dispositions, staff and student behaviours, etc.) as well as a number of other social factors and overall policies in education, can significantly impact much of the student outcomes.

The gloomy and politically charged climate following the war, as well as rippling effects through the region, has been challenged by students, teachers and peacebuilding NGOs.

However, and unfortunately, there are still plenty of cases where there is more support for the status quo (i.e. segregated education) where the evidence of the divided system comes alive.

The example of “two schools under one roof” is one that usually raises eyebrows, and the one that best shows just how persistent the education system is in maintaining the physical and emotional division between the different populations. As this article states, the unified system is seen as not possible since there is a fear that one of the three sides will get “an upper hand” and enforce their language, history and customs onto the others. Thus, the segregated schools are seen as a way to ensure everyone’s right to get education in their own language and by their own ethical provisions. This of course backfired, as currently the school-aged population is made up of children who weren’t even born during the war, yet, in reality, still they learn in segregated systems. This constructed reality has persisted for more than 20 years by rubbing political salt onto war wounds.

Ethnic divides in education have negative effects to social cohesion and reconciliation.

While we can talk about plenty of smart suggestions, often only very few of them seem to get the intricate complexity of the situation. For instance, Fighting School Segregation in Europe through Inclusive Education actually points to the example of two schools under one roof, and says that ethnic divides in education have negative effects to social cohesion and reconciliation. In contrast, inclusive education integrates a range of differences and facilitates a development of shared values. There is no objection there, but reconciling what inclusive education means for a context such as Bosnia and Herzegovina is in my opinion the starting point. Furthermore, since education is a political tool, one that in this case is used to control rather than to empower, a need for political reconciliation is far more important. And many viewpoints indicate that this (political) process is stalled. Sadly, the political will might be the only way for getting a less segregated education in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and this is true for the rest of the Balkans as well.

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Helena Kovacs

Helena is a MSC Early Stage Researcher at ELTE in Budapest (Hungary). Her research project covers teacher learning in innovative learning environments as she attempts to understand how education can serve social change and development. Next to education, Helena’s professional interests also include European affairs, nation-building and identity, and gender. Prior to joining the Marie Curie family, Helena was a consultant at the Technopolis group in Brighton (UK), where she experienced working in a dynamic setting that deals with commercial evidence-based research, mainly within large European Commission evaluations. Before that, Helena had the chance to see the other side of the coin, as a trainee at the Commission’s DG Education and Culture. In addition, she has years of experience in facilitating non-formal educational trainings in the field of youth across the Balkans. Helena obtained her master degree through Erasmus Mundus Lifelong Learning: Policy and Management programme, in Copenhagen (Denmark) and Bilbao (Spain), and she holds a Bachelor in Community Youth Work.

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