The Myth of Incremental Education Reform in BiH

As 2021 gets off to a shaky start, it seems necessary to dispel some myths to reduce the damage being done by intentional or simply ill-informed efforts to legitimize the political and instrumentalized ethno-national discrimination and segregation that continue to plague schools throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This is important for many reasons, but most of all because any new focus on “fixing” BiH, by a newly energized Germany, or a Biden-led Washington DC, cannot pretend to have addressed BiH’s post-war fissures without looking at the educational system that has taken root and continues to do damage to BiH’s human and social capital.

The link between schools, education, curricula, and the prospects for either peace or further social division has been clear since the end of the war. A number of early post-war studies clearly delineated the challenges and risks, and outlined options for reducing the scope of education to contribute to conflict. Many of these were surveyed early on in this 2003 report (by the author). A burst of high-level policy engagement occurred – as with so many other efforts – in the period from around 2001 to 2007. However, meaningful change then stopped.

In conflict management and resolution, there are broadly speaking two main approaches when seeking to resolve large social conflicts. The first can be to tackle the “boulder in the road” – the biggest problem around which all other associated conflicts converge. The second is a more gradual “salami slicing” approach, in which a series of successful smaller engagements can build trust among parties and ease the way to more difficult discussions. Each has pros and cons.

In BiH, efforts to reform education through gradualism has been the predominant method of engagement for a quarter century.

The March 2002 Interim Agreement on Accommodation of the Rights and Needs of Returnee Children was aimed at mitigating the most negative efforts of blatant discrimination, for example, introducing the concept of “two schools under one roof” to allow minority pupils to study in school buildings so they would not have to learn in ad hoc schools in café bars and garages. The concept of the “national group of subjects” was aimed at finding a way to separate the subjects that focus on identity (history, geography, language, religious instruction, etc.) and those that are harder to ethnify (math, science, IT, etc.). While envisioned as a short-term stop-gap among reform-minded outsiders slicing the salami, this has instead turned into social segregation and separation by careful and intentional policy design. The “Interim” Agreement has now been in place and fundamentally unchanged for so long that a generation of children has been conceived, born, schooled, and are now adult citizens.

The boulder remains firmly in the road. Ever thinner and thinner slices of salami give the illusion of progress while contributing nothing to resolution of the broader conflict; in fact the false feeling of accomplishment is damaging as it provides a Potemkin façade of reform.

Every few years (2012, 268 pages; 2018, 60 pages; an additional OSCE report researched in 2020, but not yet published) we see another study to dissect and explain the obvious. But then such reports are followed by mere tinkering, by support for extra-curricular projects and summer camps and NGO initiatives, the hope seemingly being that an hour or two of after-school activities supporting diversity and open-minded critical thinking can counteract the 25-30 hours of formalized instruction that is intentionally structured to do the opposite.

If people are interested in thinking about education again, it is worth dispelling a few myths. The salami slices remaining are already carpaccio-thin, while the boulder has remained in place for so long it has become mossy.

Myth: The Åland Islands and Similar Boutique Rationalizations

When working at the OSCE sometime around 2008 or 2009, I recall a discussion with a diplomat who was suggesting that the educational situation in BiH, including the 2-in-1s, was really no different than what one might see in Finland. I have since heard this argument on other occasions. There is a strong desire by apologists for the status quo to compare bad practice in BiH to “good” practice in other parts of Europe. They often point to the Åland Islands, a cluster of islands that are a part of Finland and where the majority of the population speaks Swedish, having enjoyed substantial autonomy since the League of Nations was involved in this dispute following WWI.

Idiosyncratic and essentialist notions of granular “cultural autonomy” seems to be coming back in fashion, and I suspect we’ll hear more about the Åland Islands, and of course South Tyrol. According to this thinking, why not have pockets of schools in BiH teaching according to pedagogy and content inspired by or fully imported from Zagreb, or Belgrade?

As long as there is heterogeneity in BiH then the level of granularity will vary, depending on the aggressiveness of the parties pushing for more sustained division; or the willingness of minorities and “others” to quietly assimilate to the majority worldview; or the simple pace of people just getting fed up and moving to Germany or Sweden where their kids will grow up with far more diversity than in Central Bosnia canton or the eastern RS. One always returns to the Nadrealisti sketch in which regional politics of ever more granular territorial division played out in rooms in an apartment building.

Yet the key to remember is that it doesn’t matter what is done in Finland. What is happening in BiH now is what matters, and the prolonged life of divided schools and “interim” arrangements means that depending on whether a school is using a Bosniak, a Croat, or a Serb curriculum they are learning different histories, different geographies, and different cultural references. Even more troubling, they are learning that the adults around them cannot find a way to live together; they are learning that is it OK not to engage on common facts; they are learning that there is no need to try to engage with one another. Policy attention on narrow-minded instruction and the promotion of various sets of alternative national facts ensure that modern learning techniques, critical thinking, multiperspectivity, and information literacy are sacrificed in the service of contemporary and instrumentalized tribalism.

Myth: If the 54 “2-in-1s” Disappeared We Could Declare Victory

Since the 2-in-1s were set up as a stop-gap to try to end the practice of minority children being forced to study in café bars or garages, and to get them physically into the schools in their community, they have inevitably become emblematic of the ethno-national division in education in BiH. As noted above, journalists report on it, countless studies focus on it, and it is consistently noted in diplomatic reports and statements and communiques.

However, even if these schools – all in the Federation, where sufficient numbers of Bosniaks and Croats made the phenomenon possible – disappeared, the country would still have exactly as much ethno-nationally inspired segregation. The use of three ethno-national curricula would continue; the practice (particularly common in the RS) of having non-majority kids (e.g., Bosniaks) clustered in poorly equipped “branch schools” rather than in the main school would continue; and the practices of kids learning math and science together but separating from one another for the identity-focused subjects would continue.

The morbid fascination with the 2-in-1s needs to stop – it is only the tip of an iceberg.

Myth: It’s About Choice

I remember sitting with a researcher from BiH nearly 15 years ago, who worked with some mixed local/European “think tanks,” as she sought to persuade me that perhaps the 2-in-1 schools were not emblematic of separation and segregation, but were a sign of a vibrant educational ecosystem in which parents had the luxury of choice. This trope is back, but now in the Twittersphere. This holds as much water as arguments that education segregation in the US South during Jim Crow was about the “choice” of white parents. It is not about choice, but is about policy aimed to divide, to “other,” and to separate.

Myth: This is About Language Rights

As so often happens in BiH, political parties and their associated activists claim that they are simply trying to ensure group rights as constituent peoples. In the educational realm, this is often done with a focus on language, as the right to language in “one’s mother tongue” is proclaimed as inviolable. However, the constituent peoples moniker is sufficiently unique to conveniently permit the flouting of minority rights frameworks that exist to minimize the damage that can be done by either allowing for oppression of minority groups, or enabling the ghettoization of minority clusters outside of mainstream society.

For example, in 1996 the OSCE published The Hague Recommendations Regarding the Education Rights of National Minorities. It is enough to read just the very first point to recognize that in BiH it is not an issue of language rights:

“The right of persons belonging to national minorities to maintain their identity can only be fully realized if they acquire a proper knowledge of their mother tongue during the educational process. At the same time, persons belonging to national minorities have a responsibility to integrate into the wider national society through the acquisition of a proper knowledge of the State language.”

Experts largely agree that the language variants spoken by people throughout BiH – formerly called Serbo-Croatian – are sufficiently mutually comprehensible to be variations of the same language. This was of course vigorously contested in responses that everyone in the region could easily read and understand. Variations that exist are, if anything, linked more to regional identity/locale than anything else.

Finally, in addition to being toxic in BiH, the tolerance for such political manipulation has the potential to spread. A few years ago, I spoke with a prominent member of the Serbian community in Novi Pazar, who bemoaned that his daughter could not study her preferred secondary school course in the Serbian language in that city, as it was available only in Bosnian. If such separation-focused policies are legitimized in one country, there should be little surprise if they seep over and are used elsewhere, to detrimental social effect.

Myth: Extra-institutional Projects, Math and IT will be Enough

Diplomats and donors keen to slice away at the salami have initiated countless projects aimed at improving the quality of education, or offering elective extra-curricular opportunities to kids receiving a sub-standard education in the course of the formal compulsory schooling. There is an understandable hope that a focus on quality, and a focus on subjects such as math and IT, will chip away at these issues; that parents, getting a taste of quality education in non-identity subjects, will come to demand similar quality in the more sensitive “national” subjects.

This has been tried for years. Since 2006, the United World College program and International Baccalaureate in the historically prominent Mostar Gymnasium has aimed to demonstrate that a high-quality, diverse, international program within a 2-in-1 would inevitably pull parents to demand the same for their kids. That reform spillover did not happen because policymakers didn’t allow such an outcome. In the mid-2000s, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) sought to incentivize joint learning by providing modern IT curriculum and equipment for mixed-group classes. That did not spill over. From 2016-2018 USAID promoted a STEM initiative, with the assumption that, “Strengthening key STEM competencies among students and their teachers is central to improving the system as a whole.” There is no evident spillover.

There is hope against hope that a handful of extracurricular activities or “pilot projects” will create momentum for broader systemic change. However, there is nothing to suggest this will happen in the absence of more effective pressure on those actors who want to maintain social division. Instead this demonstration of salami slicing can have detrimental effects: it very much favors those geographic locations most targeted by international donors; it allows outside actors to be relieved that they are doing “something;” and it provides external infusions of money to support a status quo that donors purport to want to change. Yet nearly two decades of such engagement have led to no educational breakthrough, and have further cemented BiH’s political dynamics into one that at best resembles a frozen conflict, and at worst is changing the structure of the conflict by actively deepening and compounding social fissures.