As the Irish novelist and poet W.B. Yeats once said: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”. I would add that this “fire” must be constantly nourished and encouraged by those who are in charge of educational policies and education in general. It is strictly responsible and conformable to the people and the states they live in.
The starting point of this consideration is even more reliable and consistent if related to another fundamental aspect of human development: the time dimension. A single human society during history had to develop a strong relation between education and time, but often this connection failed apart, so that society had to face a period of decadence or disappear from human history as such. As the former UN Secretary General K. Annan stated once: “Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family”. It is quite clear that this statement refers to education as a key factor for the sustainable development of human societies. But the development and enforcement of a proper education policy requires time: the time needed to enact not only the rules and the principles governing the process, but also the time needed to take root and establish deeply in a society the convincement that this process is not only the right one but also the only way to favor a general development of all people living in that country.
Now these two dimensions, education and time, may be referred to transition or developing regions and it has become self-evident that this binomial is fundamental and particularly valid for those countries which were affected by interethnic conflicts and are hardly trying to move forward a true reconciliation process and to rebuild mutual trust and knowledge affected by ethnic and religious conflicts. In other words, time and education are fundamental tools to promote a proper and consistent post-conflict reconciliation.
Following the above consideration, we cannot disregard what was going on in Bosnia and Herzegovina and within its educational system during the last few years. Instead of enhancing the principles of equal access to education foreseen by its Constitution and instead of using education as a tool to overcome past divisions and tragedies, several BiH cantons are using educational policy to foster divisions and to build new walls crossing Bosnian society instead of building bridges among its peoples.
In December 2018, on the same day when the world was celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe published a paper named Two Schools under one Roof. This document analyzes and stigmatizes the most visible examples of discrimination in education in Bosnia and Herzegovina, represented by the habit taken by many local competent administrations responsible for education policy at a cantonal level. They made classrooms based on religious beliefs and ethnic differences of the pupils rather than on common and shared educational criteria. Though these classrooms are physically in the same school they often use completely different teaching programmes. This is particularly true and evident for the teaching of history. The teachers and, what is more worrying to me, the books they use are looking at the same historical events not only by different perspectives, which could be enriching if well managed, but giving completely different interpretations of the same events based only on ethnic and religious considerations, what is even worse. Beyond this, they have different teachers claiming also to use a different language. This incredible practice has become common for years since 2014 and, as a matter of fact, currently it is accepted and enforced as a policy at a local level by many cantonal Ministries of Education and politicians in different areas of the country. This happens especially in those regions where the ethnic cleansing of the nineties did not succeed in cancelling the multi-ethnic and multi-religious roots of the country itself.
The OSCE report describes the real state of art about this segregation policy at schools in Bosnia, making a specific referral especially to the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as one of the two administrative entities. The country has been divided by the Dayton agreements in 1995 in two separate administrative entities with one Federal government based in Sarajevo (the other one is the Republika Srpska).
These two documents, the OSCE report and the 1948 UN Declaration, seem not to be connected anyhow, but if we refer them to the two dimensions repealed at the beginning of this article, it is quite clear that time and education are playing a joint role in it. In fact, the 1948 UN Declaration defines education as a fundamental tool to promote “understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups”. Thus, the connection between these two documents exists and it explains the deep difference still existing between the “theory” of education entailed in the Declaration and the “practice” of ethnic and religious segregation at school highlighted by the OSCE report, which seems to be more and more deeply rooted in Bosnian society.
This model, “two schools under the same roof”, seems to be more something borrowed from the South-African Apartheid model or from the US segregation policy of Afro-Americans in the sixties and seventies of the past century, rather than the product of a concrete and consistent process of reconciliation deployed after the atrocities and the sufferings of the war which affected the country between 1992 and 1995.
However, regardless what one could think, this schooling policy is not the product of Bosnian politics itself. It was explicitly foreseen already in 1995 by the Dayton agreements. At that time, it was an expedient devised by the international community and not by the ex-belligerents, to encourage the return of displaced persons to their places of origin by winning, also, the reluctance of parents to send their children to schools in which they were ethnically a minority. In other words, the model “two schools under one roof” provided for separation by “ethnicity” of students attending the same school building and it was promoted by the UN itself and the international community initially rather than by Bosnian politics. At that time, the separation could be implemented or through the division of the premises, or through the rotation of school hours.
This expedient was conceived in a transitional perspective, but it became more and more something rigid and accepted in ethnically mixed areas of the country. The OSCE document recalls a project launched in 2002 and aimed at encouraging the overcoming of this segregationist policy which main victims are and will be the children and all future generations. This project (implemented in the area of Travnik as a pilot) was a complete failure. In fact, nowadays there are still 57 school structures in which this model is put into practice just in this canton, and the school segregation policy on ethnic basis seems to be (re)proposed with new and more effective modalities: the construction of mono-ethnic schools in multi-ethnic areas.
This undermines the very basis of this model’s inspiring the major premise which was, on the contrary, precisely that of bringing the students back to live, even physically, in the same place. At this point we should recall that in some cases this attempt was carried out with the opposition of the pupils and of their parents. It happened in November 2018 in Jajce, where the disapproval of the local community and of the pupils who made a protest, prevented a new school from being established to separate the Bosnian pupils from the Croatian. A protest in Jajce however remained isolated.
Up to my opinion, it is self-evident that there might be a solution of this issue only within political engagement. The other very evident fact is, that this solution cannot be imposed using court rulings. In August 2014 the Supreme Federal Court of BiH ruled as discriminatory the organization on ethnic basis of two elementary schools in the Herzegovina-Neretva canton, but this ruling, even if in some way revolutionary, had not any concrete follow-up at a political level. Politicians in BiH have their own interest to keep separated schooling systems and to go on enforcing the “two schools under the same roof” policy. They don’t do it only for their ignorance or for their contingent electoral calculations, or simply because they are convinced that there would be better solution to keep their control over the citizens, but most probably because their exercise of power is strictly linked to the exacerbation of supposed inter-ethnic differences, which is more evident within the Croat component of the country, which is looking at the idea of separated schooling systems as one of the key factors to get to the creation of the third entity, overcoming the actual administrative division in two entities only. In fact, these signals to overcome this segregation policy are extremely weak, even weaker if we think that educational policy is competency of something as 13 different Ministries of Education (one per canton): in September 2017 the socialist liberal party, Naša Stranka, presented a law proposal at the Federal Assembly and in several other occasion the Social-Democratic party expressed his concern for this policy. So far, the policy is still in force and adopted in most of the cantons where there is an ethnically mixed population and the law proposal was never thoroughly discussed by the Federal Assembly. In other words, the issue of the “two schools under one roof” policy is almost completely absent from Bosnian political debate.
We should also add that this practice has disruptive effects first of all on the quality of teaching, with school programmes tailored on ethnic basis and stereotypes. As UNICEF recently highlighted, the emphasis on differences fomented in school age only adds to mutual ignorance and suspicion, helping to lengthen a distance among ethnic groups, which today involves also young generations, and appear unbridgeable. Politics, as usual, is calculating its risks but it is evident that it is also playing with fire, in a region where very often, during the past history fire was fight with fire. Hatred generates hatred.
Education is a fundamental tool to build mutual trust and comprehension in a spirit of positive reconciliation. This process requires time, efforts and generations to succeed; it is not something easy or automatic. But, if we convey the same divisions and stereotypes which were and are the roots of our conflicts before to new generations using schools as the incubator to do so, then the bridges among communities we try to build are fake and weak, and the whole process of reconciliation can disappear under a new age of mutual distrust and negation of the other.
I would like to conclude this contribution quoting a Nobel prize and one of the greatest Yugoslav’s novelist ever, Ivo Andric. Andric was born in Travnik, in Bosnia, in a mixed Croatian-Bosnian family and he was fully aware of the importance of his mixed roots as well as of the complexity of Bosnian society: “Of everything that man erects and builds in his urge for living nothing is in my eyes better and more valuable than bridges. They are more important than houses, more sacred than shrines. Belonging to everyone and being equal to everyone, useful, always built with a sense, on the spot where most human needs are crossing, they are more durable than other buildings and they do not serve for anything secret or bad”. And what are schools if not bridges?