The Image of the ‘Other’/the Neighbor in the School Textbooks of the Balkan Countries

by Fotini I. Toloudi

The proceedings of the international conference on ‘The Image of the "Other"/The Neighbour in the School Textbooks of the Balkan Countries’ concluded that there is a need for substantial intervention in the school textbooks of the Balkan countries in order to mitigate national prejudices and thus encourage the peaceful co-existence of the various peoples. The conference was held in the Aristotle University, Thessaloniki, from 16 to 18 October 1998, and papers were read by academics and educationalists from all the Balkan countries and from Europe.

The purpose of the conference was to examine school textbooks (mainly history, but also language books) in the Balkan countries and determine what sort of image they present of neighboring peoples and what sort of image they help to create. It is considered generally important to investigate the image of the ‘other’, on the one hand because it plays a part in the development of a student’s national identity[1], and on the other because it may play a part in the quality of the future relations and general co-operation between the Balkan peoples. The purpose of the conference was to investigate: i) how historical circumstances and political priorities influence what the books have to say about neighboring peoples; and ii) how far what they say perpetuates political rivalry and a hostile climate in the Balkans. The event was jointly organized by the School Textbook Research Unit, Department of Education, Faculty of Philosophy, Aristotle University; the Georg-Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research, Braunschweig; the UNESCO Center for Women and Peace in the Balkan Countries; the Balkan Society for Pedagogy and Education; and the Goethe Institute, Thessaloniki.

The presentation of the views that were expressed and the debate that developed as the conference went on was somewhat selective, but also, as far as possible, representative. In most cases, the general framework of the specific research projects and the general observations that the conference members put forward were uninfluenced by their national identity. The exception was the conclusions about the image of the Serbs presented in Croatian schoolbooks: the Serbian delegate maintained that the Croatian books treat his fellow Serbs as enemies, while all his Croatian colleagues believed that their books present the Serbs as brothers. In all other cases, all the researchers reached more or less the same conclusions regarding nationalities and books.

Two initial findings emerged from the investigation of the textbooks: i) there are consistent national stereotypes all over the Balkans; and ii) excessive attention is paid to wars and related events. The main proposals that were put forward with regard to intervention in the content of the school books concerned precisely these two issues. Specifically, it was proposed that denigratory comments about neighboring peoples should be expunged and references to the events of war be cut down.

As far as the first point is concerned, the research has concluded that the national stereotypes in the Balkans share certain constants, and essentially all that changes is the name of the ‘other’ to which they are applied. In most cases, each nation-state presents its own members as a ‘chosen people’, heroes or victims in relation to the ‘other’. Thus, for instance, Serbs hate Croats and vice versa; Moslem Albanians hate Moslem Turks, to differentiate themselves in ethnic terms; Greeks hate the unsophisticated or barbaric Turks; Turks hate the scheming, arrogant Greeks... Also, references to minorities are comparatively fewer than references to neighboring nations.

The second point is not unconnected with the first, for it is the existence of national stereotypes that has led to the writing of a history that consists of conflicts and wars. Wars and battles dominate most of the school textbooks, and exaggerated emphasis is given to them. War is presented as a heroic epic, cosmeticized, and held up as a means of gaining liberation. The damage done by military campaigns is not adequately discussed, nor is there any mention of how ordinary people view the role of war. This overemphasis on war keeps nationalist sentiments alive and perpetuates the political tensions in the region.

All the speakers stressed the need to find solutions that will help to defuse the tensions created and sustained by the school textbooks. However, some of the delegates were rather cautious and skeptical in their response to certain solutions that were proposed–such as that the references to war should be heavily pruned and replaced with factors that unite the various peoples (cultural characteristics, for instance, folk dances, and so on). The reason for this was that the political climate in the Balkans in the last decade has been such that the professional integrity of both historians and teachers has been severely tested. The Bosnian delegate, for instance, pointed out that it is just as impossible for historians and teachers to respond to a ‘Pedagogy of Peace’ as it is for schoolchildren to accept a different perception of Serbs, Croats, and Moslems. The scars left by the civil war are still raw and the school textbooks are perpetuating the climate of tension because most of them were written during the war and have not yet been replaced. Bosnian teachers have a particularly difficult role to play, because in most cases their professional integrity is simply unable to transcend the memories of the conflict, which are still too fresh in their minds. So children learn that the ‘bad neighbor’ is the Serb or the Croat living within the same country.

Further reservations about cutting down references to war were expressed by the Turkish side. The Turkish academic felt there was a risk that the absence of such references might lead to a historiographical subculture. Both the Turks and the Greeks, he said, particularly those from Asia Minor, are entitled to receive accurate information about the history of the wars between them; so he proposed, instead of excising references to wars, that an assiduous analysis of both war and peace should be given. In the case in point, however, this would seem to be a rather utopian aspiration, since the guidelines for compiling Turkish school textbooks come directly from the Foreign Ministry, with the result, the Turkish academic said, that thirteen-year-olds have strongly nationalistic feelings.

As a number of speakers pointed out, the development of a different perception of cohabitation in the Balkans is not only a matter of wiping out prejudices and reducing the number of references to war in school textbooks. The attitude of the mass media, political priorities, and historical circumstances are equally important factors and either help people to live together or encourage rivalry and reinforce prejudices.

All the same, as far as the part played by schools in developing social and political awareness is concerned, all the speakers without exception stressed the need for intervention in the textbooks in order to implement a pedagogy of peace; and the large audience was enthusiastic in its approval. One indication of the importance the Balkan academic communities attach to the role of school textbooks is the fact that not only are similar research programs under way all over the Balkan Peninsula, but applications have been made for even more. Efforts to date have resulted in major interventions in the content of some Bulgarian and Croatian books and the organization of scientific conferences on similar and related subjects.

Other alternatives proposed during the conference included: i) that a book of Balkan literature be written and used in all the Balkan countries (the proposal came also from the Greek Undersecretary to the Prime Minister, Mr. G. Paskhalidis); ii) that the history textbooks and the national history of each country be rewritten, focusing on a broad presentation of the cultural past, so that each nation can find alternative solutions to the question of its identity by discovering what it has in common with its neighbors, rather than what divides them; iii) that the role of the West Europe in Balkan history be redefined, and at the same time the history of Western culture be organically incorporated into the history of the East European countries; iv) that the way in which history is taught be changed and the teachers trained accordingly; v) that there be more frequent educational contact; vi) that psychologists, educationalists, and sociologists be involved in deciding the content of school history books so that these will answer their new pedagogical purpose; and vii) that an inter-Balkan scientific organ be set up for the purpose of studying, inter alia, controversial historical issues.

Despite all the feverish research that has been going on in this context all over the Balkans in recent years, the political influence of the scientific community extends only to the point where political volition begins. Because to change the way a people is perceived or approached is a political matter. At all events, the efforts made by scientists depend on the degree of approval they receive from the political leadership of their country; and this approval is influenced both by the current political situation and by historical circumstances. Scientists cannot draw up foreign policy guidelines. However, inter-Balkan scientific concord and persistent pursuit of the issue of changing the content of school textbooks in order to cultivate patriotism and not chauvinism can go some way towards securing, if not coercing, the necessary political volition.


1. National identity is formed in relation to the 'other' and evolves in comparison with the 'other'. [back]


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