I just came across a recondite essay by the Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon on the portrait of dysfunction that is the post-war education system in Bosnia.

A 2004 MacArthur “genius” fellow, Hemon is the author of The Lazarus Project, an autobiographical novel about a writer who emigrated to the U.S. from Sarajevo during the 1992-95 conflict. Years later, married and living in Chicago, Brik becomes obsessed with telling the story of another immigrant, Lazarus Averbuch, who escaped the 1903 pogrom in modern-day Moldova for Chicago, where he is soon shot dead by the police chief under mysterious circumstances.

I read Lazarus on a break during graduate school a couple years ago. Hemon’s conversational voice and narrative powers – not to mention his poignant portrayal of the immigrant experience – were a welcome break from the academic texts piling my floor.

In “National Subjects,” Hemon brings the same gifts to the ethno-politicization of Bosnia’s education system. This includes school segregation, an under-reported problem that many Balkan experts say threatens the future of multiethnic Bosnia.

For this Hemon blames the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords. His argument is nuanced, but the central point is that Dayton created an ungovernable country that, ironically given its intensions, has become an incubator of institutionalized nationalism among the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim), Croats and Serbs.

Dayton decentralized post-war authority between two entities – the Croat and Bosniak Federation and the Republika Srpska – a tripartite presidency, and municipalities. But what was intended as a power-sharing framework led to a bloated bureaucracy where nothing gets done.

“… once six-months worth of Parliamentary debates was devoted to the size of letters on the cover of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian passport,” Hemon writes.

This gave rise to nationalist leaders who neither believe in nor want an integrated Bosnia rather than statesmen. For what is the role of the statesman in a fiat state?

Hemon connects the dots to education:

As elected bureaucrats they undermine the state they’re supposed to work for. If this centralized chaos … is to operate legitimately as state politics, all integrationist impulses would have to be quenched. All forms of identity other than ethnic would have to be vanished, so as to allow the rise of the perfectly ethnicized subject, who would never wish to be a citizen demanding from the government what ought to be his or her basic rights. The process of ethnic training begins early and never ends.

Under the “two-schools-under-one-roof” policy, in some parts of Bosnia children of different ethnicities study in the same building, but they are segregated into different classrooms – often right after playing together before first bell – with different texts. They’re even bused separately.

This sounds alarmingly similar to Jim Crow in the American south of the 19th and 20th centuries. But “two-schools-under-one-roof” is purely regressive: While young Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs study separately today, their parents did not.

Even integrated schools like Alija Nametak in Sarajevo are de facto segregated, Hemon notes. Most of the students there are Bosniak. In any case, once students reach fifth grade the so-called “national group of subjects” – covering everything but math and science, essentially – are taught separately.

… a hypothetical, integrated class consisting of Bosniak, Croat and Serb kids would break apart each time a history class, say, is scheduled – the three ethnically identified classes of ten-year-olds would be taught three different, quite possibly mutually exclusive, histories of their pitiable homeland.

If education is integral to citizenship, as Hemon argues, then what kind of citizens will emerge from Bosnia’s education system? Though the author interacted with students on visits to several schools, he didn’t evidently interview any – but he is nevertheless pessimistic.

The nationalists who represent the constitutive peoples want and expect national subjects, not citizens. They want children to come out of the rickety educational machine equipped to think of themselves exclusively within the framework of their ethnicity. Their individuality is superseded – politically, legally, epistemologically – by the nation. There is little space for “I,” only for “we.” What we expect from education is the unquestionable, unimpeachable, self-evident “we” and, consequently, “they.”

And therein lies the problem.

Photo of school children in Bosnia from Danielle Aspegren/Flickr

S. Adam Cardais

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Email: adam.cardais@tol.org.

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