To mark the 15th anniversary of International Education Week, I went over to Treca Gimnasia on Monday to talk to students about how important education is to them and the future of their country. I’m sure I didn’t tell them anything they don’t already know. (The fact that teenagers know everything is universal.) Like students across Bosnia and Herzegovina, they all know they desperately need to be part of a modern educational system capable of giving them the skills they need to compete in the global 21st century workforce, while simultaneously instilling values like justice, respect for human rights, and tolerance of diversity. They know that isn’t the system they are living in today.
The challenge is how to reform this country’s education system before these students graduate. It is not enough to apologize to them and hope the system serves the next generation of students better. There are steps that can be taken right now – like developing standards for degree recognition and stamping out the academic corruption that makes it possible to buy good grades or even a diploma.
Then there is the elephant in the room – segregated schools that deny students the opportunity to work and socialize with members of different ethnic communities in the same way students can in other fully-functioning, democratic states. Skeptics say the recent decision by the Supreme Court of the Federation of BiH at least banning discrimination in segregated schools will have no effect. Parents, students, and the communities they are a part of cannot let that happen – the ruling is a small step in the right direction. Not just the practice of having two schools under one roof, but all forms of discrimination, segregation, and forced assimilation of minority students must end – there simply is no place for the ethno-centric narrative in education.
Students in school today need to play together on the playground so they are prepared to live and work together effectively in the multi-ethnic society that is BiH. We hear surprisingly little public debate about education reform, and yet the high schoolers standing in front of me in the auditorium yesterday can’t afford to wait for it.
There is precedent for change. Just look at the integrated schools in Brcko, or the recent development of a common civic education curriculum for all of BiH. In the crafting of an approach to civic education, groups of students, educators, experts, and staff of education ministries were able to find common ground in the way young people in this country learn about democracy and their role in the democratic process.
In support of that curriculum, the U.S.Embassy is donating 23,000 textbooks to schools hard-hit by last spring’s devastating floods. We partner with NGO Civitas to host summer camps, home stays, school exchange programs, and the annual “Project Citizen Competitions” which involve over 40,000 students per year. These initiatives strengthen ties between young people from diverse backgrounds in BiH to increase participation in the development of their country.
In addition to advocating for progress within the education system here in BiH, we provide short and long-term scholarships for students, teachers, academic faculty, and professionals to study in the United States. But international exchanges should complement a student’s education at home, not replace it. So we stand with those calling for curricula based on contemporary standards in education that will foster civic responsibility and reconciliation. We stand with those who have the political will to introduce education reforms that incorporate not only modern science and technology, but interactive teaching methods that engage students, teachers, and parents in the learning process.
As I’ve looked out at audiences at schools I’ve visited recently, I’ve seen a bunch of smart, curious students ready to create a better future for BiH. We can’t let them down.