Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

As Others See Us: Promoting Ethnic Tolerance in the Balkans

In Macedonia, a radical approach to teaching tolerance brings
healing to students who live together but are worlds apart.

July 30, 2008

There are two sides to every coin, or so we're told. But in much of the world, where war, suffering, and hatred have instilled suspicion, mistrust, and fear, this helpful little proverb doesn't get much use. That's because survival depends on clear distinctions (us versus them) and a powerful sense of being right, or of having been wronged -- precisely the attitudes that can make ethnic tolerance pointless, and therefore impossible.

Violeta Petroska-Beska and Mirjana Najcevska wanted to see if they could turn the coin over. Petroska-Beska is a professor of psychology and Najcevska is a professor of law, vocations that serve them well as codirectors of the Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, in Skopje, Macedonia. Like many other Balkan nations, Macedonia is the complex result of clashing histories; since gaining independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, the country has been trying to achieve a cultural balance among its major ethnic components, primarily Christian Macedonians and Muslim Albanians. "Albanians see themselves as being deprived of their own country," Petroska-Beska explains. "On the other hand, you have Macedonians who feel deprived because they aren't recognized as a nation by neighboring Bulgaria and Greece. So both ethnic communities have their grievances, but neither ever thinks of how this division affects the other."

In 2006, the two educators developed an experimental approach to teaching Macedonian history so unusual that it has proved almost as difficult for teachers to accept as it is for their students. Taking an idea that originated in Israel at the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East, and aided by a grant from the United States Institute of Peace, they worked with committed history teachers and colleagues from Macedonia's Institute of National History to develop a framework for introducing high school students to the point of view of the community they had been brought up to regard as "the other."

Balkan Barriers

The need for such an initiative becomes clear immediately if you open any history of the Balkans covering the past thousand years. When you consider that this region was dominated by the Ottoman Empire for five centuries, that the present Macedonia has at various times been commingled with Bulgaria, Albania, Greece, and Serbia, that it's had a series of official languages and two frequently incompatible religions -- Orthodox Christianity and Islam -- you begin to grasp how daring it is for teachers to suggest to students that "we" see things "their" way. To the point that the two groups lived together more or less peacefully, Petroska-Beska responds, "we say there was no conflict, but the two groups were living in parallel worlds. There was no communication. You could find neighbors who were friends, but who had almost no mutual interests."

"Children had absolutely different knowledge of the same things," she adds. "Not the same event from different perspectives, but two different stories altogether." Every phrase here carries its own ethnocentric, emotional payload. For instance, a Macedonian would normally believe that the "Ottoman Empire brought only suffering, nothing positive," she says. "When you talk about Turks, you talk about 'occupation.' But when you talk about Slavs, you talk about 'peaceful settlement,' as if it was empty space they came to."

So Petroska-Beska and Najcevska edited a workbook entitled Narratives in Our Histories. Each page covers one historical event, but one part of the page relates the Macedonian version, and the other tells the Albanian side. They decided on three key subjects: Religions in the Ottoman Empire, Division of the Macedonian (or Albanian) Ethnic Territory 1878-1919, and Macedonians (or Albanians) in the Second World War.

"The point was, we wanted Albanians to see that Macedonians were also divided," Petroska-Beska says. "It's not true that only Albanians suffered for being divided. Macedonians and Albanians were always suffering, and were always victims of the neighboring powers. And they compete for who suffered more."

After students read the two versions of these historical events, they are asked to identify differences and similarities between them. The goal of the project is not necessarily to convince the students to change their minds -- though that would be nice -- but to open their minds even a little to the possibility of another point of view.

History Versus Our Story

The teachers are also divided along the same fault line: There is an Association of Macedonian History Teachers and an Association of Albanian History Teachers. "In Yugoslavia there was one history text that was translated into Turkish and Macedonian and Serbian," Petroska-Beska explains. "This was written by Macedonians and then translated and taught in Albanian. You can imagine what feelings this evokes among the Albanians." Although the history textbook contains sections written by Albanian authors, in practice, Macedonian students are rarely exposed to them.

Not all teachers were ready to change. "It's one thing to develop the lesson, and another to develop the group that can work on it," she says. "We selected ten high school teachers for this program -- half Macedonian and half Albanian. They were paired -- each to write their version and then switch to review the other's. It was harder for Macedonian teachers to digest the Albanian version, because they had never been exposed to it. It was easier for the Albanian teachers with the Macedonian text because they were already more familiar with it."

But this is a radical change in many ways, and change isn't always appealing. "The resistance from students comes from the fact that up until now they aren't trained to work in this way, to compare perspectives and find similarities," says one Macedonian teacher, Dimko Poposki.

"This resistance exists also in the minds of the teachers," says Dragi Gorgiev, from the Institute of National History.

"In my opinion, they don't believe in the method," adds Irena Stefoska, his colleague. "They're not used to teaching history from multiple perspectives. Of course there is prejudice. History teachers live in the same circumstances as others."

"We discuss a lot what 'official' history means," says Besnik Emini, an Albanian teacher. "We don't have independent historians. So in the past, our government paid historians to write official history, not true history. All the school textbooks are based on official history, not on independent research. We don't have historical history -- we have political history."

A Mind Meld . . . Maybe

To get a sense of whether this challenging innovation worked, I go to Gostivar, a predominantly Albanian town southwest of Skopje, where a group of about fifteen students who had participated in the pilot program gather one afternoon at Gostivar High School. The town and school has both Macedonian and Albanian families -- just the kind of environment calling for better relations. But what really put the program to the test was the social pressure the students felt from their own group, plus their knowledge of what their parents thought about the "other."

"Most of the facts we already knew," says Agon, an Albanian teenager who, like all his classmates, speaks fluent English. "There weren't any difficulties with the material, but in an emotional sense there were some."

"As much as Albanians and Macedonians are together, we are apart," adds Kelmend, also Albanian. "We speak together, but not as it should be."

Do they mingle at school?

"We do hang out a lot," says Agon. "Though when we go out, we go out with Albanian friends."

"We keep our distance," interjects Kiril, a Macedonian.

Do any of the Albanians feel they could present the Macedonian version of history now?

"I have a concern how I'd be perceived by the group if I did that," Kelmend replies.

"I don't think it would be appropriate to represent the Albanian point of view," Ljubica, a Macedonian girl, declares.

"We must respect each other because we live in a town with other ethnics," Agon says. "We don't have to love each other, but we can respect each other. We had respect for each other before, but not great respect."

"There's no 'little' or 'bigger' respect," Ljubica shoots back.

"We saw the other side," Agon concludes. "But I think in the end we'll accept only our point of view."

"Just to fill in the other part of the picture," Ljubica agrees. "To complete the puzzle."

Her use of the word puzzle seems to show that she knows not only that the picture is complicated but also that it needs to be complete. If this is no miraculous, sudden understanding of "them," it is an indication that they may be more open to cultural coexistence than might have been true even a few years ago, and that an innovative teaching tool could help reinforce their realization that "they" are not so different.

At this early stage, Petroska-Beska and Najcevska are not unduly concerned about how far these students could go with the new approach. "The process is more important than the product," says Petroska-Beska. "For us, it's enough that they have the space to realize their version of history might not be the whole truth."

Erla Zwingle, a contributing writer for Edutopia, is based in Venice.

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