Textbooks at war:
a few notes on textbook publishing in former Yugoslavia and other communist countries
Miha Kovac and Mojca Kovac Sebart1
In the fifties, sixties, and seventies, Yugoslavia was known as the most liberal barrack in the socialist laager. Many elements of a market economy were introduced, and the idea of ethnic hatred seemed absurd. The country was proud of its multi‑ethnic character and openly declared that ethnic tolerance was one of the cornerstones of its model of socialism. As late as the end of seventies, anybody walking the streets of Zagreb, Belgrade or Ljubljana would conclude that the way of life for the majority of Yugoslav citizens was provincially peaceful, and the living standard was higher and more westernized than in the rest of the communist countries.
Less than fifteen years later, in 1991, the country collapsed into fierce and brutal civil war. The ethnic hatred and the atrocities committed by almost all the sides involved came as a shock, not only to the majority of foreign observers, but also to many of the Yugoslav citizens. In most parts of the country, civility, closely connected with ethnic tolerance and elements of the market traditions, disappeared overnight and were brutally replaced with prejudice, hatred, mass killings and a predatory economy. As a result, with the exception of Slovenia, which was spared the war and became one of the most successful transitional countries, the majority of the former Yugoslav republics are today worse off than they were before 1991.1 Moreover, with the exceptions of Slovenia and Croatia, they proved unable to take care of themselves and more or less became international protectorates.
It is of course very difficult to analyze the reasons for the dramatic downturn. Our intention here is to show that elements of the collapse were rooted deeply in the nature of the Yugoslav society; as a consequence, we are convinced that research into the ephemeral areas of everyday life might help to bring us better insight into the nature of such cultural shifts, as took place in Yugoslavia, than the splendor of high politics.
The Yugoslav textbook publishing industry makes a good example of this point. In order to properly explain its peculiarities, let us start with a short comparison between textbook production in Eastern and Western Europe after 1945. After the Second World War, in the majority of Western European countries, textbooks were produced by privately-owned publishing houses, which competed in their local school markets.2 The nature of this competition
differed from country to country: in some countries, such as Austria, state control and the regulation of textbook market was exercised through approval procedures, which enabled school administrators to check the compatibility of the textbook content with the national curricula and syllabi. Only approved textbooks were allowed to enter the classrooms. On the other hand, in England for example, there was no content‑checking or state‑controlled textbook-approval system, which was more or less a logical consequence of the traditionally decentralized school system and the fact that national curricula had been introduced as late as the 1980s. In short, the level of state control of textbook content differed from one West‑European country to another, in accordance with different educational and publishing traditions. But almost all west European school systems had one important and significant thing in common: there was competition in the textbook market, and teachers, schools or local school districts were able to choose among different textbooks for the same course, regardless of whether the textbooks they used in class had to be approved by the state or not. As a consequence, they were able to choose from not only different educational practices and approaches, but also different textbook content.
It could be said, therefore, that in Western Europe, the models of textbook circulation through school systems differed greatly – but at the same time, the huge majority were decentralized and based on competitiveness and respect of the teacher’s autonomy. On the other hand, in the socialist countries that followed the Soviet model, the situation was just the opposite: textbooks were produced and approved in a strictly centralized manner. As a rule, only one textbook was produced and approved for each course, and the production and editing process usually took place under the sharp eye of the State Committee for Education. In the Soviet Union, for example, each textbook was translated into the fifty‑three languages officially spoken in the country, and all who taught the same course had to use the same textbook, whether they were in Moscow, Alma Ata, or Tallin.3 Furthermore, the content of Soviet textbooks was defined by the syllabi and, when written, they were strictly surveyed and ideologically checked by the adoption committee. In short, the content of Soviet and East European textbooks could be considered to be a compulsory operationalization of syllabi.
In other words, in Eastern European school systems there was a very high level of normative control over the content of teaching, which allowed the authors of textbooks very little autonomy. The possibility of writing more than one textbook for each subject was therefore excluded from scratch by the very nature of the school systems, and, as a consequence, competition in the textbook market was literally impossible. Bearing in mind the fact that official communist ideology considered market competition as a symbol of Western decadence, such an attitude towards the supply of textbooks is not surprising, and was in accordance with the general organization of economic life.
This mode of socialist textbook production – as Marxists might call it – had one significant and outstanding exception: the Yugoslavia of that time. There is, of course, no doubt that the Yugoslav political system had all the main features of the communist regimes of the time: it was based on the belief that private ownership and representative democracy were two symbols of the social inefficiency and unfairness of Western civilization. But this is just one part of the story. At least two important features distinguished Yugoslav communism from other East
European communist models. First, there was no central planning and the companies enjoyed a much higher level of autonomy than in the rest of Eastern Europe: as a result, the Yugoslav economy showed better results than other socialist economies. Second, Yugoslavia was a culturally-differentiated and politically-decentralized country, consisting of six republics with a relatively high level of cultural and political autonomy. Slovenia and Croatia, with their predominantly Catholic and Austro‑Hungarian cultural backgrounds; Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia with their orthodox traditions; and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as an incredible mixture of Catholic, orthodox, Islamic, Arab, Turkish, and Jewish influences, were all too complex culturally to be efficiently run through the relatively primitive command system of central planning – and the Yugoslav communists were pragmatic enough to know this. One of the main reasons for such pragmatism was, of course, the balance of power among the Yugoslav republics: what distinguished Yugoslavia from the Soviet Union was the fact that no a single republic was big enough to exercise political, cultural and economical domination in the federation, as was the case with Russia in Soviet Union. In the second half of the eighties, one of the main generators of Yugoslavia’s destruction was Serbia’s attempt not only to dominate the Yugoslav federation, but also to exercise a kind of cultural hegemony over the rest of the ethnic and national communities in Yugoslavia. The fierce and cruel destruction of the country could be considered as the final proof that the fragile balance of power in the federation didn’t allow for such domination and homogenization.
The textbook publishing industry played a significant part in this political and economic power game. In Yugoslavia, as in any other communist country, strict control over textbook production was exercised, and the rule that only one textbook for each course should be allowed to enter the schools had to be strictly obeyed. In other words, as in the rest of Eastern Europe, the syllabi of all the Yugoslav republics had in common the fact that the content of all subjects was meticulously prescribed by the state; and, as in the rest of Eastern Europe, the possibility of writing more than one textbook for each subject was excluded from the get‑go. However, there was one outstanding difference to the eastern European norm: the responsibility for the creation of syllabi and textbooks was shared among the federal and republican bodies, in a way that the majority of textbooks and syllabi were prepared at the republican levels, and then ‘harmonized’ by the federal bodies. Moreoer, in socialist Yugoslavia, there was never a central textbook publishing enterprise, and textbooks were not translated into local languages and then used in schools throughout the country. Or, to put it the other way around, in socialist Yugoslavia, there was a long tradition of differentiating and conforming the syllabi and textbooks to local cultural circumstances.
Such tendencies were reinforced in 1970, when all the federal education bodies were abolished and the control over the school system was left completely in the hands of the federal republics. The reasons for this reinforcement of decentralization could be found not only in the cultural heterogeneity of the Yugoslav federation, but also in the political conflicts that took place in the Yugoslav Communist Party. In the sixties, the political and economic liberalization of Yugoslav society crashed into its inner limits: in the economy, strong tendencies appeared towards more private property and a higher level of autonomy of the economic sub‑system. On the other hand, claims for r political freedoms and cultural autonomy were heard all over
the country.4 Especially in the Socialist Republic of Croatia, a social movement claiming more ethnic and national autonomy for Croats in Yugoslavia gained momentum,. It therefore became clear that Yugoslav communists had only two possibilities: either to go on with reforms, and, at the end of the day, due to the further liberalization of the country, lose an important part of their power, or stop political and economic liberalization and restore their almost absolutist power in society The ruling communist elite opted for the second possibility: in 1970, President Tito purged the majority of political leaders who were in favor of greater economic, political, ethnical and cultural autonomy. But, being a political genius, he exercised his coup in a rather paradoxical way: On one hand, he stopped further democratization of the country in a way that any expression of dissonant political voices became criminalized; on the other hand, this strict authoritarian attitude was softened through the incorporation into official party doctrine of some of the ideas of the sixties. As a consequence, after 1970, the official party line was a strange amalgam of communist orthodoxy and liberal ideas. Claims for more cultural, ethnic, and national autonomy especially became part of the vocabulary of Yugoslav communists. In other words, the decentralization of the federal school system and the subsequent decentralization of textbook production was part of the attempts by the Yugoslav communists to stop liberalization of the country and restore their power through its redistribution from federal to local bodies.
It is worth mentioning that important parts of the Yugoslav political elite didn’t consider this decentralized state of affairs in the educational system as normal, and as early as mid‑seventies claimed that at least parts of the syllabi and textbooks should be common throughout Yugoslavia. For the teaching history and literature, for example, a model was proposed which would establish a relation between the size of different Yugoslav nations and the content of common Yugoslav syllabi and textbooks, in a way, for example, that Slovene history should represent only ten percent of the syllabus due to the fact that Slovenes represented only ten percent of the Yugoslav population. On the other hand, as the Serbs represented the greatest part of the Yugoslav population, such an education model would establish strong Serb cultural domination throughout the school systems throughout the territory of Yugoslavia. From the Serbian point of view, such claims for centralization in education were not driven only by the Serbian wish to culturally dominate the whole of Yugoslavia, but also by their anxiety that in decentralized Yugoslavia, Serbs would be transformed into an amalgam of minorities, dispersed through federal units, and would at the end of the day have even less power than other Yugoslav ethnicities and nations. Such anxieties were generated by the fact that the Serb population was dispersed throughout Bosnia, Croatia and Montenegro, and at the same time Serbia was faced with significant Albanian minority that was experiencing an exponential demographic growth. As a consequence, in the mid‑eighties, the majority of Serbs started to consider such a state of affairs as something that was changing Serbs into an ethnic minority in the territory of their own
republic. In short, in Serbia the minimization of the role of the federal republics and the further centralization of the country was considered to be one of the pre‑conditions for establishing an order wherein the Serbs could transform themselves from the minority nation in the majority of Yugoslav federal republics into a ruling elite in centralized Yugoslavia. It should be stated, therefore, that President Tito’s tactic of pacifying Yugoslavia after the outburst of crisis in the end of sixties faced strong, silent opposition in Serbia, and due to the fact that explicit expressions of dissatisfaction with official party line were not permitted throughout the seventies, discussions about the organization of education became one of the surrogates for open political discussion about the structural problems of the country.
At this point, it is worth mentioning that ideas concerning the centralization of education could be considered as an echo of the attempts of 1922, when a Yugoslav school minister started the unification of syllabi and tried to establish the Serbian school model as mandatory across the whole country. But there was one important difference between school antagonism in the first and second Yugoslavias. In the first Yugoslavia, supporters of school centralization could be found in Slovenia, where so‑called liberal political parties considered a centralized education system under strong Serbian influence as a kind of counterweight against the attempts of the Catholic Church to reinforce their domination in schools. Fifty years later, one of the main advocates for harmonized syllabi were parts of the ruling faction in the Croat communist party, who found themselves caught between silent popular unrest after the crash of democratization processes and the Croat nationalist movement in 1970, and those who considered further centralization of the country and close co-operation with Serb centralists to be one of the models for stabilizing their power. On the other hand, in Slovenia, throughout the twentieth century, the supporters of a unified federal education system became extinct, and with an exception of a few minor party officials, nobody supported greater centralization of the school system. Even more, claims for the unification of education caused a big furor in the Slovene intellectual elite, which considered harmonized syllabi and textbooks as a direct attack on the Slovene national identity, claiming that such attempts would, in the long run, substitute different national identities with an artificial Yugoslav identity. Rather surprisingly, leading party officials cautiously followed in their footsteps, and as a result, in Slovenia, the idea of harmonized syllabi and textbooks for the whole Yugoslavia was unanimously rejected. Furthermore, at the beginning of the eighties, following this wide dissatisfaction with centralization in education, an assembly of the Socialist Republic of Slovenia recalled the mandates of its representatives in the ‘Inter‑republican Commission for the Education Reform’, which was established in 1976 to conduct the harmonization of the content of the syllabi. Due to the fact that such federal bodies could not work without representation from all federal units, this commission ceased to exist and the process of the implementation of centralization of education throughout Yugoslavia was stopped. The Commission for Education Reform could therefore be considered as the first Yugoslav federal body that fell apart because of the incompatible viewpoints and interests of twoYugoslav republics.5
From this point of view, discussions concerning the harmonization of the Yugoslav school system and textbooks could be seen as the first and clear indication of the hidden forces
that destroyed Yugoslavia: something that in Slovenia was considered to be a direct attack on Slovene national identity, was in Serbia considered not only as a protection against the disintegration of Serbian identity in Kosovo, but also as an attempt to ascribe to the Serbs the role they should have in that throughout the Yugoslav territory, they represented the most significant section of the Yugoslav population. It is therefore not surprising that the ‘education conflict’ between Slovenes and Serbs was just the first sign of the outburst of fierce Slovene‑Serbian conflict that started to dominate political life in Yugoslavia in the mid‑eighties and was one of the many generators of the war in the nineties. In addition, the debate about the organization of education significantly affected further political developments both in Serbia and Slovenia: being put into the position of an endangered minority, Slovenia defended its claim for the respect of ‘localized’ education with claims that the differences in the Yugoslav federation should be respected. At the end of the eighties, throughout further conflicts with Serbia, Slovene claims for respect for differences and the individuality of Yugoslav nations and ethnicities evolved into a new political discourse, which claimed respect of individuality of each human being as the basis of national freedom. In short, in Slovenia, throughout the defence of ethnic rights, the doctrine of human rights and representative democracy evolved, and became an inseparable part of the conception of national freedom. On the other hand, the Serbian attitude that their ethnic and national problems could be resolved only through remodeling Yugoslavia according to Serbian needs, evolved into aggressive nationalism that at the peak of Milosevic’s power completely neglected not only respect for ethnic differences in Yugoslavia, but also the doctrine of human rights.6
The further development of the textbook industry was highly dominated by these forces. In Serbia, after the clash with Slovenia, the idea of common syllabi for the whole of Yugoslavia was rejected. Instead they focused on their local circumstances, trying to cut the school autonomy of Kosovo and further centralize textbook production. However, in Slovenia, a further decentralization of textbook production took place. Already by the sixties, textbooks were being commissioned and edited by the State Institute for Education, but printed and distributed by various Slovene publishing houses. At the beginning of the eighties, a decision was taken that all textbook production should take place in six different publishing houses, and the role of the state institute should be minimized -- it should organize only approval procedures and advise authors and publishers on the process of writing and editing textbooks. Furthermore, by the second half of the eighties, Slovenia had begun to change its school system towards allowing teachers greater autonomy. As a result, the nature of the syllabi started to change and the idea that teachers should have the opportunity to choose among different textbooks for the same subject won ground. Due to the fact that knowledge about textbook production and distribution was stored in six different publishing houses, the transition to production of competitive textbooks for each course was much easier than in the rest of socialist countries, where there was only one textbook producer. As a result, despite its tiny market of 2 million, by 1996, there were 51 textbook publishers in Slovenia and, in primary education at least, fierce competition among textbooks for the same course. In the rest of what was once Yugoslavia, serious competition in the textbook market still remains unseen.
To summarize, the Yugoslav textbook industry was a strange mixture of East‑European centralized and West‑European decentralized practices in textbook production. This mixture was a result of the very nature of the Yugoslav school system which imposed centralized control over the content of teaching in a decentralized way. As the country started to fall apart, its school system disintegrated into its East/West constitutive parts: as we have seen, in Serbia, the system remained centralized, with strong state control over textbook content; and in Slovenia, compulsory and state‑prescribed syllabi were replaced by weaker teaching standards and criteria. This shift decentralized the system, began to allow autonomy for the teacher, and created room for competition in the textbook market.7
As such, the story about the disintegration of the Yugoslav school system could be seen as a clear indication that the character of the textbook-publishing industry is highly determined by the nature of the education system: the production of textbooks, based on competition and private initiative, is possible only in an environment where there is no or little direct, and strict, state control over the content of teaching. Furthermore, the short comparison between Eastern European, Western European, and Yugoslav models of textbook production showed that throughout the twentieth century in Europe, state control of the production and distribution of textbooks differed significantly. Due to these differences, it seems to be impossible to create a model of a communication circuit for a textbook that will be valid for all times, places, and spaces. Even more, any attempt to understand the pedagogic disputes on the content and production of textbooks should not avoid the analysis of those cultural tensions and values that, as a hidden hand, shape not only different educational systems, but also the political and economic lives of different societies and states. Such an approach seems to be even more important in totalitarian and authoritarian states, where open discussion concerning political and cultural conflicts is not allowed. In short, in the case of Yugoslavia, the changes in the mode of textbook production that occurred after the disintegration of the country seem to be one of the tools useful not only for analyzing the differences of the role of textbooks in different educational systems, but also for following the logic that destroyed the country. From the textbook researcher’s point of view, this picture, of course, could not be completed without additional research, centered not only on the production of textbooks, but also on different national self‑images, as they appeared in the historical and mother-tongue textbooks in different Yugoslav republics after 1945. In other words, what still needs to be done throughout the remainder of former-Yugoslavia is to answer the following question: whether its textbooks were not barriers of segregationist and non‑tolerant values that caused parts of its population to act in totalitarian ways that caused the biggest human, social, political, and cultural tragedy in post‑WWII Europe.
1. A sporadic but illuminating account of Slovenia’s transition can be found in J. Stiglitz (2002) Globalization and its Discontents (New York and London: W. W. Norton), pp. 133–195.
2. Information on textbook publishing in Western Europe can be found in O’Donnell, S., Greenway, E., Le Metais, J., Micklethwaite, C. (2002): International Review of Curriculum and Assessment Frameworks: Comparative tables and factual summaries – 2002 (eighth edition) London: Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and National Foundation for Educational Research. See also The Information Network on Education in Europe http://www.eurydice.org/
3. For textbook publishing in the Soviet Union see H. Mehlinger (1991) American Textbook Reform: What Can We Learn From Soviet Experience. In P. G. Altbach et al. (eds), Textbooks in American Society (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press).
4. After 1989, many books were published on the fall of Yugoslavia and on Yugoslavian history. In English, two of the best known are The Death of Yugoslavia (London: Penguin Books 1996) (edited by Laura Sillier et al), and Benson, L (2001): Yugoslavia: A Concise History (Palgrave Macmillan). For those reading Italian, we would recommend two books by Italian‑Slovene historian Joze Pirjevec, La Guerre Jugoslave 1991‑99 (Einaudi 2001), and Il Giorno di San Vito: Storia della Yugoslavia (RAI‑ERI 1999).
5. This reconstruction of ‘educational conflict’ was written on the basis of research conducted in the National Archives of the Republic of Slovenia and conversations with the participants in the events.
6. An interesting analysis of Serbian nationalism can be found in B. Anzulovic, Heavenly Serbia: From Myth to Genocide (New York, London: New York University Press, 1999).
7. To understand the nature of Slovene school reform, it is worth taking a look at the White Paper on Education m the Republic of Slovenia, published (in English) by the Ministry of Education and Sport, Ljubljana, September 1996. Both authors were partially involved in these processes. Mojca Kovac Sebart was one of the co‑authors of the White Paper and wrote a book on Slovene school reform. Miha Kovac was editorial director of Mladinska Knjiga, the largest Slovene publishing house, and has written a book on the history of Slovene book publishing. They now both work at the University of Ljubljana and are participating in a research project on Slovene textbook publishing. They also worked as consultants in the school reform that took place in Montenegro after 1999.