The Tragedy of American Education

By Srdja Trifkovic
Friday, 18 Feb 2011

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"Yugoslavia was created after WWII out of several smaller states, including Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzgovenia and Slovenia," American teens are authoritatively told in state schools. "While Yugoslavia was under the control of the Soviet Union, these conflicts were kept in check by military force. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, new political structures were necessary." Herzgovenia, indeed. It's a tragedy and a farce.

Robert E. Holloway is a high school teacher in suburban Northern Virginia. He is probably considered a decent man by his neighbors, a competent educator by his peers, and a figure of some authority by his students. He is the embodiment of much that is wrong with this country’s education system, however: a bigot, a genocide denier, and a disseminator of falsehoods. He does not even realize what he is—not because he is mad but because he is an ignoramus. Having teachers like Holloway in American classrooms is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.

EPIC IGNORANCE—In the second week of February Mr. Holloway gave his students an assignment on Aristotle’s “Three Points,” and instructed them in some detail on how to proceed:

The recent breakup of Yugoslavia into separate countries provides many examples of the power of this kind of rhetoric. Yugoslavia was created after the second world war [sic!] out of several smaller states, including Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzgovenia, and Slovenia. Within each state there were ethnic and religious minorities with long histories of conflict. While Yugoslavia was under the control of the Soviet Union, these conflicts were kept in check by military force. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, new political structures were necessary, and political opportunities arose for the ambitious. The leaders of various factions, understanding Aristotle’s tlree [sic!] points very well, began to mobilize their followers to war by reminding them of their historical grievances against other groups. Serbian leaders published photographs of atrocities alledgedly committed by Croatians during WWII, reviving a conflict from 50 years earlier. Individuals were inspired through this angry rhetoric to attack, rape, and kill neighbors that had lived near them all their lives, simply because of their ethnicity or religion.

Mr. Holloway’s ignorance is astounding. While causing Aristotle to turn in his grave, it prompts both laughter and tears among the living:

  • Even a modestly informed college-educated American is likely to be dimly aware that Yugoslavia was the product of the First World War and that Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina had not been independent states but Austro-Hungarian provinces before its creation.
  • He is also likely to know that Yugoslavia’s dictator Josip Broz Tito broke away from Stalin in 1948 and that Yugoslavia remained outside the Soviet orbit (let alone Moscow’s “military force”) until its demise in the 1990’s.
  • Even an average reader of a quality daily broadsheet over the age of 40 may recall that the collapse of Yugoslavia was simultaneous with that of the Soviet Union, and not contingent upon it.

Mr. Holloway’s teaching is the equivalent of a Belgrade high school teacher, say, telling his Serbian charges that the United States of America came into being by the merger of the Union and the Confederacy in the aftermath of the Mexican War of 1861-1865, but remained under the British yoke until President Coolidge’s New Deal in the 1940’s.

GENOCIDE DENIAL—The morally outrageous part concerns Mr. Holloway’s dismissive reference to the Ustaša-instigated holocaust in Croatia, a gruesome yet relatively little known chapter of the Second World War which killed, by conservative estimates, half a million men, women and children… “simply because of their ethnicity or religion,” to paraphrase his rhetoric. Try to imagine Mr. Holloway instructing his students as follows: “Jewish leaders published photographs of atrocities allegedly committed by Germans during WWII, reviving a conflict from 50 years earlier” and thus instigating the Jews to commit mass murder, rape, and ethnic cleansing of innocents. Mr. Holloway would be clearing his desk and contemplating a new career in fast food catering by now, and justifiably so.

As I noted in my keynote presentation at Yad Vashem Center’s June 2006 symposium on the Holocaust in Yugoslavia, presided by Professor Yehuda Bauer, the most widely respected living authority on the grim issues of the period,

The number of victims at the Croatian death camp at Jasenovac—the only Quisling extermination outfit entrusted to the locals—is still uncertain. The lowest estimate with any pretense to seriousness—tens of thousands of victims—was made by the late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, famous for saying “Thank God, my wife is neither a Serb nor a Jew.” Tudjman’s “estimate” on Jasenovac fits in with his other assessments:

“In his book Wastelands: Historical Truths, published in 1988, Mr. Tudjman wrote that the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust was 900,000—not six million. He has also asserted that not more than 70,000 Serbs died at the hands of the Ustashe—most historians say around 400,000 were killed.” (The New York Times, August 20, 1995). Other sources provide estimates tens of times greater than Dr. Tudjman’s: “Jasenovac”—entry by Menachem Shelach in Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem, 1990, pp. 739-740—says, “Some six hundred thousand people were murdered at Jasenovac, mostly Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, and opponents of the Ustasa regime.” The Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team estimated “that close to 600,000 … mostly Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, were murdered at Jasenovac.”

So much for the Jewish sources. Let us look at what the contemporary German allies of the Croatian Ustaša regime had to say on the subject. Hermann Neubacher, Hitler’s foremost political expert for the Balkans, in his book Sonderaufrag Südost 1940-1945. Bericht eines fliegenden Diplomaten (Goettingen, 1957, p. 18) wrote: “The prescription for the Orthodox Serbs issued by the leader and Führer of Croatia, Ante Pavelic, was reminiscent of the religious wars of the bloodiest memory: One third must be converted to Catholicism, another third must be expelled, and the final third must die. The last part of the program has been carried out.” [I.e., one-third of cca. 1.9 million were killed.]

In a report to Himmler, SS General Ernst Frick estimated that “600 to 700,000 victims were butchered in the Balkan fashion.” General Lothar Rendulic, commanding German forces in the western Balkans in 1943-1944, estimated the number of Ustaša victims to be 500,000. In his memoirs Gekaempft, gesiegt, geschlagen (Welsermühl Verlag, Wels und Heidelberg, 1952, p.161) he recalled a memorable exchange on this issue with a Croat dignitary:

When I objected to a high official who was close to Pavelic that, in spite of the accumulated hatred, I failed to comprehend the murder of half a million Orthodox, the answer I received was characteristic of the mentality that prevailed there: Half a million, that’s too much—there weren’t more than 200,000!

Julia Gorin reminded us in The Jerusalem Post (Feb. 22, 2010) of some facts of life, and death, in the Croatian state established and controlled by the Axis powers:

Germany entrusted Croatia with running its own concentration camps, without oversight…  Archive photos of sadism that would make horror filmmakers blush survive today: Ustashas displaying an Orthodox priest’s head; an eyeless peasant woman; Serbs and Jews being pushed off a cliff; a Serb with a saw to his neck; and a smiling Ustasha holding the still-beating heart of prominent industrialist Milos Teslitch, who had been castrated, disemboweled and his ears and lips cut off. Italian writer Curzio Malaparte in his 1944 book Kaputt offers this detail: “While [Croatian Fuehrer Pavelic] spoke, I gazed at a wicker basket on his desk which seemed to be filled with mussels, or shelled oysters… ‘Are they Dalmatian oysters?’ I asked. [Pavelic] said smiling, ‘It is a present from my loyal Ustashas… Forty pounds of human eyes’.”

BETTER RED THAN BRAIN DEAD—The Holloway farce brings to mind my own high school education, in Tito’s Yugoslavia, four decades ago. Its diploma—obtained after a grueling final exam known as the Matura (equivalent to Germany’s Abitur, or France’s Baccalaureat)—was the graduate’s entry to university or the civil service. By the time I attended the Tenth Gymnasium, a quarter of a century of Communist neglect was in evidence everywhere. It was nevertheless a very good school. It had a solid contingent of old teachers (then still titled “professors”) inherited from the old times, who firmly believed that their role was to teach, not to interact and connect. They used the polite “vous” form when addressing people half a century their juniors, but had no qualms about telling a wanting student that he was unfit to be in class, or his parents that he was too stupid for the Gymnasium and should transfer to a vocational school instead. The grading system was unabashedly meritocratic, from 1 for “F” to 5 for “A”, and designed with no allowances for social rank or parents’ clout (race, gender, and sexuality were not an issue in those days).

In contrast to the United States, we had a clearly articulated relationship between what is taught and what is tested. The workload was heavy, and necessitated several hours of serious study every day. At the end of it all the Maturant was a jack of all trades and a master of none, just as he was meant to be. He had a solid grounding in most areas once considered necessary for an educated, civilized person, and the assumption was that eventual excellence would be attained in his chosen field of university study.

In practical terms this meant that we all had some idea of what Leonidas did at Thermopylae and what Caesar said at the Rubicon; what was the Protagoras and who was Pythagoras; who was Attila and who was Totila; what was natural law and what was the second law of thermodynamics. Attendance at the symphony orchestra, ballet and opera matinees, every first Sunday of the month, was not obligatory but it was necessary for a good grade in music; and what started as a chore soon became a habit for at least some. Latin was on the whole easy, and making puns—I prided myself on rephrasing Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum by removing the g from “cogito”—was deemed only slightly pretentious.

Some areas of our curriculum were burdened by the veneer of the Titoist brand of Marxism—notably sociology, 20th century history, and modern philosophy—but the stamp was not deeply felt in most subjects. For the most part we had a curriculum essentially similar to the Gymnasiums of Austria-Hungary that provided the model for the Kingdom of Serbia in the 1880s and remained in force ever since. Under this system an ever-present principle, mostly implied and only rarely explicitly spelled out, was that moral and aesthetic norms are not a matter of personal choice. There were “standards” and we were supposed to conform to them, and to accept the lasting norms that antedated and transcended the rules of the current regime. In addition there was the home, and friends, where one could be free.

I have often wondered if the Communists allowed old-style schools to survive by design or by default, and on balance I give more weight to the former. For many middle-ranking apparatchiks having good schools was a personal need: they wanted their own children to be “properly educated,” and, secretly knowing the limits of their abilities, they were loath to experiment with the school system the way they had experimented—with catastrophic effect—with the economy and society. They wanted their children to assume the positions of leadership that they had come to regard as rightfully theirs, and—being largely half-educated peasants—they had enough common sense to find the answer. They intuited that the only way to forge a New Class from their offspring was to combine the usurped privilege of power with the inherited privilege of good education that develops the mind and enhances character.

My high school days came at the tail end of a period of uneasy coexistence between Us and Them, the society and the “comrades.” The schools produced young people capable of thinking for themselves, able to read between the lines of the official media, and at the same time to be unintimidated by “the West” to which they were increasingly exposed. When I took my Matura we had our dreams and we were smarting for action; four decades later we are mostly dispersed over three continents, which is a generational defeat, but we did well conventionally and financially, which is a credit to our long-dead teachers.

Even before the first shots were fired came the destructive reforms of Yugoslav education of the late 1970s and early 1980s, which were inspired more by the fashionable Western notions of egalitarianism and visceral hatred of excellence than by the old Marxist orthodoxy. The reformers of the past two decades have declared that the Gymnasium was an elitist institution incapable of responding to the demands for greater equality of educational opportunity and the growing need for vocationally qualified personnel. It was to become a mass institution, and effectively abolished in the process.

By now Serbia is reintegrated into the “international community” and ready to welcome the creative input of Robert E. Holloway. Going east may be an astute career move for a man of his creative sweep and talent.