Remember a decade ago? I barely do, but maybe that’s a good thing. What a mess of emerging zits and self-loathing that time period was. Remember Bosnia, though? Around the time “Rocko’s Modern Life” was popular and the coolest new toy was that Gak stuff that smelled like tuna fish, Bosnia was experiencing a serious ethnic conflict. But according to nearly every cynical columnist in the mid-’90s, the more important issue was America’s relative ignorance about foreign policy.
[yay] “[T]he administration bemoans the isolationists who are now heading congressional foreign affairs panels and the wrongheaded Balkan policies of George Bush,” Michael Moran of The International Herald Tribune wrote in Nov. 1995. “About the only thing both camps can agree upon is the fact that the average American Joe and Josephine Six-Pack, in the vernacular, couldn’t find Bosnia on a map of Bosnia.”
We’ve all heard it: Americans don’t know where Bosnia is, Americans don’t know the difference between Croats and Serbs, Americans’ foreign policy is both horribly ignored and horribly ineffectual… blah, blah, blah. This is in my generation, in my lifetime, but hell if I can tell you more than the barest facts about a crisis that served only to embed one idea in my mind: Americans are ignorant.
Think back over the years. How often did your classes, high school or university, cover Eastern European history? How often was Russia or any of its many former satellites discussed in your ninth grade global studies class? How often are they mentioned now?
“There’s me in the history department, there’s at least one political scientist that occasionally works on it; there are no Eastern European languages, except Russian,” associate professor Keely Stauter-Halsted said. Stauter-Halsted speaks Polish, Ukranian and Russian and specializes in Northeastern European history.
“There’s no money for it, and the excuse that is given for this when it comes up in meetings is that the University of Michigan does have a strong Eastern European studies program. Therefore, we don’t need to,” Stauter-Halsted said.
In order to properly gauge knowledge of Eastern European countries, I decided to conduct a survey. The survey asked five main questions of MSU students:
1) Where is Bosnia-Herzegovina?
2) Where is Germany?
3) What is the capital of Bulgaria?
4) What is the capital of Poland?
5) Who was the president of Yugoslavia until 2003?
Conducting the survey was interesting in and of itself. People sure are eager to take a survey, until they realize it’s a current events quiz. When I gave the survey, groups of two or more people tried to pool answers. Sometimes people would simply circle their major, write their age and hand the quiz back to me.
The results of the survey were not entirely shocking, but a little sad. I gathered 48 respondents for the survey from the lobby and dining area of the International Center. Of those 48 surveys, 17 correctly identified where Germany was. That doesn’t sound too bad until you realize 18 people thought Poland was Germany. Seven people correctly identified Bosnia (the cynical journalists win), 13 people knew Warsaw, nine recognized Slobodan Milosevic (perhaps the most important question) and one person knew Sofia was the capital of Bulgaria. I’m not going to lie – I had to look that one up.
[quiz1] “It made me feel ill-prepared for the outside world,” Kenzie Nargang, psychology junior, said, barely able to suppress her giggling. She, like many of us, had not taken any classes that dealt with Eastern Europe for quite a long time. “I had a freshman class in high school that was kind of geography and would have answered a lot of these questions, but I don’t remember anything from it.”
Across the board, Eastern Europe seems to be getting the shaft. There are no ISS or IAH classes devoted to Eastern Europe or that seem to make more than an extremely brief pass over maybe Russia or Poland. There is one history class, HST 342, which covers the modern history of Central and Eastern Europe. The other class where one might expect to learn about the region is HST 206, which covers European History after 1500.
But if 500 years of history in a geographically large and well-documented region seems rather broad to you, “HST 206 is to introduce students to the modern period of European History. It’s very superficial,” associate professor of history Anne Meyering said. It is a course that’s circulated among most of the European history teachers, and oftentimes the direction of the class is decided entirely by the teacher’s preferences. Meyering’s class, for example, focused greatly on French history because it is her field of expertise. “You can show the main topics of European culture without using Eastern Europe as an example,” Meyering said. “You could teach a course using just Russia or Germany or Austria.”
[yay2] But why care? “A lot of our ancestors come from there. A pretty significant portion of the American population and especially the Jewish population has grandparents that come from Eastern Europe,” Stauter-Halsted said. The Cold War is over, and thawed with it are the decades-long ethnic conflicts in geographically contrived regions such as former Czechoslovakia. Picture something similar to colonial Africa: country lines drawn up in Europe over a century ago with no regard for the people of the area. Under Slobodan Milosevic, there were mass executions of Albanian and Muslim men and rape camps for the non-Serbian women — and thus, the horrors of Bosnia were made. Today, the Serbs, especially in Kosovo, are facing similar, if somewhat less intense, aggression. When you consider the time and energy America has devoted to the Israel-Palestine conflict, the lack of action in Eastern Europe (where many of us have ancestors and where problems are much more volatile) is irresponsible and leaves us perpetually in the dark. These are current events, too.
So, yes, you could go to the University of Michigan and get involved in the rather impressive department there (just as U-M students very well could get involved in our large African Studies programs). But many people are not history majors, and a good deal want to remain here. We’ve all complained about how useless our required ISS classes are, but those are the classes that try to inform you, to spark your interest in politics or just encourage you to pick up a national newspaper once in a while.
Ten years from now, we will probably still remember the smell of childhood toys and the names of Nickelodeon cartoons, and if nothing changes, Bosnia won’t even be a speck of dust in that colorful portrait. As for Eastern Europe, if the university continues to cut key sections from history and our interest, it will remain a blank expanse on our minds’ map of the globe.

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