Development & Aid, Education, Europe, Headlines

EDUCATION-BALKANS: Darwin Survives, After All

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

Belgrade, Sep 14 2004 (IPS) - Within a few days of declaring that Darwin’s theory of evolution was being banned from Serbian schools, the government has reversed the controversial decision.

”I have come here to confirm that Charles Darwin is still alive,” deputy education minister Milan Brdar told reporters.

Last week, as the school year began, education minister Ljiljana Colic sent a decree to all the schools that Darwin’s theory – about the survival of the fittest – ”was full of voids” and thus should be dropped from eighth grade biology curriculum.

The order said that Darwin might be rehabilitated next year but not to the exclusion of the creationist view.

The 19th century evolution theory of British scientist Charles Darwin says that life evolved over billions of years through natural selection. Man and modern apes share a common ancestor, the theory says.

Creationism is the Biblical idea that God created the universe, including man, in seven days.

Darwin’s theory was the only one taught in Serbian schools for 60 years.

In the Balkans, only Croatia dropped Darwin’s theory from textbooks in 1992, under the pressure of influential Catholic Church. The decision was reversed a year later, due to a strong public outcry.

While education minister Colic remained unavailable for comment, sources close to Serbian government confirmed to IPS that her controversial decision was reversed only after a meeting with Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.

Kostunica’s conservative government replaced a pro-reform one six months ago. The pro-reform government, the first non-communist government since World War II (1939-45), came into power four years ago, after it toppled the decade long regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

Colic’s order to drop Darwin’s theory caused unanimous and unprecedented public outcry in Serbia. Researchers, teachers, Serbian Academy of Science and Arts and some 40 non-government organisations and human rights groups voiced their concern over such a move.

Their efforts were rewarded – and have in fact put the spotlight on Serbia’s educational policy.

University professor of biology Nikola Tucic told IPS that ”teaching biology without Darwin was senseless”, adding that ”Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) clearly had a definite say in this matter”.

”This was an appalling decision,” said Gaso Knezevic, former education minister in the pro-reform government. ”And it was just the tip of the iceberg,” he told IPS.

Under Knezevic, Serbia introduced educational reforms that would synchronise its outdated schooling system with Europe. Nothing had been done in this respect for more than 25 years.

However, all the reforms were suspended by Colic six months ago, after a short span of three years of life.

Among them was the teaching of English from first grade, with modern and sophisticated methods. Instead, religious teaching was introduced as a compulsory subject from the first grade.

”We’re slowly turning into a theocratic state as, in the 21st century, we’re going back to the Bible,” Tucic said.

Colic remained firm in the suspension of English classes, despite criticism from teachers and education groups, who said that ”without English, there is no entrance into the modern world of knowledge”.

Hundreds of English teachers were simply laid off this September due to the suspension of English classes from first grade. English will be taught from fifth grade, with a programme similar to the one dating back to schooldays of first graders’ grandparents.

”This is not about Darwin or English,” former finance minister Bozidar Djelic said. ”It’s about the general direction of education in Serbia. And I know what I am talking about.”

Djelic (40) is a French educated financial expert, with the Harvard doctorate in economy. His parents took him to France when he was 10 and his brilliance pushed him through the top schools in his adoptive country and the U.S.

After having served as an executive for many international companies and as an expert for the World Bank, Djelic returned to Serbia in 2000 to help the first pro-reform government. When his term ended six months ago, Serbia was left with the completely restructured tax system, practically non-existent under Milosevic, and the biggest annual budget in its history of some six billion dollars.

"Beside the profound reform of educational system, which should be synchronised with the rest of Europe, Serbia needs more financing in the field,” Djelic said. ”Some 4.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) goes for education, which is not enough if we want to catch up with the world.”

According to Djelic, only three countries in the region, Greece, Romania and Albania, are spending less on education than Serbia (3.9, 3.1 and 2-7 percent of their GDP respectively). Neighbouring Croatia and Bosnia stand at 4.2 percent, like Serbia.

However, he says, what one should do is to look at Hungary or Israel, where 5.2 and 7.6 percent of GDP are allocated to education.

”Then it will not be about Darwin, religious teaching or making a U- turn to 50 years back,” he concluded. ”The young are able to face challenges here like everywhere else. They just deserve a fair chance.”

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