Violence Overload? Promoting Sensitivity to Human Suffering: the Case of Bosnia

By Dr. Rob Whiting

This summer the REEEC Curriculum Development Workshop (CDW) focused on the difficult issue of teaching genocide without creating stereotypes.  The Bosnian experience provided the content focus of the workshop.  Over the course of 4 days (June 19-22), the participants wrestled with how to put the events of Srebrenica, Bosnia in context, and how to explain to students why such things happen, without making excuses for the perpetrators.

The workshop began with a presentation and discussion on Sunday evening led by Brenda Trofanenko, an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Culture, Community and Education at Acadia University in Wolfville, NS and a visiting professor at the University of Toronto.   Her talk focused on the challenges of teaching the topic of genocide in a comparative format.  These challenges stem from the dual needs to address genocide as a specific type of event, with a clear legal definition, while at the same time respecting the specific experiences of the communities that have experienced genocide.  All the participants agreed that a key part of the process needs to involve understanding the local and global context in which these events happen, and understanding that genocide is not something separate and unique, but an extreme example of the broader spectrum of human conflict.  The keynote presentation also set the tone for the workshop by making the discussion among the participants a central focus of the evening.

The next three days followed a general pattern of content focused presentations by University of Illinois faculty and students in the morning and working sessions in the afternoon. Elana Jakel, a PhD candidate in the Department of History, researched supplemental readings and other materials provided to the participants. Judith Pintar, visiting assistant professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, presented an overview of the social, economic, and political background to the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and introduced the teachers to various resources available for teaching about the war.  Judith also introduced the teachers to several books, films, and video clips that could be used to teach about the war in Bosnia, and in keeping with the theme of the workshop, reinforced that it was important to use more than one source to present different perspectives.   Richelle Bernazolli, a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography, provided background on the development of international law regarding genocide, and the European Union’s efforts to establish legal institutions to deal with the issue in the future.  She also provided information on the use of propaganda in the Bosnian war, and how it was used to shape the views of both people in Bosnia, and the population of the world about what was going on during the war.  Rob Whiting, a recent PhD graduate from the Department of Geography, and a veteran of the IFOR and SFOR peacekeeping missions, provided background on the International Community’s role in the war in Bosnia, as well as background on why Srebrenica is the only incident from the Bosnian war to be officially recognized as a genocide.

A key part of the workshop’s success was the work of Adam Schmitt, a middle school social studies teacher at Next Generation School in Champaign.  Adam led the afternoon work sessions with the teachers, and kept the morning sessions focused on developing ideas about how to integrate the content into workable classroom materials.  Taking the content of the presenters, and combining it with the input from the participating teachers, Adam developed several lesson plan outlines which were discussed in detail on Wednesday afternoon.  Overall, all the participants felt the workshop was a very good first step in developing useful tools for teachers to introduce students to the particularly complex and difficult subject of genocide in Bosnia.

In order to share this valuable content with a broader audience, REEEC is developing the workshop content for online dissemination.  Stay posted for more information on this exciting project.


As a federally designated National Resource Center, REEEC creates training and educational materials for K-12 teachers and community college instructors. The Center’s programs assist educators in developing standards-based curriculum that is designed to teach students about geography, culture, government, and history through engaging content.  Learn more at

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