Schools and Imperial, National, and Transnational Identifications: Habsburg Empire, Yugoslavia, and Slovenia

fundamental project
Basic Info


Schools and nations

Universal compulsory elementary education makes nations; they cannot exist without schools! In fact, mass schooling is perhaps the most important and successful nation-building strategy.

However, while schools can deliberately propagate a certain national or transnational identification, their very structure and daily operation can help create and reproduce a different one. For instance, at the level of ideology, schools can propagate a non-national imperial patriotism or a supranational multicultural patriotism, while in effect they can be producing particularistic national identifications by grouping pupils according to ethnolinguistic categories and/or by employing such categories in textbooks and teaching.

Why the Slovene Case?

Until recently, historians interpreted the emergence of the Slovene nation as a quasi-natural consequence of the pre-existence of the Slovene ethnic/linguistic community. However, recent reinterpretations have persuasively demonstrated that the idea of a Slovene nation only started to appear at the turn of the nineteenth century, and that there was no Slovene ethnic community before that.

Because of that, a reexamination of historical contingencies and agents that enabled the emergence and the evolution of the Slovene nation is necessary! While the role of nationalists and their organizations certainly cannot be ignored and needs to be studied further, a handful of studies have already argued that the states in which the Slovene nation emerged and reproduced itself were also conducive to the formation and consolidation of ethnolinguistic nationalism–often unintentionally and sometimes contrary to their stated goals.

Consequently, schools warrant a new look. Their significance for the functioning of nationalizing states has been known at least since Eugene Weber's seminal book Peasants into Frenchmen. Far less acknowledged and examined is their role in those states that did not define themselves as nation–states and did not aim to nationalize the population. We can nonetheless hypothesize that schools were instrumental in nationalizing the population in those states as well.

Project Objectives

The primary objective of this research project is to analyze how the emergence of the Slovene nation as a viable mode of group building and its continued existence are related to the presence and employment of various national classifications in elementary schools. The project will pursue this goal by analyzing both school ideology and everyday practice in three centuries and three states: the Habsburg Empire, Yugoslavia, and Slovenia.

These are, of course, very different polities, but they have nonetheless taken turns in the role of the framework in which Slovene nationalism arose and evolved in the last two centuries. Analyzing this process in the longue durée is one of the central features of the project. It will enable a comparative approach, where various classifications will be observed and different policies regarding their application and promotion contrasted.

While the research project will focus on the territory of present-day Slovenia, it promises to produce a novel understanding of the role elementary schools—and classification more generally—have in making nations relevant and persistent categories of identification. This will have wider relevance and could be applied to comparable cases.

Project steps

The first phase (months 1-2) will start with a kick-off meeting; afterwards, team members will identify their case studies, review relevant secondary literature, and enter it in the shared bibliographic database.

In the second phase (months 3-16), team members will collect primary sources in archives, libraries, and school museums. Public domain sources will be digitized and published on the web portal SIstory. To facilitate analytical coherence, team members will further develop a common set of research questions. At the end of the second phase, a workshop that will include advisory board members and other outside experts will be organized to refine the research questions.

In the third phase (months 17-32) team members will analyze and interpret their case studies, deploying the common set of research questions and thus ensure comparability of interpretations.

In the fourth phase (months 33-36) team members will be discussing and assessing each other’s work, drawing out comparative conclusions and refining the interpretations for the publication of the results in an edited volume. A second workshop that will again include advisory board members and other outside experts will help team members gather feedback and fine tune the results.

Key links

Research areas
Contemporary history (since 1914) H250