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Bern takes UN debate to Swiss schoolchildren

The book offers insights into Switzerland's ambivalent attitude towards the UN Keystone

A year before Swiss voters are due to decide whether they should join the United Nations, the educational authorities in canton Bern have produced a textbook which explains the issues to schoolchildren.

This content was published on June 21, 2001 - 14:18

It's the first time that Bern's educational authorities have published literature about an issue that is to be the subject of a nationwide vote.

"We think the question of whether Switzerland should remain the only nation that is not a member of the United Nations is a crucial one for the generation that grows up now and will have to live with the decision", says series editor, Peter Uhr.

The 24-page textbook, aimed at 14 to 16-year-olds, is part of a topical series of books, published by the "Berner Lehrmittel- und Medienverlag" (BLMV), which produces textbooks for the canton's education authorities.

Only a handful of pupils who will be given the book will be eligible to vote in the referendum, expected to be called for June 2002. The voting age in Switzerland is 18.

The first part of the textbook describes the UN, its history and organisations. The second chapter deals with Switzerland's unique - some would say ambivalent - relationship with the world body.

Switzerland, while not being a member of the UN, is nevertheless home to the world body's second headquarters in Geneva. The main office is in New York.

The third chapter tries to explain the complicated ways in which the Swiss have formed their opinions about the UN, most notably during a referendum in 1986 when 75 per cent rejected UN membership.

The section contains an interview with a prominent political pollster, Claude Longchamp, who believes the Swiss are now much more receptive to the idea of UN membership.

"The opening-up of Switzerland is not flatly rejected any more. Also, the UN has shed its image [in Switzerland] of being of no consequence whatsoever."

Uhr says he is often approached by teachers who would like to discuss a topical issue with their classes, but don't have the time to undertake the research needed to present the issue in a satisfactory manner. "That's where we come in - we can provide teachers with material with little additional effort from them."

Neither the UN nor Switzerland's relations with it are part of any school curriculum in Switzerland. But with 470 copies of BLMV's textbook already ordered within a week, Uhr is convinced it will be a success with teachers once the political debate surrounding the referendum begins in earnest, probably towards the end of the year.

Uhr says teachers can run up to six one-hour classes based on the material included in the textbook. It is accompanied by a teacher's guide that contains additional background information and suggestions for charts.

BLMV, a publisher owned by the state of canton Bern and Switzerland's second largest textbook producer, has included topics such as doping, the conflicts in the Balkans, and Switzerland's controversial refugee policies during the Second World War in recent issues of its topical textbook series.

School curricula and textbook publishing, along with all other sectors of the state-run school and vocational training systems, are strictly the responsibility of the cantonal authorities under Switzerland's federal system of government.

by Markus Haefliger

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