Hungarian education and the Hungarian Guard

Interesting that on the same day two university professors complained about the state of education in Hungary. Mária Ormos, a historian, gave an interview in 168 Óra, in which she announced that she would no longer accept any teaching position because teaching had become a frustrating experience. In an op-ed piece in Népszava, Mária Bonifert argued that if Hungary continues to produce ignorant youngsters the country will have a real problem on its hands because they can easily fall prey to extreme ideologies, especially of the far-right variety.

How did this happen in a country that was so proud of its intellectual achievements? These achievements were in part the result of small numbers. Prior to World War II very few people finished high school and even fewer entered university. Therefore it was relatively easy to achieve high standards. After 1950 with the communist takeover, the numbers multiplied but, even so, very few people finished high school and even fewer obtained university degrees. In a country of approximately 10 million, in 1950 only 16,000 students matriculated (and you needed the matriculation exam to enter university) and out of these 16,000 only 4,000, or 25 percent, received higher degrees. Ten years later the number of students who passed the matriculation examination doubled, but still only 6,000 got higher degrees. Slowly, these numbers crept up during the Kádár period but, in comparison to North America or Western Europe, the percentage of Hungarians with university degrees was still very low. Around 10 percent of those over 25 years old.

With the change of regime educational opportunities expanded more rapidly. While in 1990 24,000 students finished university, by 2000 their numbers had doubled. However, while in 1990 for one professor there were only four students, ten years later there were eight students for each faculty member.

But the democratization of university education would not have been a problem if high school education had maintained high standards. Alas, most students leaving the average high school are woefully ignorant. (There are, of course, a few elite schools. Some friends of mine told me that the high school they went to was boringly homogeneous: intellectual parents, about the same income level, large personal libraries, private music and language lessons, a stint in a foreign country to learn a foreign language. However, this is a very small percentage of Hungarian high school graduates.) A significant percentage of them, like elsewhere in Europe and in North America, can barely read and write. They are functional illiterates. And even more lack logical skills.

According to Mária Ormos, the "situation is hopeless. The level of those entering college is tragic. A few years ago if I had thirty students, out of these thirty I could find at least ten who were capable of drawing conclusions based on facts. Today out of three hundred I cannot even find ten."

The title of Mária Bonifert’s op-ed piece is "Fritz, Daniel, and the Hungarian Guard." She tells a story of her encounter in Germany with a group of neo-Nazi youngsters who were demonstrating against globalization. Bonifert went up to them and asked what their problem with globalization was. The answer was: "Because with globalization the foreigners come in." Bonifert rightly points out that these demonstrators don’t have the foggiest idea about globalization or anything else because they are simply ignorant. And here Bonifert and Ormos agree. Ormos also thinks that these university students who are ignorant easily fall prey to extreme right ideology. Both agree that the few hundred youngsters in the Hungarian Guard don’t pose a real danger but "it is a warning sign because after all 25% of the people under forty sympathize with it."  Bonifert also emphasizes that "stupidity and ignorance are a permanent source of danger." Students leave the universities basically ignorant, they can’t find jobs, they become frustrated, and their answer to all their problems is that the structure is rotten and should be destroyed. According to Bonifert, Hungarian students when they leave school are totally unprepared to navigate in the working world. Many of them never held a job, they don’t realize that expectations at the workplace are high. Some of them simply quit. Bonifert, like Ormos, complains of the total ignorance of her students, whether it is history, economics, or the world in general. Someone who cannot quite cope, can’t compete soon enough will blame someone else and will believe anything that sounds good to his ears.

These two college professors didn’t talk about something else that is worth mentioning: many of their own colleagues are also in the far-right camp and therefore most likely they influence their students. This is surprising for someone who studied and taught in Canada and the United States where the universities are, on the whole, liberal institutions and conservative faculty members are in the minority, but it seems that this is not the case in Hungary. Another worrisome development is the ever growing number of parochial schools. The churches’ attitude toward politics is well known and again doesn’t point exactly in the liberal direction. All in all, I’m not optimistic.