Hungarian public education: The beginnings

It is clear from comments to my earlier post on education that people have rather strong views about the kind of education Hungarian children should receive. Some believe in the old-fashioned "Prussian" model that has been the norm in Hungary ever since 1869 when the first education law was drafted. Although Hungarian education underwent many changes over the subsequent 140 years, the Prussian model that emphasizes factual learning and discipline remained its cornerstone. Yes, today most of the children finish high school at the age of eighteen while about a hundred years ago most sons and daughters of Hungarian peasants quit school after four grades at the age of ten. Yes, a hundred years ago most village schools had only one classroom with a single teacher. Today there are very few schools where there are not enough teachers. In fact, the opposite is true: too many teachers for too few children. While in 1910 the student teacher ratio was 67:1, nowadays the trouble is that in certain places the ratio is 14:1. Discipline until very recently was enforced rigorously. Children were supposed to sit in their seats with their hands behind their backs and no spontaneity of any sort was allowed.

Even today there are a lot of people who are convinced that this was and remains a good model and that new ideas about teaching lead to ignorance and sloth. Our academician, Gábor Náray-Szabó, who gave such a bad name to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in an interview that I translated to everybody's delight, said another terribly clever thing the other day. He thinks that no one should be able to matriculate and go on to college unless the student knows fifty Hungarian poems by heart! Obviously his thinking on education is rooted in the Prussian model. Even in the 1950s for the Hungarian language and literature matriculation exams students had to memorize several dozen poems. As if it served any useful purpose. (But wait, here's an old rationalization made new in a poem by an American high school English teacher: "I make them memorize soliloquies, some lines to keep, should they / be taken prisoner, like John McCain, in some foreign jail.")

In the 1870s illiteracy was high in Hungary–over 65%. By 1910 it was only 33% but still lagged behind Western Europe where illiteracy was around 10%. The 1869 law made education compulsory between ages of 6 and 12 or six grades, but most of the village boys and girls left school after the fourth grade and began to work alongside their fathers and mothers. The overwhelming majority of the village schools had only one classroom and children of all grades studied together. If one could call it studying. The teachers in these schools were not terribly well educated themselves. After four years of elementary school and four years of middle school they attended teachers' high school and at the age of eighteen were let loose on the villages. The lower middle class sent their sons and daughters after the first four grades to middle school called polgári. Most of the girls never got any farther. Girls actually couldn't even attend gymnasium before 1891. They could study at home and take exams in the school. Very few did. Those boys who aspired to greater heights after finishing four years of elementary school entered gymnasium of eight years' duration that ended with a comprehensive (matriculation) exam necessary to enter college. Before World War I  2.5% to 3% of students between the age of 10 and 18 attended gymnasium; put another way, 1.4% of the whole population finished high school. That sounds terribly low today, but apparently on the continent only in Germany was the percentage of high school students higher.

After the First World War the structure itself remained the same but more money was spent on education. More than twice as much, mostly on elementary education. In 1919-1920 there were 5,584 elementary schools with 824,454 students while in 1937-38 there were 6,899 elementary schools with 963,087 students. The student-teacher ratio improved greatly: only 48 students were taught by one teacher. Let me add that even in the 1950s in gymnasiums the average class size was over 40. Illiteracy was lowered from 33% to 15% while the number of high school graduates grew substantially. By the 1930s 10% of the children between the ages of 10 and 18 were attending high school. The percentage of those who finished high school in the population as a whole also grew enormously. It more than doubled from 2.6% to 6%. As for university graduates–before the war out of 1,234 Hungarians there was one university graduate; by 1930 the ratio had improved to one in 759. Put differently, in the population over the age of six, in 1930 1.1% had finished university. Again, this sounds very low but if we compare it to as late as 1990 when only 7.6% of the population over the age of seven had finished university, neither the Rákosi nor the Kádár regime could brag about its achievements in this respect.

Finally, one more thing about the educational system prior to 1948, the year of the nationalization of schools. Most of the schools were parochial, and most of the parochial schools were Catholic. Prior to World War I 80% of elementary schools, 64% of gymnasiums and 59% of middle schools were in the hands of the churches. After the war because of border changes the churches' role in education only increased. By 1920 86% of elementary schools were parochial. The situation was the same in other types of schools as well. Despite the government's efforts to establish new state schools, the situation barely changed. There were cities where there was no choice: all high schools were in the hands of the Catholic Church. For example, in my hometown Pécs. Two parochial boys' gymnasiums and one girls' gymnasium. Interestingly enough, prior to World War I there was a state "reálgimnázium" for boys but after the war the school simply vanished.

It was after World War II that a thorough reorganization of the educational system occurred and in 1948 that the dominance of parochial schools was broken. But that is another story.

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“Some believe in the old-fashioned “Prussian” model that has been the norm in Hungary ever since 1869 when the first education law was drafted. Although Hungarian education underwent many changes over the subsequent 140 years, the Prussian model that emphasizes factual learning and discipline remained its cornerstone.”
The Prussian model may not last very long. At first glance, schools looked very much like factories. Big buildings, many people, went there in the morning and come home later in the day. Education was “industrialized.”
For better or worse, with de-industrialization, schools will probably have to change. Educating children in a digital world requires different tools and approaches than those offered by the Prussian model.