Hungarian public education: 1945-1956

First a few words about the war years, especially 1943 and 1944. Although the Soviet troops were still nowhere and Hungary was not yet a battlefield, the education of children was not without its problems. During 1943 Hungary was the target of aerial attacks so attending school wasn't always easy. In Budapest, for example, the "siege" lasted for months; most people were happy to survive in bomb shelters. And when there was door to door armed conflict, going to school was out of the question. Even in cities where the German takeover was relatively easy, with armed opposition lasting only a few days, schools were closed for the first semester of the 1944-45 academic year. No teaching, no grades. And what was especially academically damaging was that many school districts didn't insist on repeating this term. They simply passed students on. This was especially harmful to students in the lower grades.

Where the fighting was intense, schools were not spared. Across the country sixty percent of the high schools were damaged and about half of the elementary schools. Two thousand schools were very heavily damaged. Although repair began immediately, over 800 couldn't be used as late as 1947. There was not only damage to the buildings; often such items as desks, books, and lab equipment were gone.

In spite of these difficulties the coalition government launched the democratization of the school system because in the years prior to 1945 the school system was effectively organized along class lines. The lower classes (mostly peasant boys and girls) attended the six-grade elementary schools, the lower middle-class the "middle schools" (polgári), and the children of the middle- and upper-middle-class attended gymnasium between the ages of 10 and 18. This system was immediately changed with the introduction of eight years of "general school" (általános iskola) and four years of high school that could be either gymnasium or teachers' high school. Later the ministry here and there tinkered with the system, but the formula of 8 + 4 has remained to this day.

Educational reform got off to a rough start. In the first couple of years the change was often merely a difference in name. It didn't matter what the old one-classroom village school was called; basically it remained the same old village school. It didn't matter what the law said about the educational attainment necessary for teachers in the higher grades of the general school if there were no such teachers available. And the demand for "specialists" in math-physics, in geography, in literature-history or in a foreign languages for grades five through eight was empty if there were no trained experts. At the top, the former elite gymnasiums remained exactly the same elite schools as before. The teachers were university educated with specialties. There was no shortage of foreign language teachers. Theoretically schools could teach any western language if there were qualified teachers, but in most schools the preferred language was still German. This was the situation until 1949 when Hungary introduced Russian as a compulsory language and stopped teaching everything else.

Between 1945 and 1948 most of the schools were in the churches' hands, predominantly in the hands of the Catholic Church. Sixty-three percent of the eight-grade general schools, 49% of gymnasiums and 74% of all teachers' high schools were parochial. In the summer of 1948, after a huge debate, parliament passed the law on the nationalization of schools. Altogether 6,500 schools were taken over by the state. The Protestant churches and the Jewish community, realizing the hopelessness of their situation, didn't put up a fight. The Catholic Church, under the guidance of the Prince Primate József Mindszenty, resisted–with devastating consequences.

After the nationalization students encountered an entirely new world. Often they had to change schools because theoretically at least the cities were carved up into different school districts and each student was supposed to attend the school in his district. But Hungary was still Hungary, communist or noncommunist. I had classmates in my new school who came from the other end of town because they were attached to the school and its teachers. On the other hand, a former classmate of mine who lived about three doors down from the district school, refused to change schools and remained in the old Catholic gymnasium, most likely because her parents were convinced that standards would be higher there than in the former Hungarian Reformed middle school (polgári) catering to daughters of better-off peasants from the surrounding villages. But the standards didn't remain the same even there because the nuns could no longer teach and most of the lay teachers were transferred to other district schools.

In my new district school some teachers remained from the earlier Calvinist days, but they were not exactly shining lights. Then there were the (I assume) undereducated newcomers. The most amusing was a fellow who was supposed to teach history but got stuck on "primitive man." What I remember most vividly was how "primitive man" tried to discover what in his environment was poisonous and what could be eaten safely. The "taste tester" sampled. If it was poisonous, we know what happened to him. All this high-level teaching was accompanied by the teacher's ostensibly imitative theatrical performances!

Between 1948 and 1955 the number of high school students almost doubled in contrast to the Horthy period when it grew by only 20%. The emphasis was on developing a new educated class with working class or peasant roots. That could only be achieved by the Hungarian version of affirmative action at the expense of children of white collar workers or those of the former "ruling classes." Children whose parents the regime found objectionable were often denied admission to high school. Entrance to university was strictly regulated by quotas; well over 50% of the students came from a lower-class background. To accelerate the process the government introduced the so-called "specialized matriculation course" (szakérettségi) that was supposed to prepare people, often older than eighteen and with very little formal education, to enter college. The "course" was originally one year in length, and when that turned out to be a huge fiasco it was changed to two years. Gyula Horn, prime minister of Hungary between 1994 and 1998 and formerly a high party official in the Kádár regime, went through one of these preparatory courses and from there straight to the Soviet Union to study "finance." I often wondered what kind of economics he could possibly have learned in Stalin's Soviet Union! I'm not saying that these students were undeserving, but many were unprepared. I personally encountered quite a few fast-tracked students as classmates; as far as I know they all finished college. According to rumors, professors were told to pay special attention to their "progress."

As far as the universities were concerned standards dropped considerably. Famous professors were fired to make room for the "politically correct." Some didn't even have to go through the usual promotional procedure. I knew one teacher who without any experience whatsoever became a full professor and head of a department. (Later he became a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences!) Between 1950 and 1952 175 new university textbooks were published. Eighty-six of them were translations from Russian. Everybody had to take two years of Marxism-Leninism and two years of "extra" Russian–basically elementary Russian redux. There were an incredible number of compulsory classes, and attendance was taken. It was like an extension of high school. Classes started at eight in the morning and at four o'clock we were still busily taking notes. Independent work was practically non-existent, and very little time remained to do any extra reading in the library. Each course had a textbook that had to be memorized and spewed back at oral examinations. At the same time some professors had a more self-serving concept of teaching. A later famous literary historian taught us early Hungarian literature in the second semester of the first year. He happened to be writing a book on a minor Hungarian poet. Thus, for the entire semester every lecture was a detailed analysis of everything this fellow ever wrote. Beside his name I don't remember a thing about him!

If you think I exaggerate, let me quote the historian T. Iván Berend, who attended the same university I did a few years earlier. In his autobiography Történelem– ahogy én láttam (History as I saw it [Budapest 1997]) he writes about his university years. "The standards of my studies at the Faculty of Arts [of ELTE] were shamefully low. We were unable to become familiar with most of the historical literature of the past. Our 'textbooks' on world history were light-blue colored pamphlets published by the Soviet Party College [Pártfőiskola]…. Important historical works were absent from the recommended reading list and often even from the libraries. What they considered to be ideologically undesirable, bourgeois, or 'antagonistic' to the regime were discarded or their reading was restricted to 'researchers' with special passes. Western books and periodicals were not available. We heard nothing of new historical debates or theories…. Language requirements didn't exist, only Russian was available and even that on a low level."

By leaving Hungary I entered an entirely different educational system, and I must say that it was a welcome change. As opposed to my Hungarian university experience the years spent in college in the West were enjoyable and fruitful.

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Fascinating. I know the universities here are better now, but I wonder how much of the legacy of this system remains. Other than changing and broadening the source material, has there been a concerted effort to improve matters? Why are the history departments so dominated by nationalists? It matters to me, a lot, as it does to all people with children going through the state system in Hungary.

Odin's lost eye

I have often wondered why many of them all elderly educated Hungarians I have met, seem to have such a narrow focus on the world. Your article explains it. I would love to know how you felt when, after all the trials and tribulations of your move to the West, you re-entered the ‘Halls of Academe’?


Dumbing down and focusing on “politically correct” ideology. It sounds like a lot of western education has embarked on the same journey.
I am interested to hear your views on more recent Hungarian education. My perception (as a foreigner) is that Hungarian education relies a lot on rote learning, which is probably good for an elementary or junior high school but not so good for senior high or university.