Teaching in Hungary

With the beginning of the school year one can read a lot about the state of education. When it comes to higher education the media onslaught begins already in early summer with matriculation and college acceptances. Matriculation can excite the whole country, young and old alike. Suddenly everybody seems to be interested in what the questions were, from Hungarian literature to mathematics. Whether they were difficult or easy. What the matriculants thought of them. One could go on and on. One doesn't hear that much about the written examinations required for college acceptance. I used to subscribe to a popular historical periodical which yearly published the history questions and the "proper" answers. I was always infuriated over the questions because they required students to memorize, memorize, memorize: dates, identifications, and simplistic descriptions of historical events. No wonder, said I, that most students loathe history. But then a new, higher level matriculation was devised under the guidance of Bálint Magyar (SZDSZ) and his successor István Hiller (MSZP) that would double as an entrance exam. (Predictably, most students still opt for the old, two-exam system which I'm sure more accurately measures what they are taught.) In order to answer the questions on the higher level matriculation exams, students actually had to think! It was a huge difference that most likely baffled the history teachers. I asked one former history teacher what she thought and her answer was: "Well, one will have to get used to it." Yes, get used to thinking! (Or not; just keep plodding along the well-worn path.)

I suspect that the teachers themselves couldn't answer these new kinds of questions because they never had to analyze. They learned history in college from a textbook and since then most haven't done a thing to refresh their knowledge or expand their horizons. For instance, with the change of regime came some serious rewriting of history, especially the history of the twentieth century. Teachers no longer had an anchor, and they often skipped whole decades to avoid topics about which they themselves were confused.

There were other problems with the reform introduced by Bálint Magyar. Teachers were supposed to select their own textbooks and write their own teaching plans. That was really too much. After all, in the past they were told what to teach and when to teach it, and that was the end of the matter. These are very fundamental problems, but there are others that are not so obvious to outsiders. I just heard the other day that the ministry of education put a lot of effort into developing online teaching material but that half the teachers have never handled a computer. And those who have are not really able to use it effectively. Perhaps they can write e-mail but that's about all.

Szabolcs Szunyogh, the editor-in-chief of Új Pedagógia Szemle, wrote a piece in Népszava last Saturday that I read with interest. First, he highlights all the positive developments in education in spite of the economic crisis. Yes, education will receive less money but no teacher will lose his job, no schools must be closed. All sorts of programs have been initiated that are supposed to raise the level of education. There are so many in fact that my head was spinning just reading the list. Basically, Szunyogh says that the problem is not so much with financing but with curriculum and school structure. The curriculum is outdated in the sense that an inordinate amount of time is spent on material that the student will never  use in his entire life. At the same time subjects central to understanding democracy, a market economy, and a society of laws are not even touched. Szunyogh goes on to say that students should be taught to look at the media with a critical eye because they ought to be able to spot misinformation. He also complains about the lack of knowledge about people living in the region. Hungarians are totally unfamiliar with the history of the Serbs, Croats, Romanians, or Slovaks. They know nothing about their literatures. I even heard Hungarians questioning whether these people have a literary tradition. With this kind of ignorance comes nationalism, racism, and the acceptance of outrageous "theories."

Teaching methods are also outdated. I am almost certain that the structure of classroom teaching hasn't changed since my high school days. They rang the bell, the teacher came in and spent about 20 minutes asking selected students to answer questions pertaining to the few pages the students had to read as homework. The rest of the class had to listen to someone else's good or bad rattling of what he/she remembered from the few pages studied at home the night before. Then the teacher "lectured" for another 20 minutes. The lecture amounted to a summary of the next few pages in the textbook. Lesson finished. Szunyogh comes up with some "innovations" that I'm sure make all high school teachers shudder, including problem solving in small groups, team work.

Another problem is segregation. Not just separate classes for Gypsies. Because there is free school choice this is almost inevitable. The better educated and therefore better-off parents send their children to the best schools while the less educated, poorer folks' children end up in second- or third-rate schools. In my days this wasn't the case. The doctor's children were studying together with the poor peasant's children living in a dormitory attached to the school. I was told by people younger than me from Budapest that it was practically oppressive to be together with people whose background was exactly the same as theirs. Interestingly enough, this segregation doesn't produce outstanding achievement nationwide. In Finland, I understand, all students attend the local district school and yet the Finnish students' achievement is the highest in Europe or perhaps in the whole world.

Szunyogh is worried that if things remain this way the problems will only grow. Moreover, Fidesz's experts on education are conservative and one can pretty well predict that with Viktor Orbán's return to power the new minister of education will undo everything that has been done as far as reforms are concerned. One already hears often enough that the socialists-liberals "ruined" the educational system which will be returned to its former greatness. Unfortunately I still remember only too well what this greatness was like.