The answer to Hungary’s ills: Education

Occasionally one can only gasp. How is it possible that 59% of Hungarian adults don't have the foggiest idea about the structure of the country's pension system? They don't know on what basis their future pension will be calculated. How is it possible when in some other countries in the region this number is so much lower? In the Czech Republic it is only 29% and in Romania only 44%. Lack of interest? Lack of curiosity? Do they simply think that the state will take care of them regardless? I don't know.

Here and there TV reporters stop people on the street and ask them about political issues that may affect their everyday existence. The answers clearly show that they are unfamiliar with even the simplest issues. I heard someone complain that around March 15 a reporter stopped young people on the street and asked what the holiday was all about. Apparently most of them didn't know the significance of the day and at least one of them got it mixed up with 1956. Too many people familiar with the Hungarian school system claim that  20th-century Hungarian history is often not even covered in the 12th grade: they run out of time. Therefore it is not at all surprising that the neo-fascist Jobbik is so popular among the young.

But the situation is no better when it comes to skilled workers. While there are approximately 400,000 people unemployed there are 42,000 jobs that cannot be filled because of the lack of a skilled work force. The number of university graduates has grown rapidly. Perhaps too rapidly. One after the another so-called colleges and universities were established, many that in my opinion don't even deserve accreditation. They pour out thousands and thousands of graduates, mostly in fields that don't offer job opportunities. The graduates have useless diplomas, and they only add to the ever larger group of the unemployed. These are also people who find Jobbik's propaganda attractive.

Thus reform measures should be introduced in the field of education, but I very much doubt that a Fidesz government will be ready or willing to tackle the problem. First of all, the conservative educational experts of Fidesz think in terms of the old nineteenth-century Prussian system they and their parents knew. Then there was order in the classroom. The kids didn't try to beat up the teachers and, although there were always some student pranks, they were of the innocent variety. Not like now when in one high school not long ago two students killed a classmate because they thought he was stuck up!

Oh, yes, but fifty years ago only about 100,000 students were enrolled in any given year in high school; today it is around 400,000. The student body is different today and therefore one can forget about the old methods. Moreover, one must also forget about the kind of knowledge that was considered essential then. Today's requirements are entirely different. The Hungarian school system teaches students useless facts that they will forget in no time, and no one seems to demand independent, critical thinking.

Then there is the question of foreign languages. There are serious problems in that department as well. I don't know why, but language teaching in Hungary has always been terribly bad. Years and years of German, French, Russian, whatever left no discernible mark on the students: after years of study they couldn't utter a sentence. This situation should improve somewhat now that there are no borders within the European Union and at least there are opportunities to use the language one learns. It is hard to be inspired to learn a language and then not be able to use it.

Reform of the educational system from top to bottom is at least as important as a thorough reorganization of health care. But even if there were the will, which I doubt exists, it would be a very difficult task to undo the current system and introduce something better. So many things need to be done. The financing of schools, especially of colleges and universities, should be revamped. A number of newly established colleges of inferior quality should be closed, foreign language instructors should be imported, the whole system of teacher training should be put on a different basis. And then there is the growing gap between elite schools and schools that barely teach children to read and write. And the segregation question due to free school choice. But who will dare put an end to this unfair system? Once a bad decision is made, it is very difficult to abrogate it.

There is another problem that stands in the way of progress. I read an interview with an economist who complained that Hungarians do not think in economic terms. He lived in the United Kingdom and in the Netherlands where it was clear to him that people in those countries look at the world in terms of economic developments. They are aware that their lives are greatly influenced by economics. Hungarian society, by contrast, following a longstanding tradition, looks at the world more through the eyes of a lawyer or a historian. Hungarians are more likely to feel threatened by globalization than to embrace it as potentially advantageous to them. So even an "economic mindset" must be taught in schools, but by whom?

All this will take a long time. The obstacles are tremendous, and yet they must be overcome before Hungary can begin to catch up with the West–and, increasingly, the East.

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Language instruction in Hungary is highly constrained by the centralized, _written_, exam system. Learning to speak freely in a language or to communicate original thought in writing is not valued, while rote repetition of written texts is.
While probably an honest reaction to the years of political indoctrination, the near-ban on civics and economics education is a real handicap for a democratic and economically competitive Hungary. There seems to be no comprehension among educators and bureaucrats that one can — indeed, must — discuss political and economic structures and systems without bias toward one ideology or another. The great irony here is, of course, that there is such an aspiration to a “civic” society from both left and right without any aspiration to educate the public in Civics.

Eva S. Balogh

To GW: Unfortunately, you’re right on all accounts. Political activity is forbidden in the universities but Jobbik was born in ELTE.


Total lack of responisbility. Way above their heads.
Ask any grownup, degreee or no degree, in BP, how the state(or town) budget is spent, they have no idea, they never had an idea, they do not feel concerned/responsible at all. This is lamentable, but is inherited from the communist times. They do not feel responsible in any way for the war, for the dead, Hungary wages in Afghanistan either.

John T

I was surprised just how many basic errors were being taught to my second cousins in English lessons, when they showed me their workbooks or asked for help with grammar. But that said, many speak very decent English now.
I think the problems you outline are common in other countries too. But I think people are a bit more insular than elsewhere and they do not consider Hungary’s position in the wider world, or the countries interaction within it. I’d also say that Hungarian logic is often at odds with the logic of other countries. I often joke that peoples brians are hardwired in the opposite way to those of the Brits. But on occasions, I do wonder if this is actually the reality 🙂


m wrote:
“This is lamentable, but is inherited from the communist times.”
This is indeed lamentable, but was there ever a period in Hungarian history in which this was not the case? The communist regime was simply a recent regime with no interest whatsoever in the openness required to maintain an informed citizenry. This, coupled with the unquestioning conviction, by left and right alike, that the Hungarian education system, rote learning, standard exams and all, is superior, has always been superior, and is not in need of reforms, is a dangerous combination and it may not be an exaggeration to say the most recent governments share this disdain for transparency.