A few thoughts about education

Education is at least as good a topic for endless debate between opposing camps as healthcare is. As governments come and go, education is subjected to constant tinkering. Of late the practice has been for liberals to introduce changes in a system that goes back to the nineteenth century and then for the other side to undo these changes. All this happens above the heads of the teachers and the students.

Teachers most likely had very mixed emotions about the liberal reforms of Bálint Magyar. The older ones probably didn’t even comprehend the newfangled ideas put forth by the ministry of education. One of the problems with Hungarian education in the past was that the system put undue emphasis on learning facts. I suspect that until Bálint Magyar came along learning by rote hadn’t changed since my school days. Or my father’s school days during the First World War. It was deadly, I can assure you. The fifty minutes the teacher spent with us were divided into two parts. In the first twenty-five minutes the teacher called on two or three students to recite what we were supposed to learn the day before. They rattled on for better or worse for about five to ten minutes after which the teacher surreptitiously put a mark into her big book. Once this was over, she started to “lecture.” These lectures actually could be found in the textbook almost verbatim. In the last few minutes the teacher announced what we would have to learn for the next day. Usually a page or two. But it was important to memorize all the facts on those few pages. Facts were the name of the game.

It was in the 1990s that I first realized that most likely nothing had changed in Hungarian education since my own school days. I subscribed to a popular historical magazine called Rubicon. Once a year Rubicon published a supplement: the questions that were asked at the college entrance examinations at various universities in that particular year. I was horrified. All the questions inquired about rather obscure facts. Even the so-called essay questions required no thought whatsoever. It was perfectly enough for the student to rattle back the material he had learned in high school.

Then came Bálint Magyar who wanted to change all this, but most of the teachers either resisted the change or simply couldn’t switch because the whole concept was alien to them. I remember finding a Hungarian history matriculation examination on the Internet which I shared with a former history teacher. She found the questions “strange.” They were indeed different from the ones she was used to; they required analysis instead of simple parroting.

Although you can change the system on the surface, old habits remain. The result is confusion. Moreover, is it really worth trying to adapt to the new system? I’m sure teachers figured that as soon as there is a new government all “progressive” methods would be thrown out the window and there would be a return to the old ways.

This is what is happening at the moment. Viktor Orbán handed the field of education to the Christian Democrats. At the helm is Rózsa Hoffmann, undersecretary in charge of education. Her ideas about education got stuck somewhere in the 1960s and 1970s when she herself finished college with a degree enabling her to teach French and Russian in high school. She is an ardent advocate of discipline, order, duty, and punishment. She also became a good Catholic in the last few years. Every move she makes indicates that she wants the Catholic Church to have a pivotal role in the education of Hungarian youth.

Initially, Hoffmann was ready to throw out everything but everything, including the Bologna process, from Hungarian universities. Clearly that is impossible. In 1999 Hungary signed the accord by which twenty-nine European countries agreed on common standards in higher education. Basically, European countries decided to follow the British system. Three years for a B.A./B.S., two extra years for an M.A./M.S., and four years toward the completion of a Ph.D. For some reason the introduction of the Bologna system in Hungary wasn’t easy. Again, I think it was because of the resistance of the faculty, but by now it is more or less functioning. Hoffmann wanted to abolish this system, but luckily former Fidesz minister of education Zoltán Pokorni put an end to her efforts.

However, she still insists that the curriculum for future teachers of high school students will not be divided. Altogether it will be a seven-year program with very little pay at the end. Who on earth would embark on such a course? I can’t comprehend what is wrong with first receiving a bachelor’s degree followed by a two-year master’s program in teaching.

The latest news on the education front is that Rózsa Hoffmann had a very hard time at the last cabinet meeting a couple of weeks ago when she presented her great ideas about education to the prime minister. Viktor Orbán hated all of it and gave Hoffmann two weeks to change it–radically. Hoffman was close to tears, but Péter Harrach, leader of the Christian Democratic delegation, assured everybody that Orbán’s trust in Hoffman is “undiminished.”

Rózsa Hoffmann, especially in the first few months after the elections, promised all sorts of things to the teachers. Among them, very high salaries in the near future. Then slowly but surely she had to take back her promises. It turned out that education will actually have less money in the future than it had in the past. It may also be possible that teachers will have a teaching load of twenty-eight hours a week; currently the load is twenty-two hours.

Teachers have two trade unions that during the socialist period rarely saw eye to eye. The smaller trade union was clearly an arm of Fidesz. In fact, the leader of the union right after the elections was appointed to head an educational organization under the ministry. Now, however, the two trade unions seem to be united in their opposition to the latest assault on their members. The trade union leaders figure that by raising the number of hours spent on teaching some 40-50,000 teachers might lose their jobs.

If Hungary is to be economically competitive, it has to raise its intellectual capital. Fidesz politicians in the past often talked about the efforts of Kunó Klebersberg, minister of education (1921-1931), who was convinced that even in a poor country after a lost war, the government must spend money on education. It might not have much economic or political clout, but what it could offer was brain power. The situation hasn’t changed substantially since. Unfortunately, Hungarian education at all levels has a host of problems that must be addressed. And taking money out of the educational system will only set the country even further back in the fierce competition of a global economy.

April 24, 2011