More about Hungarian education

I got a kick out of John T’s father’s amazing knowledge of the capitals of the world. I’m actually not surprised. Although I don’t remember the exact number of years we were taught geography, it seemed like eternity. It all started in grade five when we had to draw a map of our classroom. From there we moved on to the immediate surroundings of our school. Eventually we ended up studying the map of Pécs. Well, at least we learned to read a map, although GPS is making that an increasingly useless skill.

But then came years and years of geography starting with the different Hungarian counties, including their topography and details of which region produced what products. Eventually we went on to the rest of Europe, North and South America, Africa, and naturally the Soviet Union. I don’t think we learned much about China or Japan. Australia I think was left out altogether, or at least I have no recollection of learning anything about it. The names of all those cities, rivers, and lakes eventually got hopelessly mixed up in our heads, and within a year or so we didn’t remember a thing. To this day I have problems with South America although I remember standing in front of a map talking about the Amazon.

Lately I have been watching the online videos of a Yale undergraduate lecture series on the American Revolution that I am thoroughly enjoying. The course is taught by Professor Joanne B. Freeman who in her introductory lecture gives some very good advice to her students. Among other things she asks them not to throw around words like “democracy,” “war,” or “revolution,” but to think of the meaning of these words. And there was another remark that I thought worth quoting verbatim: “I will say here we are not going to forget about the British so we’re not going to have a patriot-centric course. The British have a logic to what they’re doing, whether they’re making policy or whether they’re fighting battles, and we will definitely look at the logic of what the British are doing as well as what the colonists are doing.” I tried desperately to find a Hungarian equivalent of this perspective when discussing the 1848-49 events. Hungarians teach this period in “patriot-centric” courses. I have never heard of anyone inquiring whether the court’s actions had any logic whatsoever.

Yesterday I mentioned the entrance examination students have to take in order to be able to attend, for example, law school. I found the questions on these entrance exams totally useless in determining whether the young man or woman has analytical skills or how much he/she understands about written passages. The only thing the students can demonstrate by scoring well on these tests is how successful they were at memorizing four years’ worth of textbooks for their matriculation examinations. Anyone with a good memory can get into the best law school although he might be utterly unfit intellectually for the profession.

So, while Hungarian high school students are taking these silly examinations, American college students who want to go to law school take a standardized test, the LSAT. Law school admissions committees place great weight on an applicant’s LSAT score. So, let’s see what kind of a test it is. The LSAT has several sections: logical reasoning, analytical reasoning, author’s purpose, reading main ideas, and reading comprehension. There is also an unscored writing sample. Here is a practice question from the analytical reasoning section:

A charitable foundation awards grants in exactly four areas–medical services, theater arts, wildlife preservation, and youth services–each grant being in one of these areas. One or more grants are awarded in each of the four quarters of a calendar year. Additionally, over the course of a calendar year, the following must obtain: Grants are awarded in all four areas. No more than six grants are awarded. No grants in the same area are awarded in the same quarter or in consecutive quarters. Exactly two medical services grants are awarded. A wildlife preservation grant is awarded in the second quarter.

If a wildlife preservation grant and a youth services grant are awarded in the same quarter of a particular calendar year, then any of the following could be true that year EXCEPT: (A) A medical services grant is awarded in the second quarter. (B) A theater arts grant is awarded in the first quarter. (C) A theater arts grant is awarded in the second quarter. (D) A wildlife preservation grant is awarded in the fourth quarter. (E) A youth services grant is awarded in the third quarter. [The correct answer, by the way, is (E).]

For those of you who want to try your hand at acing the LSAT, here’s the official practice site.

If Hungary retreats from the modest modernization that was achieved in the last decade or so, it will inevitably fall behind other nations educationally and economically.

By the way, Rózsa Hoffmann would very much approve of the “black marks” Jo’s daughter received for not having a sharp enough pencil. The favorite old-school Hungarian way of dealing with children who don’t behave properly is to humiliate them in front of everybody. Often in front of the whole class, but I had to suffer the humiliation of walking around and around the playground during recess with all the other “bad children” in front of the whole school.

I also agree with Mutt Damon who pointed out that French and especially American schools put a great deal of emphasis on self-confidence as opposed to the Hungarian practice. Surely, we all ought to know how important it is to be praised here and there instead of receiving constant criticism. I have an Internet friend whose daughter attended a school where Ms. Hoffmann taught for a while. According to her, Hoffmann excelled at punishing students, failing them, and constantly criticizing them. To my mind that means that she was a lousy teacher. And now she is in charge of changing the Hungarian school system. A horrific prospect.

April 25, 2011