When I saw the headline "Higher education entrusted to Frankenstein" in Hírszerző (August 12), I was somewhat taken aback. Rózsa Hoffmann is not exactly one of my favorites, but I wouldn't call her a Frankenstein monster either. After I read the article written by Miklós Stemler, I realized that when he talks about Frankenstein he means the Christian Democratic Party because he considers the party "Viktor Orbán's Frankenstein project." (I know, in Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein was the creator of the monster, not the monster itself, but cut the author some slack. Can you imagine what would have happened if he had referred to the prime minister as Frankenstein?)
I wrote about the past and present of the Christian Democratic Party last year and emphasized many times since that the KDNP (Kereszténydemokrata Néppárt) is a party only in name. In 2005 Fidesz signed an agreement with the few politicians who still called themselves Christian Democrats and who agreed to run with Orbán's party on the same ticket. Given the lack of support of KDNP among the electorate it is fairly difficult to fathom why the Fidesz party leader considered such an alliance useful. However, in the last five or six years this non-party has formed a distinct parliamentary caucus currently with 37 members. Never mind that there were no 37 Christian Democrats to be found. A few Fidesz politicians were sent over to sit with the Christian Democrats. Rózsa Hoffmann, undersecretary of education, was among them.
The problem with Rózsa Hoffmann is not only that she has very old-fashioned ideas about education and, if it depended on her, the current generation would be learning exactly the same things that Hoffmann herself was learning as a teenager in the 1960s but that she and her team seem to be incapable of coming up with any coherent plan for the future of Hungarian education. It doesn't matter whether she is talking about elementary schools or universities, most of her ideas are half-baked.
Without trying to give a comprehensive list of these half-baked ideas here are a few examples. The first one I remember was the introduction of daily phys ed in all elementary schools. But for that one would need more than one gym within the school. Although most city schools have gyms by now, village schools most likely don't. And where will all those new gym teachers come from? The plan was modified and as far as I know daily phys ed will be compulsory only in the first four years. I wonder whether in practice it will simply mean that children will stand up and do some stretching exercises next to their desks.
Because Hoffmann was trained to become a language teacher (French and Russian) she often talks about the necessity of learning foreign languages. However, her ideas about ideal language teaching leave something to be desired. Most likely because she knows no English she has something against the language whose importance she considers overrated. During the tenure of SZDSZ minister of education Bálint Magyar, the ministry prescribed that English be taught if there was demand for it. One of the first things Hoffmann decided to get rid of was this ministerial "dictat". She would prefer French and Spanish regardless of the fact that English is still the most useful language.
Her latest idea on the foreign language front is the introduction of not one but two or three foreign languages. In grade five the child would start his or her first foreign language and after two years one more foreign language would be compulsory. So, between grades 7 and 12 the student would be simultaneously learning two foreign languages. Each for at most three or four hours a week. That's bad enough, but every child who is unfortunate enough to be enrolled at age 10 in a gymnasium will have to learn three languages over the course of eight years. If I remember correctly, the third language will be Latin as a compulsory subject.
And to add insult to injury she envisages that by 2014 no one will be able to enter university unless he/she passes a language test at the intermediate level. As things stand now, in order to graduate from college students must pass a language exam. Many of them are unable to obtain their diplomas because they cannot fulfill that requirement even by the end of their university studies.
It certainly would be desirable for Hungarian students to learn at least one foreign language before entering college. But as things stand, in most Hungarian schools language teaching is very poor and those who manage to pass the language exam do so with the help of one of the many privately owned language schools that give group or individual lessons. But that costs money, and only well-heeled parents can afford such a luxury. Thus, if Hoffmann manages to push through her plans about language exams as a prerequisite for entering college she will certainly achieve her not too concealed goal of having fewer university graduates. Not a long time ago she made it clear that only "outstanding students" should attend college.
Let's start with this last nonsensical pronouncement of Rózsa Hoffmann. I was lucky enough to teach at a university where there were a lot of very bright students. But there were only a handful whom we would consider truly outstanding or brilliant. What modern society needs is many well educated people who can work at different tasks with competence. Nowadays even a factory worker must be able to handle a computer.
Or, here is her crazy idea about learning two or three languages simultaneously. I would be glad if Hungarian students managed to handle one foreign language well. But surely one cannot learn a language spending three or four hours a week in a relatively large class with one teacher. I'm a firm believer in the "total immersion" method. This is how American soldiers selected specifically to learn foreign languages were taught at Monterey. The students couldn't utter a word in English and they were totally immersed in the foreign language environment. In a year they learned the chosen language extraordinarily well. I met several former Monterey students who learned Hungarian this way. Many of them ended up doing graduate work in Hungarian history or political science.
Bálint Magyar also seems to believe in "total immersion" because he came up with the idea of an extra year between matriculation and college which would be devoted entirely to learning a language. Weekly fifteen hours. Five hours every day Monday through Friday for a whole school year. Apparently the results, although the program was introduced in only a limited number of institutions, are encouraging.
Rózsa Hoffmann obviously doesn't share my enthusiasm for "total immersion" and in fact wants to abolish the extra year devoted to learning a foreign language in certain schools. I can assure Ms Hoffmann even before she has the chance to put her nonsensical idea of quantity over quality into practice that failure is guaranteed.
I have the feeling that this latest brainchild of Hoffmann will be dead on arrival. A couple of days ago Magyar Nemzet published a short article about "the strategy of teaching languages" that became public about a week ago. The newspaper inquired from experts what they thought of Ms Hoffmann's latest, and "one of the experts asked [by the paper] is convinced that the direction the undersecretary is taking is wrong…. The only result of learning two or three languages at the same time will be that the student will not learn any of them well." Another expert announced that "a country that doesn't first and foremost concentrate on English commits harakiri."
Rózsa Hoffmann came to her job wanting to change everything because last April there was "a revolution in the voting booths." Accordingly the rotten edifice the liberals and socialists had built must be razed and an entirely new system must take its place. But then Magyar Nemzet asks the experts on teaching foreign languages and behold their opinions coincide with the past years' practice. Destroying the old is rarely desirable. It is better to build on existing foundations.
I'm almost certain that Viktor Orbán would love to get rid of the incompetent Rózsa Hoffmann, but it is not that easy. The Christian Democratic caucus stands behind her and without the Christian Democratic vote there is no two-thirds. Perhaps Orbán by now is sorry that he ever signed that document with the non-existent KDNP in 2005 and allowed Zsolt Semjén, the chairman of the party, to form a separate parliamentary caucus.