The current Hungarian government is inclined to move backward instead of forward. In almost every facet of life its ideal harks back to a time that is long gone. If the ideal ever existed, because this kind of nostalgia is rife with self-delusion. Life was never as idyllic as some Fidesz and especially Christian Democratic politicians try to portray it. The ideal family never existed and neither did those perfect schools that produced little geniuses.
Rózsa Hoffmann’s ideal school from the nineteenth century
Life has changed fundamentally in the last hundred years, and today’s needs cannot be satisfied by the reintroduction of old concepts and old institutions. It simply will not work. This government’s experiment in the field of education is dangerous. The reorganized schools and the reintroduction of old pedagogical concepts might have a negative effect on Hungarian society for decades to come.
A few days ago Rózsa Hoffmann’s office made the new “Basic National Curriculum” (Nemzeti Alapterv or NAT) available on the ministry’s website and asked for comments. Since then, I noticed, only three professional organizations complained in writing. All three made their objections public via MTI, the Hungarian news service.
The text of the NAT is 204 pages long and is jam-packed with information. I feel sorry for the professionals who are supposed to comment on the proposals within a week. Mind you, I doubt that it matters what these people think or say; nothing will be changed in the document.
I’m not going to waste anyone’s time here with the NAT’s emphasis on morality, national self-realization, patriotic education, or self-knowledge. Neither will I dwell on the puzzling questions of “education for media consciousness.” Instead I will focus on one subject: Hungarian language and literature. The part of the NAT dealing with this subject has been severely criticized by the Association of Teachers of Hungarian (Magyartanárok Egyesülete or MTE).
One major problem seems to be the amount of material that children are supposed to learn. According to the Hungarian literature teachers, the material outlined in the document is about triple what could possibly be covered properly. And that despite the fact that Hungarian students log more classroom time than most of their counterparts worldwide. By high school, students spend about eight hours a day in school. And I assume they still have homework to do.
So what are students required to learn about Hungarian and world literature under the new curriculum? For starters, they will have to memorize poems and long prose passages: Endre Ady, Attila József, Dezső Kosztolányi, Miklós Radnóti, János Arany, Mihály Csokonai Vitéz, Janus Pannonius, Ferenc Kölcsey, Sándor Petőfi, Mihály Vörösmarty, and Sándor Weöres. Often the specific poem is mentioned. Part of János Arany’s “Toldi,” an abominably long epic poem; Petőfi’s “János Vitéz.” Oh, “Toldi”! Will I ever forget you? Yes, I managed to forget every line I memorized. But I will never forget the hours I spent as an eleven year old trying to learn one hundred lines of this poem.
When it comes to the analysis of Hungarian literature, again, the number of authors and their works is staggering. The laundry list goes on for two solid pages. Moreover, in Hungarian classes the student is also supposed also learn something about the literature of other nations. In the curriculum I found the following compulsory topics: at least one novella by Boccaccio, parts of Don Quixote, parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Homer, Iliad, a little Goethe, a little Swift and Voltaire, and two novels and two short stories to be chosen from Balzac, Emily Brontë, Chekhov, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Gogol, Victor Hugo, Pushkin, Stendhal, and Lev Tolstoy. They must read at least two prose works by Borges, Bulgakov, Camus, Faulkner, Garcia, Marquez, Hrabal, Kafka, Thomas Mann, Orwell and Solzhenitsyn. Plus a contemporary writer’s novel.
And this is not the end. They will study a range of poetry: Horace, Virgil, Petrarch, Villon, Apollinaire, Baudelaire, T. S. Eliot, Goethe, Keats, Poe, Rimbaud, Schiller and Shelley. As far as drama goes, they start with Sophocles, continue with Shakespeare and Molière, and conclude with one drama from the nineteenth century plus two works from the twentieth.
Are you surprised that the Association of Teachers of Hungarian finds the whole thing unacceptable? I’m not. How much will students learn and in what depth? How much will they remember? And will what little they remember in fact be worth remembering? I doubt it.