I know that some of you would love to move on to discuss the fate of Hungary’s pending negotiations with the IMF. However, I would rather postpone that discussion until tomorrow when the Hungarian government receives the European Commission’s response to its one-hundred-page-long “counter proposals” which it sent to Brussels on February 17, the last possible day for a reply. For now all we know for sure is that, according to Viviane Reding, the Commission found the answers “vague.”
So let’s get back to the curriculum. After the teachers of Hungarian came the objections of the teachers of history. One of the idiosyncrasies of Hungarian education that has plagued the whole system is that students learn the same material twice, both in literature and in history. That situation was created when shortly after the second world war a two-tiered school system was introduced. Students had to remain in school until they were either fourteen or had completed grade eight. However, beginning in the 1950s, more and more students moved on to high school. Meanwhile the compulsory school age became eighteen. However, the curriculum of the first eight grades, especially between grades five and eight, was still designed as if some of the students were leaving school for good at the age of fourteen. Thus, eleven year olds learned some history of Greece and Rome, moved on to the early history of the Hungarians, and three years later they reached the 20th century. World history, on a most primitive level from 1,000 B.C. to the present. Came the first year of high school (grade 9) and the students went back to 1,000 B.C. The same was true about the history of Hungarian and world literature.
This repetitive curriculum badly needed fixing, but Rózsa Hoffmann’s National Basic Curriculum (NAT) didn’t touch it. Nor did the Association of Teachers of History complain about it. After all, fewer history teachers would be needed if the teaching of history didn’t start in grade five. So, they simply complain about the narrowing focus on political history that is especially obvious in the material that would be taught in grades five to eight. What are the history teachers talking about?
Political history is the narrative and analysis of political events, ideas, movements, and leaders. It is distinct from other fields of history such as diplomatic history, social history, economic history, and constitutional history. Generally, political history focuses on events related to nation states, so it is not surprising that this government’s educational policy focuses on political history.
There is only one problem with this approach. Children are less than enamored with political history. You know, the usual stuff: dates, battles, a description of political arrangements. Deadly stuff for kids–and, yes, the very same stuff I was taught. The first time I heard a lecture that made me realize that history could actually be fascinating was in my third year at the University of Budapest when due to a change in my major I had to take Hungarian history between 1790 and 1848. I specifically remember two of the lectures. The first described one of Prince Esterházy’s estates where milking cows had just arrived from Switzerland. The other when the young assistant professor who taught the course made us look out the window and then described what we would have seen if we had looked out the same window in 1790. Wow! That was a new world for me.
The history teachers are right: there is a heavy emphasis, especially in the lower grades, on “great historical personalities, kings and saints, in addition to the history of wars and battles.” Here are a few examples: “Ancient Greeks: Gods, heroes, scientists, artists, and the Olympia.” Or “Military leaders, battles, rulers in ancient Rome.” In Hungarian history in connection with the founding of the state pupils are taught about Prince Géza and Saint Stephen, followed immediately by the rulers and saints of the House of Árpád. Heavily emphasized is the Christian state, the crusades, and the lives of saints. I especially enjoyed the following topic: “Reformation and the Catholic renewal.” As far as I know, the proper name for this Catholic renewal is the “counter-reformation,” a process that was not exactly peaceful.
A quick look at the curriculum leads me to believe that more time is spent on the “native” kings than on the “foreign” kings. Thus, after the rulers of the House of Árpád they quickly move on to Louis the Great who was a Hungarian by birth and from there to János Hunyadi and his son Matthias. And one could go on and on.
In grades nine through twelve the students start again with Ancient Greece and Rome. Out of the eleven topics three deal with the twentieth century where Trianon figures prominently. There is one topic called “Consequences of the First World War in Hungary” immediately followed by “Trianon and its Effects. The fate of Hungarians across the borders.” Students will learn something about “Consolidation in Hungary and the foreign policy of revision.” “Persecution of the Jews and the Holocaust” made it into the grade twelve curriculum. The Kádár period gets short shift, and it is hard to tell whether students will learn about the changing nature of the Kádár era because the whole period is lumped under one rubric. Another novelty, I believe, is that there will be mention of the history, situation, and integration of the Roma/Gypsy population. Both in the lower grades and in high school emphasis on the new Basic Law is required.
In brief, I wouldn’t like to learn history in Hungary. I don’t think I would like it any better now than I did in the 1950s.