On such a beautiful, peaceful autumn Sunday when nothing terribly important is happening in Hungary it is time to return to a favorite subject of mine: the importance of historical knowledge. Alas, not gained the way some Hungarian high school history teachers want to teach their long suffering students.
I started learning history in grade five and finished with that miserable subject in grade twelve. Why was it miserable? Because I had a miserable teacher in miserable times. Even if she had been better at teaching, she wouldn’t have been able to give us more than she found in the book. Otherwise, she would have been fired, if not worse. Put it this way, I remembered mighty little about Hungarian history before I took it up again as a college and graduate student, of all places in Canada and the United States.
Then I was watching the video Swaan van Iterson provided for her article on the fascination of Hungarian youth with the far right. Youngsters raise their voices “Down with Trianon,” but I know from sociological studies that among these enthusiasts most likely only a handful have any idea about the demographic make-up of Greater Hungary in 1918-1919. And, unfortunately, I also know that most of these youngsters wouldn’t be able to answer the simplest questions about twentieth-century European and Hungarian history.
And that brings me to today’s topic which I have been planning to write about ever since I first read Judit N. Kósa’s article on the pitiful state of teaching recent history, current affairs, and the basics of the democratic system Hungary allegedly adopted in 1990.
Judit N. Kósa has been a regular contributor to Népszabadság for years. Because her topics often include education, a subject that also interests me, I normally take the time to read her articles. Last Monday she came up with an opinion piece whose message is close to my heart. Her suggestion is: don’t spend years and years on ancient and medieval history at the expense of the twentieth century and current events. The facts that were crammed into student brains will fade away, and since there is practically nothing else in Hungarian history teaching but facts and figures nothing will remain in their place, only emptiness.
The title of her article was “The people of Árpád.” Árpád was the Hungarian chieftain who led the Hungarian and Khazar tribes into the Carpathian Basin. She began her article with her experience in the United States as an exchange student in the 1980s. At the time she was a high school senior and was taken to a lecture on European history at an unnamed university. Great was her astonishment that antiquity as well as the middle ages were taken care of by the professor in ninety minutes.
The Hungarian exchange students were shocked. After all, they learned just Greece and Rome twice, once in grade five and again in grade nine, for a whole semester each time. But the next day these same students, who had never learned recent European history or civics in high school, were flummoxed when they were bombarded by their American hosts with questions about 1956, the Gulag, why Hungary fought on the side of the Nazis, and how it is that only the communists can win in Hungarian elections.
Even in the best Budapest high schools (according to a 2008 poll) only 50% of the students were able to answer questions about the constitution and the functioning of political institutions. Outside of the capital the situation was considerably worse: only 26% had the foggiest idea about any of this. And these students were supposed to be first-time voters in 2010. According to most people familiar with the situation, a fair number of young people don’t even know who Miklós Horthy and János Kádár were. Hard to imagine, but apparently true.
In the new basic curriculum only the second semester of grade 12 is spent on “the Kádár regime, its formation, consolidation, its characteristics and its crisis, the democratic transformation after 1990, the establishment of the market economy, the history of the European Union and its functioning, the constitution and the democratic institutions of today’s Hungary, the situation of the Roma in Hungary and finally globalization.” Good luck, teacher; good luck, students.
Kósa’s American example prompted me to visit Yale University’s Open University website again. A fair number of courses are available online. I followed most of the history courses and was pleased to see that a new course had been added since I had last visited the website: Early Middle Ages, 284-1000. Well, I said to myself, despite my Hungarian education I know mighty little about the early middle ages, so let’s see what Professor Paul Freedman has to say about it. I enjoyed the first lecture thoroughly. I’ll bet that if you were to tell even a well-educated Hungarian that a lecture on the early middle ages can be absolutely fascinating, he or she wouldn’t believe it. Hungarian history teachers made sure that most students learned to hate history. And then later in life they fall for all sorts of absolutely misleading theories, for example on the reasons for Trianon, because they don’t have a firm grounding in the country’s past.
Finally, one more thing about Judit N. Kósa’s article. Sixty-four comments appeared after it was published. Most commenters felt compelled to say something negative about the United States and those uneducated Americans to whom the politicians can lie from morning till night. Or, what can Americans know about history when their own history is so short and also allegedly has nothing to do with European civilization? From here it was a short step to the atomic bomb and Hiroshima. Poor Kósa also received a earful as an unpatriotic person who looks down on the glorious history of the Hungarians; a knowledge of the dates of the Hungarian kings is necessary prerequisite to being a good citizen.
I get very discouraged at the comments on Hungarian websites and therefore I rarely look at them. I just don’t know how these jingoistic attitudes can be changed.