The state of teaching history in Hungary

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.

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Member

Try telling virtually any Hungarian that Horthy was already Regent when Hungary signed the Trianon Treaty. Nobody will believe you.

Bowen
Guest

I’ve often wondered about the comments that get posted as response to any government that takes an anti-Fidesz government stance (whether it be on blogs like this, or online newspapers and magazines). They do often seem very persistent, and borrow from exactly the same repertoires. Almost as if it’s organised.

Well, if it were organised, then it wouldn’t be unique. “Astroturfing” and has been used by several political actors as a way of disrupting any attempt at constructive debate in online fora.

And, we do know that Fidesz have spent billions on ‘improving its image’ through PR.

http://www.politics.hu/20120111/government-begins-new-era-of-budget-pruning-with-billion-forint-pr-bonanza/

Member

It’s not just factual data vs. explaining the interactions, the interests that lead to certain historical event. Children stop learning history with absolute lack of interest to learn more, to apply this knowledge to the events happening in the present around them. No interest to take classes go to the library and read more. Hungarians do not want to know more. That’s what the history education gives them.

In high school there was an assay called “Why are called the middle ages dark?”. I wrote a cool paper (at least I thought it was cool). I explained that this is all wrong. It wasn’t dark at all. I compared it to lives of the slaves, I wrote about urbanization, education, you know, all the good stuff. I received a two (an “E”). I started to hate history.

I’m not sure how will we be the people of Arpad. The Arpad dynasty is called now turul dynasty.

Petofi1
Guest

Why Dictatorial Regimes Gobble Up The Visual Media

Hungary has followed Putyin’s example of controlling the media. One example should suffice
to show how it works. Let’s compare the short tv reports on Chatary and Bisztu: Chatary is shown leaving the police headquarters in company of his lawyer. Bisztu is shown going up the stairs to the police station in the company of four policeman who walk alonside two abreast.
Clearly, one is an image of innocence and liberty and the other is one of guilt and arrest. Clips
like these go a long way towards brain-washing the unsuspecting populace.

Julie
Guest

Seems like there are two problems here: the quality of the curriculum and the quality of the teacher. You really need both: a dull, uninspired teacher can kill interest in the liveliest subject; a biased or poorly thought out curriculum can be too much for even the most gifted teacher. What are the expected outcomes for Hungarian students–that is, what are they expected to know once they finish secondary school? If there’s an official policy statement on that I think it would be very enlightening.

This is particularly heartbreaking to hear because history is such an interesting subject. In my case, though, I learned more about history in spite of my formal education. In all the years I had to take American history we never made it past World War 2. We also had to take a year of Texas history (I think most states require a year of state-specific history). But I had to do my own reading to find the historical topics I found most interesting. I’m not a professional educator so I don’t know what the solution is, besides parents encouraging their kids to go to the library and do their own research.

Member

Apropos research … In the 70s when I was in elementary school our teacher gave us the research task to find out for an extra 5 (grade “A”) who said and why this: “Paris is worth a Mass”. Of course I did nothing as usual … Then I got it! There was a free telephone service called Special Inquiries (“különleges tudakozó”). You could ask anything from how to get out chewing gum from the dog’s hair to history questions. So I called them from a pay phone (we didn’t have telephone at home). After one minute wait I had my answer and got the extra 5. I was the only one.

I have never told it to anybody. You are the first. Take this Google! It was 40 years ago on Planet Hungary!

chayenne7
Guest
Looking back on it, it’s kind of unbelievable how there was no time left at all for the 4 or 5 topics covering the 20th century in my senior year at high school. We had to work out those topics totally on our own if we wanted to have the slightest chance to pass the matura exam. I remember how I copied lines from he history book and had no idea what I was reading about. That was the first time I had heard about those events or names. To this day, I feel I’ve been burdened by this lack of knowledge, even though as a young adult I decided to take matters in my hand and started to educate myself on history, but somehow it was always a different topic, never Hungarian history, never the 20th century. I couldn’t care less. I wanted to have a kind of global knowledge of history, to see the connections between events on different parts of the globe – at school we were never taught like this, so my historical knowledge was literally fragmented, that is, one event was isolated from the other in my head, and it annoyed me to no end… Read more »
Julie
Guest

Mutt: That’s fantastic! What an interesting service–it would be a great start for a mystery novel, actually.

pusztaranger
Guest

“(…) a fair number of young people don’t even know who Miklós Horthy and János Kádár were. Hard to imagine, but apparently true.”

Here is a good one: When the Reformed Church unveiled the Horthy-plaque in the Reformed Gymnasium in Debrecen in May, there was a small protest and press statement of MSZP and the Jewish community in front of the building. The school had the kids file out to form a human chain around (“protect”) it, singing hymns to blot out the protest (exorcism, calvinist version), and kids tore up a transparent saying “Horthy – never again”. In the video, the reporter asks some kids what they actually know about Horthy. A boy says, “he was a student of this school, and we are known to stand up for each other.” – “What else do you know about Horthy?” – “Ummm nothing comes to mind”, “here are the organizers, you can ask them.” An older boy in a black T-Shirt, apparently one of the organizers, doesn’t know either, just grins into the camera. Turned out he’s Minister Zoltán Balog’s son.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=4Rmb_s9xyvE
http://egyenlito.blog.hu/2012/05/22/lebuktattuk_balogh_zoltan_miniszter_fia_enekelt_debrecenben

Member

First hand info from the fifth grade.

The teacher started the first history class by quoting the Bible that God created the world.

This is the state of the affairs in the nationalized public school system of Hungary.

Member

Remark: the history teacher did not offer an alternative explanation to the “bereshit”.

The only opposing voice from Fidesz:
http://hvg.hu/itthon/20120914_Politikailag_kockazatos_lesz__Pokorni_Zol

Note: Orban personally decided the fate of the Hungarian educational system ignoring the voice of the teaching profession.

Marcel Dé (@MarcelD10)
Guest
Mutt : Apropos research … In the 70s when I was in elementary school our teacher gave us the research task to find out for an extra 5 (grade “A”) who said and why this: “Paris is worth a Mass”. Alas, there is actually no evidence at all that Henri IV ever said this. The only (almost) contemporary source available is a popular satire published in 1622, attributing the sentence to… his minister, the duke of Sully. That’s rather poor, as far as sources go. It then disappears for more than a century, until it is attributed to the king himself, to criticize him… but at the end of the XVIIIth Voltaire mentions it again, this time to praise Henri IV (and demean Catholicism). The Revolution and later on the IIIrd Republic would eventually make this imaginary sentence a symbol of a legendary process leading to the separation of Church and State. I mention this, because in my view these debates on the contents of History courses (the same dispute exists in France) are absolutey missing the point. The teaching of History in Europe should be centered on what History really is, meaning the methods and tools of research. What’s… Read more »
Member

Mutt :
Apropos research … In the 70s when I was in elementary school our teacher gave us the research task to find out for an extra 5 (grade “A”) who said and why this: “Paris is worth a Mass”. Of course I did nothing as usual … Then I got it! There was a free telephone service called Special Inquiries (“különleges tudakozó”). You could ask anything from how to get out chewing gum from the dog’s hair to history questions. So I called them from a pay phone (we didn’t have telephone at home). After one minute wait I had my answer and got the extra 5. I was the only one.
I have never told it to anybody. You are the first. Take this Google! It was 40 years ago on Planet Hungary!

I remember that! I mean the “Special inquiries” hotline. I was always wondering how did they know everything. We did not have a telephone either. Not until 1976. Luckily there was phone booth right in front of the apartment building.

Member
pusztaranger : “(…) a fair number of young people don’t even know who Miklós Horthy and János Kádár were. Hard to imagine, but apparently true.” Here is a good one: When the Reformed Church unveiled the Horthy-plaque in the Reformed Gymnasium in Debrecen in May, there was a small protest and press statement of MSZP and the Jewish community in front of the building. The school had the kids file out to form a human chain around (“protect”) it, singing hymns to blot out the protest (exorcism, calvinist version), and kids tore up a transparent saying “Horthy – never again”. In the video, the reporter asks some kids what they actually know about Horthy. A boy says, “he was a student of this school, and we are known to stand up for each other.” – “What else do you know about Horthy?” – “Ummm nothing comes to mind”, “here are the organizers, you can ask them.” An older boy in a black T-Shirt, apparently one of the organizers, doesn’t know either, just grins into the camera. Turned out he’s Minister Zoltán Balog’s son. I am not at all surprised. Many Hungarians follow Jobbik or Fidesz not according to what they… Read more »
Csaba K. Zoltani
Guest

The teaching of history in its schools reflects the opinions of the ruling elite of a country. A cursory examination of the the content of history courses after ‘liberation’ in Hungary, what was included and what was excluded, is a prime example. Erdely was not even mentioned even though it constituted an important part of the country’s history.

In Chicago there was no requirement when I attended grade and high school there to take any history courses except civics, that gave an overview of the American system of governing. There was no requirement to know about events outside of our borders that ultimately transformed and shaped US society. Thus our electorate is hardly in the position to make rational decisions, due to a glaring lack of knowledge, to what extent we should be engaged in the world.

An
Guest

@Csaba K. Zoltani: Re: Erdely wasn’t even mentioned, right…. Then why was it on the erettsegi (high school school leaving exam)? It must have been mentioned somewhere if students got tested on it.

http://erettsegi.com/tortenelem/erdely-fejlodese-aranykora-es-hanyatlasa/

Member

The sorry state of the history education cannot be blamed only on the FIDESZ (one of the rare things they didn’t screw up alone). Nobody since the fall of the communist regime tried to rework the curriculum. As Csaba mentioned it they only threw out the obvious marxists garbage but nothing else happened. The memorization and the lack of the “connecting the dots” approach was still missing. None of the post-communist governments took on the task. Has anybody written in the past 22 years an alternative curriculum that at least can be debated?

Member

An :
@Csaba K. Zoltani: Re: Erdely wasn’t even mentioned, right…. Then why was it on the erettsegi (high school school leaving exam)? It must have been mentioned somewhere if students got tested on it.
http://erettsegi.com/tortenelem/erdely-fejlodese-aranykora-es-hanyatlasa/

Well, this is a good example what professor Balogh is trying to say. The history of Transylvania ends in the 17th century. We learned the same exact things during the ancient regime, in the 80s.

An
Guest
Mutt : The sorry state of the history education cannot be blamed only on the FIDESZ (one of the rare things they didn’t screw up alone). Nobody since the fall of the communist regime tried to rework the curriculum. As Csaba mentioned it they only threw out the obvious marxists garbage but nothing else happened. The memorization and the lack of the “connecting the dots” approach was still missing. None of the post-communist governments took on the task. Has anybody written in the past 22 years an alternative curriculum that at least can be debated? 1. Csaba K. Zoltani was not making the point you attribute to him. He was bashing the pre-Fidesz “liberal” education for being politically biased, citing an example that turns out to be incorrect. 2. On the other hand, there is an excellent post above from Marcel De on what an education in history should look like, which is in line with your call for “connecting the dots”. 3. Re: Alternative curriculum…. the idea of having a centrally-decided uniform curriculum itself is something that dates back to the Kadar era (and probably to even before that). I’m not necessarily against setting up some kind of standard… Read more »
An
Guest

Mutt :

An :
@Csaba K. Zoltani: Re: Erdely wasn’t even mentioned, right…. Then why was it on the erettsegi (high school school leaving exam)? It must have been mentioned somewhere if students got tested on it.
http://erettsegi.com/tortenelem/erdely-fejlodese-aranykora-es-hanyatlasa/

Well, this is a good example what professor Balogh is trying to say. The history of Transylvania ends in the 17th century. We learned the same exact things during the ancient regime, in the 80s.

I don’t know what you learned in school, but in my school the history of Transylvania did not end in the 17th century. It definitely did not get the detailed attention for later periods than for this one… and yes, this stuff probably doesn’t seem to be updated much since the 80s. The question really is not what was taught about the 17th century, but what was taught about more recent history.. and that got tweaked around a lot more.

I still don’t get how it is possible that those students demonstrating did not know anything about Horthy. Very scary.

Member
Csaba K. Zoltani : The teaching of history in its schools reflects the opinions of the ruling elite of a country. A cursory examination of the the content of history courses after ‘liberation’ in Hungary, what was included and what was excluded, is a prime example. Erdely was not even mentioned even though it constituted an important part of the country’s history. In Chicago there was no requirement when I attended grade and high school there to take any history courses except civics, that gave an overview of the American system of governing. There was no requirement to know about events outside of our borders that ultimately transformed and shaped US society. Thus our electorate is hardly in the position to make rational decisions, due to a glaring lack of knowledge, to what extent we should be engaged in the world. I do agree with you until the last sentence. I do not understand why when is something not working in the USA, that is the example they use in Hungary, and when something works fantastically in the USA, they use Romania or a thord world country as an example in Hungary. I think your post just hit the nail… Read more »
Csaba K. Zoltani
Guest

I would be grateful if someone could furnish verifiable proof that during the communist era that the history of Erdely was taught in the high schools. What was the question about Erdely that was asked on the erettsegi? Thank you in advance.

petofi
Guest

Eva S. Balogh :
Pusztranger’s example on video. Absolutely frightening. One of the “organizers” is the son of a cabinet minister in whose family the name of Horthy not exactly a household word. But he organizes an event to honor the man about whom he knows nothing. In addition, the Orbán government vehemently denies that it has anything to do with the growing Horthy cult while a family member of one of the ministers is actively participating in building that cult.
The kids shown here are at least 16-17 years old who can be herded out without ever inquiring about the man they are honoring. Madness.

The fact that the Minister’s sone knew nothing about Horthy suggests that the Minister
was probably not a great believer either; but again, what arises is the suspicion that this is the wish of Him-Whose-Wish-Must-Be-Realized….the Viktator, the Orbanor, the Great
Azeri Negotiator Himself…Herr Orban of the First Hungarian Reich!

An
Guest

Csaba K. Zoltani :
I would be grateful if someone could furnish verifiable proof that during the communist era that the history of Erdely was taught in the high schools. What was the question about Erdely that was asked on the erettsegi? Thank you in advance.

Well, I went to high school in the 80s, and we did learn about the history of Erdely. As I don’t have my schoolbooks anymore, I cant; give you “verifiable proof”.

spectator
Guest

“Has anybody written in the past 22 years an alternative curriculum that at least can be debated?”
What frequently debated isn’t an alternative curriculum, but loads of alternative historical facts, as I see it.
Sound strange? Smithboroug up front quite correct – no “fact” good enough if it doesn’t fit to the “politically correct” view of the ruling parties. Alternatively, if there is a way they twist the facts shamelessly. Just look back to the Nyírő-reburial story for one.

Because of the quasi religious approach to politics today in Hungary – people believe, because they want to, not because they have reason – feels quite hopeless sometimes even trying to explain and argue.
You know, the “I made up my mind already, don’t try to confuse me with facts” kind…

Don’t think, that these changes in the education happened by chance, the narrow minded approach far from being only the result of dilettantism. In my opinion it’s a well planned motion – the brain washing of the coming generations an large, breeding the obedient masses for the greater glory of our almighty leader.
And it only has begun.

An
Guest

Of course, nothing of the more recent history (after WWII) of Erdely.

Member
An : 1. Csaba K. Zoltani was not making the point you attribute to him. He was bashing the pre-Fidesz “liberal” education for being politically biased, citing an example that turns out to be incorrect. 2. On the other hand, there is an excellent post above from Marcel De on what an education in history should look like, which is in line with your call for “connecting the dots”. 3. Re: Alternative curriculum…. the idea of having a centrally-decided uniform curriculum itself is something that dates back to the Kadar era (and probably to even before that). I’m not necessarily against setting up some kind of standard across all schools in the country, but it should allow some kind of flexibility for the schools and teachers. This one, two, three sounds like my history classes in the 80s … 🙂 1. Nah. 2. Indeed. But I would add that this (approaching history from research) should be part of the history education. This part should spark the interest in history and politics that can lead later to responsible citizens. But you still can’t expect the students to Google by themselves what happened in the past. You need to teach it. 3.… Read more »
Member

Memories again. I bet the most frequent phrase during my history classes was this:

“they recognized, that …” (felismerték, hogy …). History was a serious of revelations. Marxist light bulb history.

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