The inspiration for today’s post comes from many widely divergent sources but I hope that they will gel into a reasonably coherent series of thoughts.
First, I was intrigued by the readers’ discussion on male and female roles in Hungary versus Great Britain or the United States. Second, I read an interesting article about Fidesz’s adoption of the extremely conservative ideas of the Hungarian Christian Democratic Party concerning women and family. Third, the other day I watched a television program on ATV in which among the invited guests was a well known writer who was horrified at the boorishness of Hungary’s prime minister. I might also add here that the reporter who is the moderator of the program is at least as much of a boor as Viktor Orbán himself. And fourth, and I know this sounds rather odd, I watched the fifth lecture of the History of the Early Middle Ages, 284-1000 about St. Augustine, which inspired me to seek some answers for the possible causes of Hungarian male behavior, especially among people who never had the benefit of a liberal arts education.
Well, I’ll bet you have no idea where I’m going. So, let’s see what I can make out of all this. While I was reading the different comments my mind raced back to my childhood as well as to my experiences among relatives and friends from the more recent past. Let’s face it, Hungarian women are also somewhat responsible for their own plight. If the wife never asks the husband to help out, the man would be crazy to volunteer. Men in my family were unable to boil an egg. My father’s underwear, suit, a clean shirt and the appropriate tie were dutifully laid out every morning. So, one could say, the all-obliging wife deserves at least some of what she gets.
Okay, one might argue, but this was an entirely different generation when few women worked outside of the home. Things have improved since. Perhaps, but I’d wager to say that even the majority of families still function this way. There have been scores of sociological studies that back up this point. According to all the analyses, Hungarian men’s contribution to household chores and child rearing is far less than in western countries.
In a society where women become in a way the servants of men it is not surprising that some of the men, perhaps even a majority, actually look down on the weaker sex. Lately there has been a lot of discussion in the media about the rude, sexist, vulgar comments coming from male parliamentary members when female MPs rise to speak. And this is not something new that came along with the Orbán government; according to veteran woman politicians this was the situation already between 1990 and 1994. First of all, there are so few female members of parliament (less than 10%) that it’s easy for the men to feel superior. The women are almost intruders in this male club.
And the rudeness and primitiveness of some of the male MPs leads me the television program in which among the invited guests was Krisztián Grecsó, a poet and writer. During the discussion Grecsó mentioned his adverse reaction when he sees Viktor Orbán sitting surrounded by his rich plutocrat friends at football games chewing sunflower seeds and spitting out the shells on the ground. Grecsó is horrified that the prime minister of the country behaves like that in public. What kind of an example is it, he asks, for the rest of Hungarian society? The boorishness of the Hungarian prime minister is noticeable practically everywhere. He is quite capable of standing for an official photo with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with his hands in his pockets. Or when he is seen on a photo in the VIP waiting room at the Brussels airport with a bottle of beer in front of him and his legs spread wide apart. A picture of Orbán appeared in one of the French newspapers a couple of years ago in which he was sitting in Felcsút dressed in sweat pants and a sweat shirt sipping coffee. He looked like a two-bit football player from the local team. And in many ways he is.
I often talked in the past about Orbán’s lack of a solid education. After high school he immediately moved on, just like all Hungarians who decide to enter the law, to law school. Thus he lacks the foundations of what we in North America call a liberal arts education. Since I always quote from Yale sources, let me switch and quote from a brochure of Harvard College’s Admission’s Office. Here is their definition of a liberal arts education:
A Harvard education is a liberal education — that is, an education conducted in a spirit of free inquiry undertaken without concern for topical relevance or vocational utility. This kind of learning is not only one of the enrichments of existence; it is one of the achievements of civilization. It heightens students’ awareness of the human and natural worlds they inhabit. It makes them more reflective about their beliefs and choices, more self-conscious and critical of their presuppositions and motivations, more creative in their problem-solving, more perceptive of the world around them, and more able to inform themselves about the issues that arise in their lives, personally, professionally, and socially. College is an opportunity to learn and reflect in an environment free from most of the constraints on time and energy that operate in the rest of life.
A liberal education is also a preparation for the rest of life. The subjects that undergraduates study and, as importantly, the skills and habits of mind they acquire in the process, shape the lives they will lead after they leave the academy. Some of our students will go on to become academics; many will become physicians, lawyers, and businesspeople. All of them will be citizens, whether of the United States or another country, and as such will be helping to make decisions that may affect the lives of others. All of them will engage with forces of change — cultural, religious, political, demographic, technological, planetary. All of them will have to assess empirical claims, interpret cultural expressions, and confront ethical dilemmas in their personal and professional lives. A liberal education gives students the tools to face these challenges in an informed and thoughtful way.
Most of the important government officials and political leaders in the United States received that kind of education before they entered professional school. Indeed, just as Paul Freedman, the Yale professor who teaches the course on early medieval Europe, said, reading St. Augustine’s Confessions or the works of the ancient philosophers will serve his students well in all walks of life. He urged his students to widen their horizons.
Perhaps a little more contemplation, thoughtful inquiry, and soul-searching wouldn’t hurt these Hungarian men, mostly lawyers, in the Hungarian parliament. Some knowledge of literature, history, and philosophy would make them more tolerant and a great deal wiser. And perhaps also less boorish. But Orbán’s ideas on education deny the role of such liberal inquiries. Through his spokeswoman Rózsa Hoffmann he is moving away from intellectual inquiry and is placing the emphasis on practical learning. If he manages to transform Hungarian education to his liking, the lack of a liberal education will make Hungarian society even less tolerant and self-reflective.