Hungarian academic standards: Analysis of a textbook

It looks to me as if the Hungarian academic community is closing ranks. Not necessarily because the people involved are supporters of the current government but because they realize that if a serious investigation of Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén’s so-called research is undertaken the greatest loser will be Hungarian academe.

What is the difference between the current plagiarism scandal and that of President Pál Schmitt? Schmitt’s was a open and shut case even if the Hungarian authorities took their own sweet time in reaching the right decision.The plagiarism was so blatant that there was never any question that the work Schmitt submitted was a translation of French and English texts and that not even the translation was his own. Moreover, the academic community could brush aside the case, claiming that a doctoral dissertation written for the College of Physical Education was “a joke.” Something like that could never happen at a “real” university.

And yet here we are. ELTE, one of the top universities if not the top, finds itself in the middle of a controversy. It turns out that the university bestowed a degree in sociology on Zsolt Semjén when the readers most likely knew that a large part of the senior paper (szakdolgozat) was simply copied from a mostly plagiarized dissertation submitted for the fulfillment of the requirements in another subject at another university. That other university was Péter Pázmány Catholic University, a favorite of the current government and the Christian Democratic Party, chaired by Semjén.

And today I’ll focus on another blot on Hungarian scholarship: the substandard textbook produced by one of the professors of Corvinus University. Corvinus otherwise has an excellent reputation as a university specializing in economics, finance, and business.

All in all, I’m not surprised that the scholars involved are eager to close the case. Because, let’s face it, it is deplorable that they set the bar so low that they accepted these two pieces of work and considered Semjén’s performance excellent. What does this say about the standards of Hungarian higher education? Or about education in general?

Now, on to the Corvinus textbook.

A few days ago I received the text of  Géza Jeszenszky’s chapter on “Minorities in Hungary: The issue of the Roma (Gypsies. Minority self-government).” In an earlier post I called Jeszenszky a “lousy scholar.” Now that I have the full text I can reiterate the same with even greater emphasis.

I don’t know how much research went into this particular chapter but it couldn’t have been much. Jeszenszky wrote the English-language text himself without asking a native speaker to check it. Thus, in the very first sentence there is a grammatical error. Moreover, Jeszenszky is quite capable of writing the word “Gypsy” two different ways on two consecutive lines. Once properly and then as “Gipsy.”

Painting by János Balázs (1905-1977)
Roma painter and poet

I will not have time to go line by line and point out everything that I consider to belong to the realm of unacceptable scholarship. My observations will be general since I am not sufficiently familiar with the subject matter. But if one claims (and note that I’m not editing Jeszenszky’s English) that “the greatest number of Roma with full higher education in the whole of Europe is in Hungary, both in absolute and relative terms” one would like to see some numbers. Instead, we read that “among the 24 Hungarian members of the European Parliament, two are Roma.” (I might add that since the book was written there is only one because SZDSZ didn’t get enough votes and since then its Roma representative Viktória Mohácsi has been seeking political asylum in Canada.)

Jeszenszky seems to have problems with numbers in general. In one place he correctly estimates the percentage of Roma in Hungary’s population as 7-8%, but a few lines later we read that “in some countries [in Eastern Europe] their share of the overall population exceeds 5 per cent.” Or how meaningful is this assertion: “In terms of estimated figures for the number of Gypsies resident in 38 European countries, Hungary lies in the fourth place, after Romania, Bulgaria and Spain.” In absolute numbers or as a percentage of the population? According to Romanian statistics, Gypsies constitute 3.4% of the population. Spain apparently has 700,000 Roma, about as many as Hungary, but Spain’s population is close to 50 million as opposed to Hungary’s 10 million.

Or what about this? “Since 2001 the size of the Roma population has increased rapidly. Today every fifth or sixth newborn Hungarian child belongs to the Roma minority.” Where is he getting these numbers since very few Gypsies actually declare themselves as belonging to the Roma minority?

And then comes the notorious sentence that received so much publicity: “”The reason why many Roma are mentally ill is because in Roma culture it is permitted for sisters and brothers or cousins to marry each other or just to have sexual intercourse with each other.” Judging from this sentence, Jeszenszky doesn’t seem to know the meaning of the word “mentally ill.” Intermarriage might result in genetic problems or retardation but not in mental illness. Of course, it is possible that Jeszenszky knows the difference in Hungarian but perhaps not in English.

But there are other peculiar assertions. Here is one example: The Roma’s “attachment to established religions, whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian, appears to have been a matter of convenience rather than conviction.” The example he gives is of Gypsies who lived in the Balkans under prolonged Turkish rule as opposed to those who lived under Christian rule. One doesn’t have to be an expert to know that this is a ridiculous assertion. Serbs who lived under Turkish rule for a long time became Muslims, something the Christian Serbs haven’t forgotten to this day. Or Syria before the Arab conquest was overwhelmingly Christian, but eventually they converted to Islam. Moreover, the Hungarian Roma population is a great deal more religious than the non-Roma population of the country.

There is a section that talks about the Roma invasion of Western Europe in early modern times, but “because of their alien culture and unwillingness to be engaged in agricultural production they were soon expelled and deported from Western Europe, sometimes brutally. Some tribes managed to hold out in the Mediterranean region but the majority retreated to Central and Eastern Europe.” The suggestion here is that Western Europeans were intolerant while in Eastern Europe, specifically in Hungary, Gypsies found shelter.

Here is a description of the current situation: “Criminality is high among them, consequently a negative attitude to Roma is wide-spread among the population at large.” Again, the suggestion is that discrimination is solely due to the Gypsies’ criminality. “Many Roma live in self-made squatter settlements on the outskirts of towns or villages.” As if the Roma chose to live in isolation at the far end of villages.

Here is an interesting description of the discrimination against Roma children in schools. “A large proportion of their children do not regularly attend school. Discrimination plays some part in this as the birth-rate among Roma has increased while the general population has a zero or negative growth rate, and many elementary schools are inundated by unruly Gypsy children.” Hence discrimination and truancy?

And finally, here is another telling sign of the incredible prejudice that can be found in practically every line. After a long description of the “very serious efforts to improve the lot of [Hungary’s] citizens of Gipsy origin” Jeszenszky continues: “The media, especially the international, gives publicity mainly to the negative tendencies and to the controversies. (Recently hot debates started about a few criminal cases. Some were described as ‘hate crime’ against Roma, others involved family feuds between Gipsy families, but on several occasions Gypsy gangs killed innocent non-Gypsies.)”

Well, we all remember the cases of serial murders of absolutely innocent Roma by a gang of far-right Gypsy haters. If those were not hate crimes, I don’t know what they were.

Honestly, what can we expect from Hungarian higher education when textbooks such as this are being used at one of the best universities in the country? The reputation of Hungarian scholarship is at stake.

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Bowen
Guest

It seems like Jeszenszky’s textbook was not only lacking a native-English copy editor, it hadn’t been peer reviewed either (until now). Which is unusual for academic publishing, I would have thought?

nyaripal
Guest
Re. Jeszenszky writing his own ‘English’: Hungary is the only country other than the UK I’ve lived in, so I don’t know if this applies to other countries as well or if it’s a peculiar Hungarian problem, but there seems to be a general carelessness in Hungary about English translation. Where it really matters, like government web sites and at the airport, it can be very good, but often the translation is appalling, so much so that the English speaker is left not really knowing what the text means. It isn’t purely poor translation, but often just literal translation, without taking the very different sentence structure between the two languages into account (and this is VERY much a problem peculiar to Hungary). My Hungarian is far too poor to offer to translate, but I have several times offered (for free) to proof-read translations and correct them into native English. For instance, I have offered my services to Debrecen’s museum (their English ‘translations’ have to be seen to be believed), Debrecen Tourinfo (they got ‘eastern’ and ‘Easter’ mixed up in their tourist publicity!) and a posh hotel in Lillafüred, whose English notices spoilt its image completely. In each case they weren’t… Read more »
Minusio
Guest
The best Hungarian university is probably Soros’ CEU, but even that ranks not all that highly on an international scale, although probably the highest in Hungary. (But it is only a post-doctoral educational institute.) I think its ranking dropped with the increasing number of Hungarian faculty – which is now the majority. I happen to know lots of people in Hungary who decorate their name with a “Dr.”. My general experience has been that their academic achievement has been that of a B.A. or an M.A. – if it can be fathomed at all. My girlfriend is a professor at Györ university and a senior researcher at an institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA). She was the first to make “TèT” a peer-reviewed quarterly. That created quite a row, and you can’t imagine how many letters she gets asking her to do a “special favour”. We often discuss the merits of those articles and theses she has to read and pass her verdict on. In over 17 years, there wasn’t one that would have passed on its own. [And the English abstracts: I have to struggle hard to make them understandable even to myself.] Interestingly, Austria was once… Read more »
Ron
Guest

Nyaripal: Is this just ‘normal’ carelessness or lack of understanding, or yet another example of that infamous Hungarian arrogance?

No it is not. It is just the infamous “top” management arrogance.

Member

Great post! It’s time to make the Hungarian “elite” feel that nobody is a sacred cow. I hope somebody will tear Mr. Semjen’s evil-sex-and-rock-and-roll opus apart to show what kind of garbage is enough to get a degree on Planet Hungary.

Let’s talk turkey!

Member

Ron :
Nyaripal: Is this just ‘normal’ carelessness or lack of understanding, or yet another example of that infamous Hungarian arrogance?
No it is not. It is just the infamous “top” management arrogance.

Nah. Work. The dreaded M word (work=munka). Somebody should organize the changing of signs – order them, tell somebody to put them up …

Also these arrogant westerners will not tell us what is good English.

Paul
Guest

Sorry about the name change – it keeps insisting I’m called ‘nyaripal’ and I don’t always spot it in time!

Member

Dont worry Susu. We know who you are!

Paul
Guest

Eva S. Balogh :
Paul and poor English translations. Sometimes I don’t even understand what Portfolio wants to say.

Éva – I RARELY understand what Portfolio want to say! (But I think that is more down to what they write about than their English.)

Talking of whom – I just found this on their site: http://www.portfolio.hu/en/economy/ryanair_announces_40_cuts_in_budapest_over_high_airport_charges.25175.html

Is this just Ryanair being Ryanair, or the beginning of the end of the post-Malév mini boom?

I always suspected that Ryanair had no long term plans for developing Budapest as a significant hub, they were just testing the water. How long before Wizzair start cutting back as well?

Guest

I would very much like the chapter on the Roma population. Thank you for the offer!

dvhr
Guest

Eva S. Balogh :
By the way, if anyone is interested in the whole text of the questionable chapter on the Roma population of Hungary, please, indicate it. I will be glad to send it to you.

Please, do!

Guest

@Minusio: Your comment reminded me of something.

Re quality of Hungarian and Austrian doctorates:

The worst Austrian university was Innsbruck. Almost 50 years ago a friend of mine (heir to a middle size company) was sent there by his father to get his economics diploma – even today he likes to tell “tall stories” about the good life he had there …

He told me a joke:

If you pass the Innsbruck campus be sure to keep your handbag closed – they’ll try to smuggle in a diploma if it’s open …

PS:

On my business trips to Vienna the hotel receptionists would always address me as “Herr Doktor” even though I’m not, it seems it’s still customary, so the title ain’t worth much …

And a teacher is often called “Herr/Frau Professor”- and like in Hungary, if the husband is a doctor/professor the wife gets called Frau Doktor/Professor … …

Minusio
Guest

@wolfi: At about the same time, Franz-Josef Strauss was enrolled at the university of Innsbruck for about three years. When he joined the cabinet Kiesinger (Grand Coalition) as minister of finance in 1966 he ended his (infrequent) studies there. He had heard of the terms input and output, though, which he kept using a lot from then on. Actually so much so that the Spiegel once titled an article about him “put-put”.

Those where the days…

LwiiH
Guest
Bowen : It seems like Jeszenszky’s textbook was not only lacking a native-English copy editor, it hadn’t been peer reviewed either (until now). Which is unusual for academic publishing, I would have thought? One would hope that peer review would catch things like thus but unfortunately the publishing industry is full of examples where bad authors plagiarize and publishers for one reason or another simply miss. Consider this, Eva herself says; “My observations will be general since I am not sufficiently familiar with the subject matter” and you certainly wouldn’t consider her a lightweight in this area. That said, making conclusions such as those made in this text without providing any study or numbers to base those conclusions on is degrading the text to at best, a matter of opinion, not fact, and at worst, just a highly skewed perspective that in this case appears to be quite racists. But this isn’t the biggest problem in teaching. It that kids are being taught skewed versions of history that put them at odds with reality and their neighbours. Or the state butting their noses into things that are simply none of their business… this is where the bigger problems lies. I… Read more »
LwiiH
Guest
nyaripal : Re. Jeszenszky writing his own ‘English’: Hungary is the only country other than the UK I’ve lived in, so I don’t know if this applies to other countries as well or if it’s a peculiar Hungarian problem, but there seems to be a general carelessness in Hungary about English translation. …. In each case they weren’t interested. In fact none even bothered to write back – despite the fact that I had included a substantial example of their corrected signs/texts in each case, and was offering to do it for free. I am often offered and english version of menus in restaurants… and I always refuse because it’s quite common for the translations to be so bad that you either have no idea what the dish is or you end up getting something completely unexpected. In some cases my wife and I have just taken a menu and marked it up… it’s quite fun… like doing a crossword puzzle or something. As for the airport, well, you can tell by the quality of service that it’s run more as a hobby than a serious business and as such some of the english signs are very humorous. I’ve some… Read more »
Bowen
Guest

@ LwiiH and Paul: I did some work as a copy-editor on a magazine (it folded some time after Orban came into power) designed to be handed out to foreign businessmen in a bid to promote Hungary as a fantastic place to invest in. My main role was to rewrite the text (written in English by Hungarians) to make it sound more appealing, etc. etc. On many occasions, I came across passages which were florid, deeply pretentious, made no sense whatsoever, or worse, would give entirely the opposite message. I would send them back with heavy rewrites, or huge question marks. But I was always told: no, no, we’re keeping it – we want to give the magazine a ‘Hungarian flavour’. And with ‘high-profile’, VIP guest writers, the copy was ‘sensitive’ and would just go straight to print without editing.

petofi
Guest

I used to buy slim chess books that were collections of games of individual greats, living and dead. The English was laughable but always attributed to a Dr. SomeoneOrOther. I once
offered to rewrite an introduction for free. They never even honoured me with a reply.

Member

Academic standards… To make the story short: in my view, the problem goes back to the legacy of Central European (post-)feudal societies: laziness and arrogance (mis)understood as high-class markers. In order to thrive and prosper, you must a) find the loopholes in the system, have the right connections and use them, b) bully everybody who is below you in the hierarchy, and never allow anybody question the idea that you are entitled to success simply by virtue of being . Point c), being really competent by some objective measure, only comes in if there is serious competition within a framework far wider than your circles. (In Austria, this is the case far more often than in Hungary. And in the natural sciences in Hungary, this is the case more often than in those disciplines where you can read and publish everything in Hungarian.)
BTW: it would be nice to see what an objective, erudite, expert theologian would say about Semjén’s PhD thesis. The few pages I managed to read through were shockingly superficial and naïve.

Member

Sorry, I was stupid enough to use angular brackets which the editor mistook for HTML code… It was supposed to be: b) … you are entitled to success simply by virtue of being (fill in the name of your nation, class, family, group, or network).

Member

And, about the standards and integrity in the Hungarian education system, cordially recommended to all of you who read Hungarian: http://www.vasarnapihirek.hu/szerintem/grecso_magyar_nyelv_tanar_oktatas .

Minusio
Guest

@ LwiiH: In Pest there is a fancy restaurant called “Blue Tomato” (it near a place where you can your Braun electric razor refurbished with new accus). It offers very good soups – actually the only Hungarian culinary achievement, and much underrated. The multi-lingual menu was absolutely hilareous. Under the main Hungarian entry it would offer another type of meat in every of the other languages! The waiter just shrugged his shoulders.

When I sent an email to the mayor of Debrecen about the bad English on his website, his secretary sent me a reply to the effect that, yes, they knew the problem and had tried out so many translators already, but the problem didn’t go away. When I suggested to try a mother-tongue translator or ad-copy writer, I didn’t get an answer…

Guest

@Minusio:

Your comment on Franz Josef Strauß reminded me that I heard this from my friend (not once, but several times):

Strauß came up to his professor to get a kind of degree, but the professor told him to visit his lectures first at least for one or two semesters – then he would think about giving him a topic for a thesis. Strauß got so angry that he never returned to Innsbruck.

The professor told this story regularly to his students …

PS:

Of course we have that problem everywhere (also Germany, the USA)):

Not all universities and universities degrees are equal – most managers in Germany will tell you that they have a list which to accept at face value and which are “not worth the paper that they’re written on” …

Minusio
Guest
@ wolfi: On the other hand, Strauss did his ‘abitur’ in 1934 with the best Bavarian result since 1910 and went on to became a Latin and Greek teacher. When he was 53 he got his first licence as a pilot to fly small aircraft. If I had ever been one of his passengers I would have hated him. He once landed in Moscow on an airport that was closed because of heavy snowfall. But he didn’t have enough fuel left to fly somewhere else… (This could have wiped out the entire top echelon of the CSU!) Other passengers reported that because he was very talkative he would sometimes forget where he was flying, so he would look for the tracks of a railway, make a “stuka” dive and ask the passengers to read the sign of the railway station that came to their sight… But I did hate him anyway because he was quite corrupt. Ad your PS. Of course, it depends a lot on where and when you got your degree. I found an interesting distinction between anglosaxon and continental European universities: Some of the most famous universities are very good at teaching, but when you want to… Read more »
Pete H.
Guest

A German problem also: http://www.npr.org/2012/11/24/165790164/a-wave-of-plagiarism-cases-strikes-german-politics

At my university in the US, I can have my students submit papers via an online system that not only checks each paper against thousands of academic and popular sources, but in addition it checks against a database of every paper submitted to my class.

Guest

Pete’s link is a very good one!

I have written on another thread about this – it seems typical for people who want to go into politics (maybe because they know themselves that they wouldn’t be good scholars …) that they want to show off and impress others with their degrees …

Is this a European problem only ?

Minusio
Guest

@ wolfi: Pete’s link is only so-so. It suggests that there is a problem whereas in reality we have had a few cases which were found out in due course.

I wouldn’t generalise about people who want to go into politcs and their academic performance. Some of the best politicians I remember never saw a university from the inside. On the other hand for many of today’s politicians and their voters the two World Wars, the holocaust are only hearsay. They don’t understand anymore why this unique project called the European Union and the Franco-German relationship are of such utter importance. We have a personnel problem!

When Churchill was interviewed and asked : “And so you went through Eton?”, he dryly remarked : “I crawled under it.”

One of the Kennedys was caught cheating but not chucked out. And how Dubbya was able to graduate from Yale University in 1968 and Harvard Business School in 1975 is anyone’s guess.

HawkEye
Guest

This is my proposal, to create an OPTIMIST blog: Hungary is Moving to the West!
Balogh Eva, Kremer Balazs, Fazekas Csaba……. unedited Galamus…
These qualified people can do a good job without editors….in one common blog.

Pete H.
Guest

wolfi :
Pete’s link is a very good one!
I have written on another thread about this – it seems typical for people who want to go into politics (maybe because they know themselves that they wouldn’t be good scholars …) that they want to show off and impress others with their degrees …
Is this a European problem only ?

In the US politicians tend to downplay their academic achievements.

Guest

London Calling!

I think we should ask Judy Hopes!

Regards

Charlie

wpDiscuz