The new guiding light of Hungarian higher education: István Klinghammer

Since my less than flattering comment about László Gy. Tóth aroused so much interest in the quality of Hungarian education, I thought it might be a good idea to devote a post to the nonexistent Ministry of Education and its newly appointed undersecretary in charge of higher education, István Klinghammer.

Let’s start with the very structure of the second Orbán government that deprived certain key ministries of their independent existence. To list only the three most obvious, finance, education and culture, and health were all demoted. Viktor Orbán demonstrated the “frugality” of his government by having only eight ministries–as many as the first Hungarian government in 1848. Naturally, nowadays a central government has a few more tasks than the Hungarian government did in 1848. Moreover, even Lajos Batthyány’s government had a minister of finance. Moreover, not just anybody but Lajos Kossuth himself.

As a result of Orbán’s consolidation, some previously separate ministries were subordinated to mega-ministries, the largest of which is the Ministry of Human Resources under Zoltán Balog. He is supposed to take care of health, education, culture, and who knows what else. Mind you, he as a former Hungarian reformed minister knows mighty little about any of these fields.

Education was given to the Christian Democrats, who chose a middle-aged schoolmarm to be in charge. Although on paper Rózsa Hoffmann has all sorts of qualifications, she is basically a small-minded high school teacher. I wrote earlier about the nationalization of schools and her plans to turn the clock back to the 1970s when she finished her studies as a Russian-French major. Eventually it became patently clear that  this woman just doesn’t have what it takes to “reform” Hungarian education. Moreover, she was an irritant to the country’s university professors and students. By February of this year Orbán at last confronted the Christian Democratic leaders with the sad news that “Rózsa didn’t quite work out” and that, since she is so busy with education on the lower level, higher education should be handled by someone else. So came István Klinghammer, former president of ELTE.

Klinghammer was a controversial choice, although Fidesz politicians felt that “he must be better than his predecessor.” He was described by others as a tough guy who grew up in the worst section of District VIII. At the time of his appointment I noted that he began his studies at the Budapest  University of Technology but two years later transferred to ELTE to become a geography teacher. Well, for me that meant that the young Klinghammer couldn’t quite handle the work in this very tough technical college. After getting a teacher’s certificate in geography he became a cartographer and received a “university doctorate,” not to be mixed up with the Ph.D. As far as I can ascertain, this is the highest degree he received, but he made quite a career for himself at ELTE. In 2000 he became president of the university and in 2010 became a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Klinghammer Istvan

István Klinghammer / Magyar Hírlap

Klinghammer likes to talk and is considered to be a good communicator, but perhaps it would be better if he talked less. Ever since he became undersecretary in charge of higher education he has been giving one interview after the other, often saying things he shouldn’t. Not long ago he made great pronouncements about the nature of the university. There is a consensus in the U.S. that a university is, to quote my favorite definition (Random House), “an institution of learning of the highest level, comprising a college of liberal arts, a program of graduate studies, and several professional schools, and authorized to confer both undergraduate and graduate degrees.” The Hungarian word for university, “egyetem,” also gives a clue about the universality of disciplines taught in universities. But then comes our Klinghammer who announces that “engineering and music” shouldn’t be taught at the same university. So, an engineer should know nothing about music, art, or literature. In Hungarian there is a good word for such a person: “professional barbarian” (szakbarbár). Moreover, Klinghammer has little appreciation of any fields outside of natural sciences and engineering because they “don’t produce any value, they only please people and give them happiness.”

So, busy bloggers–I suspect students–did some research on Klinghammer’s own scientific accomplishments. He was prolific, writing according to one account 15 books and 30 chapters in different publications, primarily in Hungarian. But his work attracted little interest abroad; foreign academics referred to his works only twice. Details of his academic activities can be found here.

And how does he come across as a person? Badly. In a lengthy interview he gave to Népszabadság he gave the impression–to use the description of György C. Kálmán (literary historian and former professor at ELTE)–of a man “who finds his titles terribly important, who is a puffed-up academic with narrow views, someone who doesn’t understand the first thing about democracy, someone whose views on learning and erudition are hopelessly wrong; in brief, he is an old fogey.”‘

Another blogger, after looking through Klinghammer’s scientific accomplishments, discovered that among his many publications he even listed articles in Magyar Nemzet and in a popular science magazine, Élet és Tudomány. This blogger summarizes Klinghammer’s impact on the world: “He wrote seven books in Hungarian that inspired ten references. After forty years of work his impact is zero.” Whatever the precise number of publications and references, foreign and domestic, we can definitely conclude that Klinghammer, despite his own inflated self-image, is not a renowned scholar. Perhaps if he had bragged less he wouldn’t have elicited so many antagonistic responses. And this is the man who is supposed to make Hungarian higher education world-class.


  1. @Vondra

    Czechia is able to self-correct, it is still a democracy.

    Hungary’s self-correcting mechanisms were destroyed by Orban, Hungary is not a democracy any longer.

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