Yesterday I read with astonishment the following sentences in one of Viktor Orbán’s latest speeches, delivered at the future site of a sports complex to house the 2017 world aquatics championships:
When we talk about the Hungarian government’s commitment to sports … we are actually talking about the future of Hungary, about our children, about our grandchildren, about those Hungarians who will be living here when we are no more. We live in a crazy world in which it is not easy to bring up members of the younger generation, but I’m convinced that the only sure educational method that helps the new generation become successful, to stand on its own feet in the world, is sports. Sport is the equivalent of the Hungarian future and Hungarian children. We will not deny them any kind of sacrifice within reasonable limits. That’s why it was an easy decision by the Hungarian government to support this upcoming event.
Did we hear correctly? The education of the next generation can best be achieved through sports? While Hungarian education and healthcare are in shambles, the Orbán government is ready to lavishly endow sports facilities and programs that serve only the top athletes in the field. Because we shouldn’t be fooled by all this talk. The incredible amount of money the government spends on sports is for elite athletes, not for recreational sports activities.
I certainly value sports both as an ingredient of healthful living and as an opportunity to learn about teamwork and competition. But putting sports ahead of all other human endeavors is a horribly skewed way of understanding personal development. To become a successful, well-adjusted human being requires a bit more than running after a ball all day long.
And that brings me to a study by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences about the effects of the Orbán government’s so-called “educational reforms.” The word “reform” implies improvement, which is why I was somewhat annoyed when Eleni Kounalakis, in her book, kept referring to the undemocratic changes introduced by the government as “reform processes.” Viktor Orbán and Rózsa Hoffmann didn’t reform Hungarian education. Just the opposite. Hungarian public education has already been set back by more than ten years. At least this is what is emerging from the data.
One especially harmful decision of the government was lowering compulsory school attendance from 18 to 16 years of age. As a result, fewer 17- and 18-year-olds are finishing high school. Most likely the schools are happy to get rid of these students, but their problems are not solved by dropping out.
What is perhaps more troubling is that while in 2009 55% of those who took the matriculation exam applied to college, that number dropped to 45% by 2013. Since 2011 fewer and fewer Hungarians have enrolled in college, and it is likely that this trend will continue. This despite the fact that higher educational attainment directly correlates with the success of a country’s economy.
This so-called “educational reform” was prepared and executed by people without any professional competence in matters of education. It is true that Rózsa Hoffmann had a degree that qualified her to be a high school teacher, but she wasn’t really in charge of the “reform.” The person who dreamed up the horror show that Hungarian education is today was Viktor Orbán, along with another pseudo-educator, the president of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce.
Admittedly, Hungarian public education was nothing to be proud of even before. One reason for its failures, in my opinion, is the system of tracking, of entrance exams at practically every turn. If it depended on me, I would reintroduce a network of schools which all children from a given district would attend. This is the situation in Finland, a country that was exceptionally successful in producing a highly educated population. Poland, which has done remarkably well of late, followed Finland’s example. I fear that no Hungarian government will ever dare to introduce such a system, and therefore I doubt that Hungary will be able to produce results comparable to Poland or Finland any time soon.
In addition to this flaw in the educational structure, there is another problem I suspect few people are aware of. Although everybody complains that Hungarian children are overburdened by long hours in school and homework that takes forever to finish, according to the statistics of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, out of 33 developed countries Hungary is dead last when it comes to the number of hours children spend in school. In the first ten grades Australian children spend twice as much time in school as Hungarian children do. The main reason for such a huge disparity is the lengthy summer vacation, which is a leftover from the days when peasant boys and girls had to help their families in the fields during the summer months. Something could certainly be done about that.
And finally, it is not immaterial what children learn. The Orbán government introduced physical education every day, although most of the schools don’t have facilities to provide daily gym for all their students. On the other hand, in high school computer science is offered only in grades 9 and 10, for one hour a week. Instead of spending time on religious or ethical education, teaching children to code might be a great deal more useful and intellectually challenging.
I understand that the way classes are conducted today hasn’t changed much since I went to school. And, believe me, I hated every minute of it and found most teachers, as well as the textbooks, abominable. I’m sure that the situation is much better in some of the elite schools, but I doubt that the routine has changed at all in the great majority of schools. Twenty minutes of oral questioning and twenty minutes of a boring lecture by the teacher who has nothing to say that can’t be found in the textbook. I don’t call that education.