Yesterday I was listening to an interview with a neuroscientist who touched on the new ways medical schools, including Harvard where she teaches, instruct future doctors. The amount of medical knowledge is so vast, with more information becoming available every day, that no human being can possibly learn and remember it all. That’s why we often see doctors, especially primary care physicians, using medical software to aid in their diagnosis and treatment. The same thing is true in practically every field. And yes, it is also true for students enrolled in high schools and universities. This is at the core of the current educational debate in Hungary.
Hungarian schools haven’t changed much since the nineteenth century. But by now a segment of teachers, especially in the better or so-called elite schools, are painfully aware of the deficiencies of the educational system that was forced upon them in the last four or five years. The earlier years were far from ideal, but the system was a great deal better then than after the new government reforms. These teachers don’t just want to impart the information that is available in textbooks. They would also like to conduct classes that are devoted to the intelligent exchange of ideas. Less rote learning and more critical thinking.
I readily concede that the teachers who are leading the teachers’ revolt are in the minority. The majority of teachers are quite happy to go about their work the same way they have for the last thirty or forty years. Many of them haven’t really kept up with the latest research in their fields, and their knowledge of the subject they teach is scant. Barely more than what is in the textbook. One can’t expect these people to engage in serious debates about issues relating to their subject and hold their own. In the almost thirty years since the change of regime more effort could have been put into educating the educators, but each government had its own ideas and strategy, which resulted in constant–and for the most part useless–change.
Perhaps the greatest deficiency of the school system in the last 25-30 years was its failure to teach young Hungarians about the political system in which they live. No one paid any attention to this vitally important topic. In fact, unless I’m mistaken, the political leaders in the early 1990s were opposed to “bringing politics” into the schools and, unfortunately, they interpreted “politics” rather loosely. In a way it was understandable that they wanted to banish politics from schools, universities, and the workplace because in the one-party system each school and each factory or company had its own party cell. During the negotiations for the change of regime the representatives of MSZMP, the old communist party, were intent on keeping these cells alive and functioning, and it took some hard bargaining to get rid of them. However, by banishing politics from the schools the post-communist politicians created a politically illiterate generation or two.
As a result of this political illiteracy, in the last couple of years polls have consistently indicated that there is little interest in politics among younger people. But if they were to vote, they would support Jobbik. Only about two weeks ago an international public opinion poll conducted by Millennial Dialogue revealed that 53% of Hungarians between the ages of 15 and 34 would vote for Jobbik. Moreover, while in Poland, Bulgaria, and Austria about half of this age group is interested in politics, in Hungary it is only 28.6%.
Perhaps Hungarian educators should study the work of John Dewey (1859-1952), the American philosopher and educational reformer, who stressed that a complete democracy is more than extending voting rights. It must also encourage fully informed public opinion. He believed that the main goal of school was to prepare the next generation to engage actively in the democratic process. Admittedly, even in the United States the teaching of “civics” (citizenship) has been greatly neglected. Only a few states require students to pass a citizenship exam that would show familiarity with the basic institutions and ideas of American democracy. The result is widespread ignorance.
I would love to see a study on how much young or even older Hungarians know about the political system in which they live. I’m sure the results would be depressing. Of course, one could rightly point out that introducing another subject into the curriculum would only add to the burden of already overworked students. I wouldn’t recommend a “civics” class per se. But the homeroom teacher already has an hour per week set aside for discussion of a range of topics. Why not the political process? The role of the judiciary? Freedom of speech? Moreover, as a practical matter even younger children could run for elected office, organize parties, devise party programs. These are all excellent ways to teach them about how democracy works and how they fit into this society as active participants. Without a politically educated public you can’t have a functioning democratic society.
Banishing politics from universities also had disastrous results. Before 1990 all universities had a paid KISZ (Kommunista Ifjúsági Szövetség) secretary. This post was naturally discontinued, and in its place came organizations that were supposed to represent the interests of the student body. These new organizations were supposedly free of any political affiliation, but in reality they were taken over by students with ties to Jobbik in many universities. So, while other parties were banned from organizing clubs, Jobbik had a monopoly on political activity on campuses in the guise of a non-political student organization. In most American universities parties have a presence. At Yale the largest organization on campus is the Political Union, which was established in 1934 to combat political apathy. Under the umbrella of the Political Union are several parties. One of the most active nowadays seems to be the Independent Party. These parties have by-laws, elect officers, organize meetings, invite speakers, etc. The ban on politics on Hungarian campuses should be lifted for the sake of a healthier, more democratic society of the future. Democracy cannot be built without democrats.