There is trouble again in the field of public education. With the reverberations from the teachers’ strike not entirely quelled, the government has already managed to get the teachers wound up anew by introducing yet another set of school reforms. As if the Orbán government had lost its magic touch and is unable to gauge the mood of the country. Even if at the moment no strike is in the offing, neither the teachers nor the general public are satisfied with the government’s response to what they consider to be an educational crisis. To announce a total reorganization of the public school system at this junction can only lead to further tension. I find it intriguing that while the government has been hyperactive in the field of education, introducing one so-called reform after another, in healthcare, another trouble spot, the Orbán administration has done practically nothing. It is hard to say which strategy is better since both education and healthcare are in terrible shape. Viktor Orbán’s luck seems to be running out.
In order to understand what the government is contemplating, we have to take stock of the current Hungarian school system which, I must say, is pretty complicated. A Hungarian child begins his studies at the age of six in an eight-grade elementary school (general/általános iskola), from which he can move on to middle school (középiskola). There are three types of middle schools: “specialty middle schools” (szakközépiskola), gymnasiums, and trade schools (szakiskola).
Gymnasium courses of study are of varying length. Most common is a four-year program, entered after finishing eighth grade. But there are gymnasiums that can be entered after the fourth grade. And there are a few in which a student spends six years, leaving elementary school after the sixth grade.
Just to complicate things, there are also the specialty middle schools which, I understand, are as popular in Hungary as the gymnasiums (approximately 200,000 students in each, or 40% of all high school students). Until now at least diplomas from specialty middle schools allowed students to enter college or university. Their “matriculation” was the equivalent of those who finished gymnasium.
Only about 100,000 children, or 20% of all high school students, attend the third type of middle school, the trade school.
The new “reform” focuses on the specialty middle schools and trade schools. As usually happens in Orbán’s Hungary, we have no idea whom the government consulted before presenting its plans because those considered to be experts on education were horrified when they learned the details.
In my opinion, the essence of the reform is to lower standards while trying to give the impression of higher value by changing the branding. The “specialty middle school” (szakközépiskola) will from here on be called “specialty gymnasium,” and “trade school” (szakiskola) will be named “specialty middle school.” All three kinds of schools, the government claims, will enable students to take their matriculation exam, which is a necessary prerequisite to entering college or university. But in reality, there are huge differences between the quality of education the students in the three types of schools will receive.
In these new specialty schools the time allotted to academic subjects will be grossly reduced. Formerly 22-23 hours a week were devoted to these subjects. According to plans, the study of a broad range of academic subjects will be reduced to 12-15 hours. Study of the “specialty” subjects will be increased to 12-15 hours a week. While the same number of hours will be devoted to literature, math, and history as before, students will be able to study only one of the natural sciences, depending on their “specialty.” Those whose specialty is healthcare will study only biology. If the specialty is engineering, the person will study only physics. Only those who are interested in mining, tourism, and surveying will study geography. Those who are interested in hotel management will learn only a foreign language. In brief, if parents enroll their child in one of these schools, the child’s whole career might be determined at the age of fourteen.
Teachers are horrified. In our complex, fast-changing world, to narrow the educational base to such an extent is a totally mistaken notion. Viktor Orbán imagines the Hungary of the future to be a mini-China where millions of blue-collar workers toil in large factories. But we all know that in the long run such an economic structure cannot be maintained, even in China. As people often say, Hungary can offer only intellectual capacity, which can be attained only through education. Yet Orbán is systematically lowering educational opportunities and cheapening educational offerings.
Critics of Orbán’s vision are worried about the educational opportunities of children herded into “specialty gymnasiums” or even worse “specialty middle schools” whose career opportunities will be greatly diminished. Children at the age of fourteen cannot make responsible decisions about their future careers. It is most likely the parents who make the decision, often without any knowledge of their children’s inclinations or true talents. I can speak from experience that even at the age of eighteen many people only think they know what they want to study. One of my favorite stories is of a freshman who complained about the faculty adviser to whom he was assigned. Who on earth came up with the idea of hooking him up with a psychologist? In fact, there was a very good reason for the decision because on his application he indicated that his “possible major” would be psychology. Half a year later he didn’t even remember what he put down. I also met a college student who was busily preparing to study medicine after graduation but halfway through discovered East European history. Today he is a university professor. That’s why I’m such a fan of the so-called liberal education, with little specialization at the B.A. or B.Sc. level. Specialization can come later.
Shortly after this latest brainstorm of the government became public came the “revolt of the geographers.” The Magyar Földrajzi Társaság (Hungarian Association of Geographers) began collecting signatures against the decision. In their estimation, no geography will be taught in about 900 high schools if the government goes through with its plans. They were soon followed by chemists and physicists. In brief, the government is setting the stage for even more intense conflict with educators.
After word got out that very few high schools will teach geography, the joke began to circulate that the reason for this decision is that perhaps this way Hungarian students will be unable to find the country to which they want to emigrate on the map.