Hungarian politicians and learning: Not a good mix

I highly doubt that Hungary’s abysmal PISA results will prompt any kind of reform that would eventually produce a viable educational framework. The reluctance to tackle the problem is already apparent. One Fidesz politician after the other offers reasons why a competence-based system is simply not suited to Hungarians.

The most radical solution came from a registered civic organization called Magyarországi Szűlők Országos Egyesülete (MSZOE), about which we know practically nothing save the name of the editor-in-chief of its website, Sándor Keszei, who is also the organization’s president and spokesman. His solution to the problem is the boycott of the PISA tests because the results “discredit Hungarian students.” Who is responsible for these results? The teachers, “who cannot teach our children to read, write and count by the end of the eighth grade.” This year, he continued, has been a bonanza for the teachers’ unions because they successfully fought for higher wages, less supervision, and greater autonomy for school principals. They are currently fighting for fewer compulsory courses because they want to spend less time in school. The moral of the story is that neither the teachers nor the students work hard enough. If they did, the results would be significantly better.

Of course, Sándor Keszei’s opinion is neither here nor there. We don’t even know in whose name he is spouting off. But when János Lázár says practically the same thing it can have grave consequences. For example, the growing dissatisfaction of the teachers, who in the past were heavily pro-Fidesz. Ever since the government’s introduction of an entirely new regimen and curriculum their dissatisfaction has been growing. And now they, not the “national curriculum” which they have to follow, are being held responsible for the low scores. As Lázár said at his “” last week, the government provided the framework for a successful educational system. Now it is up to the teachers “to fill this framework with content.”

But this is exactly the bone of contention between the government and the teachers’ unions and other civic groups concerned with education. Teachers must strictly adhere to the directives that come from above. I understand that supervisors check the notes of students to see whether their teachers are using certain key phrases. The teachers aren’t providing the content; the government is. Moreover, teachers complain that because the requirements of this framework are so rigid, no time remains to explore any applications of the material they are teaching.

Rózsa Hoffmann and her colleagues would have a heart attack facing such a classroom

I can’t stress enough that the retooling of Hungarian education after the Fidesz takeover was not done by educational experts. It was the handiwork of Viktor Orbán. Curiously, from what we know about Orbán as a student, he crafted a system that is antithetical to his own personality. As a kid he was very hard to handle and got into all sorts of scrapes. He was enraged by disciplinary action. In high school he was anything but a model student. On the contrary, as he himself admitted, his command of certain subjects was so inadequate that his only chance at a university education was to apply to law school. How it is that forty years later he promoted a strict, confining school experience is beyond me.

Of course, Orbán needed a couple of enablers to put his ideas into practice. One was Rózsa Hoffmann, KDNP undersecretary in charge of education, who shared at least some of Orbán’s general educational philosophy but, as we learned later, knew that the over centralization he advocated wouldn’t work. Or, this is what she claimed afterward. As we know, the centralization ended in total chaos and led directly to the teachers’ revolt that broke out at the beginning of 2016.

Rózsa Hoffmann’s ideal was a classical liberal arts education taught by rote. Orbán the political illiberal didn’t see the point of offering the majority of Hungarian students a liberal arts education. What he tried to do was to merge Hoffmann’s notion of strict rote learning with the ideas of László Parragh, chairman of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce, who emphasized learning practical “blue-collar” skills and reducing the number of hours spent on academic subjects. In this view, Hungary should have a small highly educated class who can hold their own talking about philosophy, the arts, literature, and history and a large class of manually skilled workers who learn so few academic subjects that in the modern, high-tech world their prospects are practically nonexistent.

Parragh has been quiet but Hoffmann, who had to relinquish her post after the 2014 elections, decided to air her views. Let me quote what she had to say.

The PISA tests are very interesting and eye-catching, but they are far from the ideal classical erudition which traditionally characterizes Hungarian public education. Therefore, considering them as absolute measures would be a mistake. The Hungarian educational system will never be the same, as it shouldn’t be, as some overseas country’s which achieved spectacular results in this competition. If these countries sent their students to a large European museum where one needs knowledge of the arts, history, and the Bible, Hungarian students would win because of their higher general learning. Therefore, I don’t think that the objective of Hungarian public education is that our students lead the way in competitions that measure only competence because this would not reflect our values.

This is the woman who was responsible for public education between 2010 and 2014. As Gellért Rajcsányi, a conservative journalist who works for, noted, Rózsa Hoffmann lives in a fantasy world.  As do the small minority of “privileged parents, students, teachers, and politicians who project their own circumstances and possibilities onto a much more complicated and sadder reality.” If they don’t wake up, they will lead the country to ruin.

Although the current undersecretary in charge of education, László Palkovics, was in the first couple of days realistic and admitted the seriousness of the situation, he soon backtracked. He now blames Bálint Magyar, who was minister of education twice, once between 1996 and 1998 and again between 2002 and 2006, for the 2015 test results. I guess Palkovics received word from above that no retreat is acceptable. He should find a scapegoat–the liberal Magyar, who in fact tried to introduce competence-based education, which was fiercely opposed by the conservative teachers like Rózsa Hoffmann herself who had been brought up in the old methods of learning by rote.

It’s easy to point the finger at the opposition, the test, teachers, lazy students. The reality is that the Hungarian educational system is the major culprit, and nothing will be done about it as long as Viktor Orbán is the chief school superintendent.

December 14, 2016
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Jean P.

Orban can always stoop lower. Blaming the teachers for the consequences of his own dilettantisme.


The problems in the Hungarian public education system are not of recent origin. Both historically and currently, the problems start with the backward philosophies of education promulgated and practiced in the philosophy and education departments of universities and colleges of higher education, which are then exacerbated by a hydrocephalic education bureaucracy and continued with the significantly less than brilliant intakes into teachers training and the likewise significantly less than brilliant teachers training itself, resulting in a significantly less than brilliant teacher quality at all levels of the system, all of which are then topped by senseless political interference and general messing around with public education by a Capo di tutti Capi who hasn’t a clue as to what would be needed and wanted to fix the system. The outcomes of all of this are entirely unsurprising.


That is not to say that Hungary is alone with these types of problems. All countries running egalitarian education systems face similar challenges. The only difference is that in Hungary the rot goes a lot deeper and the challenges are a lot steeper than in most developed countries, especially given the senseless, and indeed violent political interference in matters education by a clueless Prime Minister.


Is there only one sector which works in Hungary? I remember one of Eva’s posts about the Hungarian healthcare system in which we learned how doctors “work” (i.e. money under the table, condescending attitude toward patients, etc…)

Alex Kuli

To me, the really outrageous part of MSZOE’s statement was, “Until we rethink the National Basic Education Plan, we must suspend participation in the PISA assessments. The freshly published PISA results are discrediting Hungarian children on an international level.”
Quite right. And if a Hungarian child has a fever, we should suspend our participation in the Celsius scale until we devise a new way of measuring body temperature that will deliver a more congenial result.


With their pathetic education system and delusional propensity to blame everyone and everything but themselves, the Hungarians truly got a hangman’s noose around their collective necks. All they need is for their collective legs to slip off the chair they are standing on, and they will be well and truly done and cooked in this rapidly globalizing world.


OT, interesting article by Masha Gessen who is almost always very insightful, this time about Trump and Putin. Interestingly Gessen references Balint Magyar’s mafia state theory.


I have left Hungary over 20 years ago so I don’t have direct experience with the current system of education. I speak with friends and relatives multiple times every week and talk about issues brought up here and other independent forums. None of them are wealthy; most of them are educated (some completed masters in the US). To my surprise everyone is happy with almost everything, healthcare, education, etc. As if they are all mesmerized by some invisible force. Sometimes I wonder if the current government’s propaganda of “we will protect Hungarians” and “Hungary is doing better” feeds an inner child in the population that under the weight of everyday life just wants someone to tell them “I got your back, there is nothing to worry… keep going”


Hungary has reverted to a pre-feudal society–more like tribal, really. In such societies, education is of little import as meritocracy is non-functioning; influence and contacts are everything.


“a registered civic organization called Magyarországi Szűlők Országos Egyesülete (MSZOE), about which we know practically nothing”

Except that they had a similarly stupid suggestion 3 years ago:


2017 will be the year of rebelling – says Orban.

As in people will rebel against George Soros.

Happy 2017!