You don’t want to be a grade 11 student in Hungary

At this time of the year, when life more or less comes to a standstill for a few days, it is refreshing to do something different from my usual daily fare. I decided to satisfy my curiosity about the so-called “experimental” textbooks the government foisted on teachers and students in certain schools.

I settled for a textbook on Hungarian and world literature for grade 11 students together with its companion volume of literary texts. The textbook is only 168 pages long. Its main staple is plot summaries, but it also includes a list of terms, a pronunciation guide to foreign names, and a short bibliography.

The text covers the period between 1849 and “the first decades of the 20th century,” but this cut-off date is somewhat arbitrary. A lot of contemporaries of the authors discussed in this volume ended up in the textbook for twelfth graders.

Acting as if I were a conscientious student, I followed the first set of instructions in the text. After reading a short introduction to the era following the lost war of independence marked by political resistance, I dutifully proceeded to do my homework. I was supposed to read the first chapter of The New Landowner by Mór Jókai (1825-1904), “which one can find on the website of the Magyar Elektronikus Könyvtár.” It was not included in the companion volume, so I don’t know what happens if the student has no access to a computer. I guess the textbook authors didn’t think of this “small” problem. In addition, I was supposed to group together all the foreign words “on the basis of their roles and meanings.”

I got as far as reading the text which, given the archaic language full of bastardized Latin and German, was not an easy task. And if I had taken the assignment seriously and tried to do something with the hundreds of foreign words, I’m sure it would have taken me more than three hours.

My second homework assignment was just as strange. I was told to read about forty lines of an epic poem by János Arany (1817-1882). I was certain that this time at least I will find the text of the poem, or at least its relevant passages, in the companion volume. No such luck, although a great number of Arany poems are included in the collection. In fact, most of the reading assignments are not readily available to the students.

There are “interesting puzzles” hidden in the book. Among the homework questions I found a curious reference to a contemporary poet who expressed sentiments similar to Arany on a certain subject. Apparently, the student can find this contemporary poem “in the collection of literary texts.” Which collection? Perhaps the one the student will use in grade twelve?

Especially annoying are the clumsy efforts to make nineteenth-century literature relevant. One of Arany’s ballads is about a woman who has gone mad but who is in denial. The students are supposed to view the 1999 American film “Girl, Interrupted” and write an essay on “Where strangeness ends and where madness begins.” I do hope the film is available in the school so students can watch the “relevant scenes.” Continuing with the theme of madness, the authors suggest taking a look at John Everett Millais’ painting “Ophelia” on Wikipedia.

When it comes to prose, the “collection of literary texts” contains only short stories. Yet it seems that students are supposed to be thoroughly familiar with Kálmán Mikszáth’s The Siege of Beszterce (1896). Again, the authors resort to an American film, this time “Argo” about the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran, because they see parallels between the two stories. The suggested title of the assigned essay is: “Is there any practical use to looking at fictive films or novels?”

Until yesterday I thought that I knew Hungarian literature pretty well, but this grade 11 textbook proved me wrong. Here is a text that considers only a handful of presumably remarkable writers. Among Hungarians, it pays a great deal of attention to János Arany, Imre Madách (1823-1864), and Kálmán Mikszáth (1847-1910). Briefly mentioned are János Vajda (1827-1897) and Gyula Reviczky (1855-1889). And then comes the mystery man. Or at least for me he was a mystery man: István Petelei (1852-1910). Eventually I came to the conclusion that his inclusion has something to do with his being a Transylvanian who wrote mostly about village folks and the countryside. On the other hand, the much better known Sándor Bródy (1863-1924) is not mentioned, even though the “collection of literary works” includes one of his short stories. It’s no wonder that the teachers are not exactly thrilled with this thrown-together “experimental” textbook.

As for foreign authors, Russians are well represented: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov, although it is unlikely that the students will have the time to actually read any of these great Russian authors. The textbook gives considerable (of course, “considerable” is a relative term here given the brevity of the text) space to French literature: Flaubert, Verlaine, and Rimbaud. From German-language literature only Rainer Maria Rilke made it. From Great Britain Dickens’s David Copperfield was included, but there is no sign of any work by Dickens in the “collection of literary texts.” However, the students are supposed to read the fourth chapter of the book, on the basis of which they are to draw a comparison between the fate and humiliation of David Copperfield and that of the thirteen-year-old daughter of a Jewish pharmacist in a Hungarian movie. Sorry, but these forced comparisons really turn me off. Walt Whitman is discussed for a page and a half and the two of his poems appear in the collection of literary texts. The plot of Henrik Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck is summarized in considerable detail.

I really don’t know what students are supposed to learn from such a superficial, ill-constructed textbook. Certainly not to enjoy literature.

By the way, anybody who’s interested in Hungarian literature might want to consult Lóránt Czigány’s A History of Hungarian Literature: From the Earliest Times to the Mid-1970s, available online. At least I know that you have a computer.

December 26, 2016
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Rivarol
Guest

Hungarians are antisemites.

Guest

Not all by any means, just most, exactly like Slovaks, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Romanians, Croatians, Austrians . . . shall I continue? And only some Hungarians are really bloodthirsty Jew haters, most just can’t stand Jews, even if they never met one. But there are also quite a few who are just completely indifferent about the whole thung, and there are some who actually like, admire and appreciate Jews, or Hungarians of Jewish descent, many even to the point of marrying them . . .

(signed:) ambulant the bigot :-))

Observer
Guest

Ambalint

The Hungarians are the most negatively minded nation in Europe in my experience and per statistics. As an offshoot they are pretty intolerant and hateful, even by Balkan standards.
These go hand in hand with the inferiority, or close complex, but I don’t know which is the chicken and which is the egg.

Guest
I think that the psychic problems of Hungarians go back to the delusional nature of the early 19th century Age of Reform in Hungary, when the aristocratic and intellectual leadership studiously disregarded the incovenient fact that the ethnic matrix of the kingdom was made up of largely non-Hungarian nationalities who were in the process of slowly developing their own independent national ambitions. Hungarian was not even the mother tongue of many among the leadership of the reform movement, some of whom could not even speak Hungarian or spoke it very poorly. The lingua franca of the realm was Latin for official business and German for everyday communication between people. This was the situation that then became the Achilles’ heel of Hungarians in their fight against Austrian rule in 1848/49, when most non-Hungarian nationalities in the Kingdom and in Transylvania wouldn’t have a bar of joining in the fight against the Austrians, or later against the Russians too. If anything, the contrary was the case. In 1867 the Jews living in Hungary were politically emancipated in return for declaring themselves Hungarians of the Mosaic Faith. Jewish emancipation in the realm was made possible by the loss of the war of 1866… Read more »
Observer
Guest

Ambalint

Fine analyses.
I know this part of the H history and on the basis of that wanted to say that the Hungarians are not specifically anti – Semitic, they are anti – xxxxxxx whoever, eg. anti-Piresian. Witness their treatment of the minorities prior WWII, the atrocities committed in the Soviet Union or the killings in Yugoslavia, eg. the Jan 1942 in particular when 3200 civilians were shot into the Danube river.

Guest

These days coherence and clear thinking are not strong points of literature graduates in Hungary, whether at MA or PhD level, and that is a mild understatement. (Though it is not, of course, the case that graduates of so-called post-modern literature departments do that much better in the West.) To expect this bunch of geniuses to come up with a fair and coherent coverage of any period in literature is a fool’s errand. To expect them to be able to teach the material they arbitrarily threw together is unrealistic. To expect them to produce material free of pronounced political bias is delusional.

Ferenc
Guest

Those populistic comparisons and references to films, made me think again about what I sense around me: more and more people seem to think reality mirroring happenings in films. I’m always flabbergasted when hearing remarks in that way (you know ………. just like in the film………..), like for those people there is firstly THE FILM (as a reality) and then secundary encounter similarities in REAL LIFE.
Seems the film business, and especially the (over)promotion side of it, is causing all of this.
PS: I’m not in Hungary, nor Hungarian, but assess my comment relevant about many people the ‘western part of the world’ at least.

Guest

A school book on literature shouldn’t mention film at all. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a school book on film or virtual reality in general that would set things right for the children.

zsuka
Guest

For me the textbook seems to be ruled by the idea that you should include films in the curriculum and it seems that the authors thought that the literature textbook might be a good place for film “analysis“. The second objective seems to me hat they try to want the students to make connections between different ideas. Both objectives can be taken seriously. Indeed you can argue that students have a kind of knowledge about films. It is also justified that they compare different ideas about the same topic or look at one idea in different metaphorical disguise.
BUT as to what I read here the textbook is just ill-conceived and politically biased. That is of no use and as Eva said it turns students (and teachers) off.
Nevertheless I’m curious – given the small amount of time for teaching literature in schools, given students that hardly read in their free time – which Hungarian authors in the period between 1849 and World War I would you consider absolutely essential and in which way would you try to teach the relevant literature?

Guest

Literature is something you read and you make pictures of what you read in your mind. Film is entirely different. It gives you the pictures directly. Literature and film have little in common except they both have plots.

Traditional comparative literature does not compare plots but style and subject mater. Comparison of film versus literature plots is silly.

Guest

Personally, I’d think both film and the books themselves can be very good areas to discuss authors and their works. Both can elucidate and help bring out the best inherent in the literary effort. Thing is you have to have teachers who know how to teach precisely against that whole ‘top-down’ approach which can stifle ‘free-wheeling’ analysis. Those works need to be freed from those centralized tight hands curling around the books. Those books have to get into much much better ‘air’ so everything can breathe.

Wondercat
Guest

The Mór Jókai excerpt was fun to work at. Thank you, Prof Balogh. How the language has shifted! An acquaintance with German and with Latin must have been widespread at the time. — Are Mór’s books now kitted out, for the modern reader, with explanations, footnotes, glossaries? Those of his contemporary Fontane certainly are: We can still make our way through BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ, written 50 years later, without such things, but not MATHILDE MÖHRING. Slang of the 1880s, words taken in directly from French, are thought baffling nowadays…

Ferenc
Guest

Actually I’m getting very curious about the latest schoolbooks for history and geography (történelem & földrajz).
Do they (seriously) differ from previous versions? If, so in what respect? Can there be seen the hand from the current government in it?
Anybody here knows anything about this, or knows where to find information (on internet) about it?

gdfxx
Guest

This post reminds me the tragicomedy of a Hungarian literature textbook for a Hungarian school in Transylvania, is the early sixties. First of all, such book did not exist at all. The reason: what was allowed to be taught changed very frequently. Thus the teachers received their lesson plans from some central location and then literally dictated the text to the students.

Guest
I think that the teaching of literature is a*se about face in schools right around the world, and not just in Hungary. The study of national literatures at primary and secondary levels should be turned into a delight for the students, and not an irritating chore. But for that we would need super teachers of the national literatures at all levels, who would be capable of inspiring their charge with a love for literature. Such teachers are unfortunately rare as hens teeth. I was fortunate enough to have not one, but two such teachers in primary school back in Hungary, both very old school, the likes of which sadly disappeared completely these days. Anyway, their inspiring example set me up for a lifelong love of fine literature. I believe that the methodology of teaching literature should start with laying very solid foundations with the classics of the canon, because it is only after this that the literary taste and sensibility thereby developed might then be applied to making sensible selections from the deluge of literary works in the national, and above all the international canon. Hungarian literature has a very fine tradition of translations from various other European literatures, but… Read more »
Guest

Again a bit OT:

My wife got a Xmas present last year from her son:

A kindle – and lots of books loaded on it, many fantasy and science fiction, thrillers and you name it …

She’s really happy with it – just before Xmas she read M.A.S.H and enjoyed it tremendously – of course in Hungarian.

Now I’m wondering about the translators – they can’t make too much money translating into Hungarian, the number of books sold can’t be too high (George Martin of course might be an exception – he’s also one of her favourites).

So they must be real “Idealists” as we call those in German – many thanks to them!

zsuka
Guest

Yes, I suppose that should be the aim of every teacher: to inspire students and to make study – in this case of literature – a delight. Unfortunately, there is not only a lack of inspiring teachers (they are as rare as inspiring politicians, professors, doctors etc…) but also the students are not able to read. The latest PISA results show that clearly: Hungarian students lag behind in reading comprehension. How can you expect the students to read Jókai when a great amount of them isn’t able to read and understand what they read? The result is that in the upper grades the problem becomes obvious and the students get frustrated and bored and not interested in literature. The textbook discussed above is trying to mend what has gone wrong at much earlier stages. It is a clumsy, ill-conceived effort to create interest in literature – and it fails.

Guest

Interesting that back in the fifties my classmates and I didn’t seem to have the slightest problem with reading comprehension in primary school, and I presume that the same would have been true of the high school years too. Looking back, it seems that extremely rigorous “old school” standards were being exacted in both Hungarian and maths throughout my years of primary schooling in Budapest. We all had to work extremely hard, especially those of us who had middle class backgrounds (had bad “káder” classifications), private remedial tuition was unknown, so it was a matter of sink or swim, and those who could not make the grade were mercilessly put back a class and had to repeat the full year of the class they flunked. As to maths, I found that I was about a year ahead of Year 9 in Australia (which I entered without a word of English), after having completed Year 8 and started Year 9 in Hungary and then having spent six months in refugee camps before getting to Australia.

Guest

. . . before getting to Australia as an unaccompanied minor.

Guest

My wife and her sister were in similar difficulties because their father had a small bakery (which the Communists took away from him of course …) so they had to be good at school – but still couldn’t get into higher positions as “enemies of the working class”.
And she also is a really big book fan – that was one of the first things I saw when I had a look around her apartment in the village. Never saw so many books in the living room of the other Hungarians I knew …

I still remmber looking at all the titles, didn’t know the Hungarian authors of course but saw Thomas Mann and Sinclair Lewis and …

Tyrker
Guest
I’m sure there’s much to criticize about this new textbook – however, some of your criticism is misguided. For example, when the textbook mentions that Jókai’s Az új földesúr can be found online in the Hungarian Electronic Library (MEK), you start talking about pupils who don’t have access to a computer. Now, putting aside the fact that you can access MEK from practically any device (including your phone) and not just a computer, the reality is that Jókai’s works – especially those that have long been on the list of compulsory/recommended readings – have been published in innumerable editions, and are thus available in every public library and every school library, in multiple copies. And if you wanted to buy them, you could do so very cheaply from any second-hand bookshop. A paperback edition of Az új földesúr can be had for as little as 290 forints ($1). The same goes for Mikszáth’s works, especially the ones that have been among the standard compulsory/recommended readings in the past decades. Beszterce ostroma is one of them. It’s ubiquitous in libraries and bookshops across the country, and you can buy a second-hand copy for as little as 200 forints. It’s only natural,… Read more »
Guest

Tell that to a Gypsy girl/boy – oh, I forgot that she/he probably won’t make it into 11th grade …

You never cease to amaze me, Tyrker!

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