Tag Archives: education

National Defense Action Plan for school officials

The other day someone called my attention to a note published on Facebook by Nóra L. Ritók, the legendary founder of the Igazgyöngy Alapítvány (Pearl Foundation). She is the former public school art teacher who became disillusioned with the way her school dealt with disadvantaged, mostly Gypsy children. In 1999 she struck out on her own, establishing art schools in six very poor villages in Hajdú-Bihar megye, close to the Romanian border. She started her work in a so-called cul-de-sac village, the last locality right next to the border, called Told, where in the majority of the houses there is neither running water nor electricity. A large proportion of the 360 inhabitants cannot read or write, and only seven of them had a job in 2013. It is hard to fathom that this village was once the home base of the famous Toldi family. By now she has about 650 children under her care from 23 villages in the region. Nóra Ritók and three of her students were in the news a few weeks ago when they met Pope Francis.

Nóra Ritók’s Facebook note was about an official e-mail she received from the ministry of human resources, informing school principals about the introduction of a Honvédelmi Intézkedési Terv (National Defense Action Plan), or HIT. Attached to the e-mail were instructions explaining what the schools will have to do by way of  preparation before June 30, 2018. The document is 34 pages long. Nóra Ritók complained that half of the document, which is full of technical military terms, is pretty well incomprehensible to a layman, but she grasped the main point: that she, as the principal of the school, will be responsible for the organization and execution of the military aspects of the school’s defense in case of a terrorist attack.

The government-critical media looked upon this latest Fidesz idea as part and parcel of the scare tactics the Orbán government has employed ever since 2015. Since even nursery schools and kindergartens have to be military prepared, a lot of people complained that the government is including toddlers in its phony campaign against nonexistent terrorists.

The fact is that in the last few years several European countries have come up with action plans for schools in case of danger. In Great Britain, for example, Scotland Yard has been giving three-hour training sessions at schools and higher education facilities on how to improve security against possible attack. In France, the government announced in August, 2016 that 14-year-olds will receive training on how to survive a terrorist attack on their schools. Each school will hold three exercises per academic year, covering the “ability of schools to react and not be taken by surprise.” The French went so far as to teach three-year-olds how to play “silence reigns” if and when an attack is underway. And such precautionary measures are also being taken in the United States.

Getting ready — Saint Joseph Catholic Elementary School, Debrecen

What is happening in Hungary, however, is an entirely different story. In order to understand the possibly sinister nature of this new piece of legislation, we have to go back to January 12, 2016, when István Simicskó, the minister of defense, called together all the parliamentary parties to discuss new security measures that would involve the use of the army in the event of a terror threat. At that time there were already three situations in which the government could take varying degrees of extraordinary measures: (1) “emergency conditions” (veszélyhelyzet); (2) “preventive defense conditions” (megelőző védelmi helyzet); and (3) a “full state of emergency” (rendkivüli állapot). The government added one more category: “state of terror threat” (terrorveszélyhelyzet). In the event of a terror threat, the army can be used if “the employment of police and the national security forces is insufficient.” It nowhere explains what “insufficient” means.

Now, the schools will have to be ready, and not just by taking precautionary measures against a possible attack. They will also have to be ready for “the possible introduction of a special legal order” as a result of the four above-mentioned “situations.” This may include following military orders, being ready for military service, and assisting the military in its work. The government’s document includes a number of absolutely impractical rules and regulations. Among them, my favorite is: “in case of a terror attack, the school principal may apply for individual defensive instruments.” Yes, while the school is under attack.

The ministry of human resources hasn’t yet given an explanation for this latest burden on overworked school officials, but on Sunday Csaba Dömötör, the political undersecretary in the prime minister’s office, explained to inquiring journalists that the action plan must be introduced because it is a NATO requirement. It is possible that NATO officials suggested short courses and some routine exercises, but I very much doubt that what they had in mind was a 34-page military handbook for school officials. I also doubt that French or British school principals are required to have a regularly updated list of all chemicals on the property, including gasoline for the lawnmower and cleaning supplies. Or that they have to know the exact location of all teachers at all times.

While it is a good idea to have some rudimentary plans in place against a possible attack, be it terrorism or just a crazed person’s individual action, I must agree with the critics that what the Orbán government is proposing goes beyond a rational response to the terrorist threat, which in Hungary is really minimal. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that this latest “defensive action plan” is just another ingredient in the government’s anti-migrant campaign, which, I’m afraid, is the heart and soul of Fidesz’s election program.

January 1, 2018

Another PISA test, another poor performance

It was seven years ago that I wrote my first post on the results of the 2009 PISA test. PISA stands for Program for International Student Assessment. It is a worldwide evaluation of the scholastic performance of 15-year-old students. The very first test was administered in 2000, and Hungarian education was found wanting. Students were tested in mathematics, science, and reading. In 2003 problem-solving was added to the test. While the 2009 tests showed a marked improvement over earlier results, the 2012 results were truly abysmal. Hungarian students did worse in all three categories in comparison to their achievements three years earlier.

The Orbán government’s educational policies completely revamped the educational system, returning to the old-fashioned rote learning that earlier administrations had tried to liberalize somewhat after 2002. Liberalization was a dirty word for Fidesz politicians no matter where it occurred, and therefore practically all earlier reforms were thrown out the window. In addition, the educational structure was reorganized, with chaos ensuing. New textbooks were published in a great hurry and ended up being deficient. Despite the rush, some of the books were not available for the beginning of the school year. Lately, there has been a teacher shortage. All this has had a negative effect on public education.

In 2010, when the promising PISA results were released, Rózsa Hoffmann, whose tenure as minister of education is considered to be something of a disaster, was not happy with the good tidings. She and others in the Orbán government who had condemned the socialist-liberal governments’ policies now had to face hard facts: even their timid reform efforts had borne fruit. When the poor results of the 2013 test were released, the Orbán government was reluctant to assume any responsibility. Every time Hungary fails to shine in international rankings, the reaction is always the same: the results are either someone else’s fault or the numbers don’t reflect the true state of affairs.

The latest PISA test was not the usual math-science-reading test given every three years but a new test designed to measure “collaborative problem-solving,” where again Hungarian students did poorly. Hungary ended up #33 out of 50 with a score 472. The EU average was 500. In the region, Poland was not among the participating countries, but the Czech Republic, Estonia, Croatia, and Slovenia all scored better than Hungary, while only Lithuania, Slovakia, and Bulgaria scored worse.

In comparison to the earlier PISA tests, this collaborative problem-solving test proved to be the hardest for the Hungarian students. The poor standing of Hungarian students could have been predicted because we have been hearing complaints from foreign businessmen that their Hungarian employees don’t excel in teamwork situations. More importantly, most of these 15-year-olds have never had the opportunity to sit down with their classmates and figure out a problem together, so the test was undoubtedly a real challenge for them.

The trouble doesn’t lie with the students, who were faced with a test that was absolutely alien to them. The blame falls on the politicians and the educational establishment. An article appeared in Gépnarancs with a very good title: “The teachers also need PISA.” Even so-called progressive teachers admit that the great majority of their colleagues are unwilling and most likely unfit to teach in a way that would prepare their students for this kind of test.

One of Rózsa Hoffmann’s first moves was to exempt teachers’ training from the so-called Bologna system, which four years earlier, in 2006, introduced a three-cycle system of higher education (bachelor/master/doctorate). In that scheme students, after the completion of their bachelor degrees, could move on to teachers’ training on the master’s level. Hoffmann decided that this system was unsuitable for training competent teachers. So, as of September 2013, an 18-year-old boy or girl had to make a choice: either they enter a bachelor’s program or they start teachers’ training right away. Given the low prestige and the low pay of teachers, teacher’s training isn’t an attractive proposition. Students who want to teach in the first eight grades have to spend 4+1 years in school. Those who want to teach in high school must finish 5+1 years. The extra year is practice teaching. Thus, just like almost everywhere else, the best and the brightest don’t end up becoming teachers. Long gone are the days when first-rate scholars began their careers teaching in high schools. Looking at some of the problems on PISA tests, I wonder how well teachers would do on them. I tried some of the science tests and came to the conclusion that one doesn’t need a solid science background. Logical thinking is quite enough.

A major obstacle to improving the situation in education is the Hungarian government’s unwillingness to admit any shortcomings, be it in education, the economy, or anything else. An article that appeared in Origo is a perfect example of the typical government reaction. First, if the results on any given test are bad, they trot out another test on which Hungarians did splendidly. Second, they argue that a single measurement means nothing, conveniently forgetting that the other PISA test results were also very poor. Third, only 6,000 students took this test, and they were exclusively 15- or 16-year-olds. Therefore, the test “by itself cannot be considered conclusive.” The fourth “excuse” is really funny: even the European Commission thinks that “with the changes introduced, the prospects of both students and teachers have improved.” Since when does the Orbán government care about the European Commission’s opinion? Fifth, the Commission’s Education and Training Monitor 2017 pointed out that Hungary spends more on education than the European Union average. Sixth, Hungary is the only country in the EU where children must attend kindergarten from age three, and therefore, for some strange reason, we can forget about the current test scores of the 15- and 16-year-olds. Finally, none of the recent low test scores signify anything. The effects of the newly introduced reforms will not show up until 2018 or 2021. So, the present results can be ignored, and Hungary can postpone the day of reckoning.

November 23, 2017

Hungarians’ changing priorities; shifts in the left-of-center media

Changing opinions on political issues 

Yesterday I saw a Hír TV news segment that I found intriguing. A woman reporter with a cameraman behind her stopped passersby wanting to know what the “man in the street” thinks about current affairs. This is the umpteenth time that I have encountered such an exercise. The result was always disappointing. Eight or nine people out of ten simply refused to answer any of the questions while the other(s) proclaimed their loyalty to Viktor Orbán, who has created a wonderful, prosperous country. To my great surprise this encounter turned out differently. Everybody was willing to speak, and there was only one woman out of about ten who was enthusiastic about Viktor Orbán on account of his defense of the country against the “migrants.”

The reporter wanted to know what people think are the most urgent tasks and problems Hungarians face today. The answers were practically uniform: healthcare and education. A couple of people mentioned low wages and inflation, especially food prices. When people didn’t cite migration as a problem, the journalist asked them about the topic. With the exception of one person, they all claimed that the danger of migration is not in the forefront of their concerns. There are no migrants in Hungary, and migrants show little inclination to settle there anyway.

One of those dissatisfied citizens

At first I thought I may simply have seen an atypical, or skewed, news segment. But then, a few hours later, I found an article in 24.hu reporting that “Hungarians worry more about poverty and healthcare than migration.” It summarized the findings of two international organizations, Eurobarometer and the conservative International Republican Institute. Both indicated that migration is not uppermost in Hungarians’ minds. The International Republican Institute’s findings are especially interesting because the respondents were not faced with a set of prepared options. Here poverty and the lack of social equality (28%) were people’s main concerns, followed by corruption (15%), unemployment (13%), healthcare (12%), and “migration” (4%).

But in that case, why did the Orbán government launch a new campaign against the “Soros Plan”? Knowing the careful political calculations of Fidesz, we must assume that the questions in the new “national consultation” will be slanted in such a way that it will speak to the concerns of the majority of Hungarians. There are signs that in the present Fidesz vocabulary the “Soros Plan” is actually just another name for the European Union. In this case, the main thrust of this new campaign will again be anti-EU. But it has to be structured so that it doesn’t cause the kind of adverse reaction that the “Stop Brussels” campaign did.

Changes in the left-of center media

Those of you who are able to watch Hungarian-language television must be aware of the slow transformation of ATV, which until about two years ago was the only independent TV station. At that time Lajos Simicska, Viktor Orbán’s old high school friend and the financial brain behind Fidesz, turned against Orbán, allegedly because of his pro-Russian orientation. This put an end to the pro-government stance of Simicska’s Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV. At about the same time, major changes began to be introduced at ATV, which is owned by the fundamentalist Assembly of Faith. It is hard to tell whether these changes were made in order to boost viewership or for political reasons, but there are fewer programs for people who are interested in political news. Reporters were hired from TV2, a commercial station that caters to a different audience from the one that ATV had attracted earlier. Also, two important reporters, Olga Kálmán and Antónia Mészáros, left the station. Kálmán joined Hír TV and Mészáros left the profession altogether. In addition, several reporters simply disappeared from the screen. The new crew was, at least in my opinion, not worth watching.

The final straw was the replacement of Kálmán and Mészáros with Zsuzsa Demcsák, who began her career as a fashion model but later spent years at TV2, a commercial station recently bought by Andy Vajna, most likely as a proxy for the Hungarian government. After the change of ownership, reporters started leaving TV2, including Demcsák in April. ATV jumped at what the management considered to be an opportunity and hired her. The arrangement was that Demcsák and Egon Rónai would rotate being anchor of “Egyenes beszéd” on a weekly basis. Demcsák’s first week on the job was dreadful. The woman was simply out of her depth. The following week she showed off her incompetence on ATV Start, an early morning political program. Then came Friday morning when she was, I’m afraid, quite drunk while interviewing Tibor Szanyi, MSZP’s European parliamentary member. She was suspended, awaiting the results of an internal investigation, but I’m almost certain that we are not going to see her on ATV again.

On the other hand, Hír TV came out with several new programs. This morning I watched two of them. The first was “Elmúlt 8 év” (The past eight years) with Györgyi Szöllősi, who is a good reporter. The other was “180 fok” (180 degrees) with Sándor Csintalan, a somewhat controversial character who started off as an MSZP politician and at one point was in the Fidesz camp. He is now a committed foe of Orbán. The program is in part a call-in show and and in part a series of interviews. The first guests were Miklós Haraszti, who is no stranger to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum, and the head of Iránytű (Compass), a polling company allegedly close to Jobbik. I encountered Iránytű’s director before and found his views moderate and balanced. And I loved the screen behind Csintalan, showing an idyllic countryside with a charming peasant house when suddenly Orbán’s infamous choo-choo train goes across. The train appears every five minutes or so. I laughed every time. I think I will also check out another new program called “Magyar Exodus,” which will be mostly filmed abroad, with Hungarian emigrants.

Unfortunately, these two cable channels reach very few people, but their existence is still vitally important. One can only hope that ATV will find its bearings soon because otherwise it can close up shop.

September 17, 2017

Transylvania in focus

Today’s post will be devoted to three subjects, all of which are related in one way or the other to Transylvania. The topics range from beer to the coming national election to a fifth-grade Hungarian language and literature textbook for Hungarian students in Romania. Since I spent the last two hours comparing a textbook written for children living in Hungary with that written for Hungarian students studying in Romania, I will start with the textbooks.

The Romanian Hungarian literature textbook is available in its entirety on the internet. Internet access to the textbook from Hungary is restricted to the first 16 pages, but from the table of contents we have a fairly good idea of what fifth graders are expected to learn. The verdict coming from educators in Hungary is that the textbook published in Romania is far superior to the ones children in Hungary use.

According to László Arató, president of the Association of Teachers of Hungarian, it is refreshing to read the book published by the Romanian ministry of education, especially when it’s compared to the old-fashioned, stodgy Hungarian textbook from Budapest. From the very first page the authors stressed that they consider the children partners, which is in stark contrast to the book children currently use in Hungary. While the Romanian textbook is full of contemporary writers’ works, the Hungarian equivalent got stuck at Sándor Petőfi’s ”János vitéz.” The choice of this poem didn’t surprise me a bit because Rózsa Hoffmann, former undersecretary in charge of education responsible for the “reform” of Hungarian education, said at least five years ago that it was an absolute must that children study this poem. Those who are unfamiliar with the story don’t deserve to enter college. Fifty-six pages of the 203-page textbook are devoted to the literary analysis of this poem. I might add that in my copy of Petőfi’s complete poems “János vitéz” takes up 53 pages.

While the Romanian textbook is full of modern texts and daily encounters among people, teachers in Hungary are supposed to teach children about metaphors, Greek myths, and the Bible. There is also a section of excerpts from Hungarian writers who describe different regions of the country, with an emphasis on patriotism. One item sounded promising: Ferenc Molnár’s immortal The Boys from Pál Street. But, as it turned out, the book was covered in only five pages–just the structure and plot of the novel plus the names of the characters. The final item in the table of contents made quite an impression on me. I kept wondering how anyone can teach 10-year-olds about the “theory of literature.” In brief, I feel sorry for all those children who have to sit through this literature course and am especially sorry that they have to analyze “János vitéz” for weeks on end. I’m sure that fifth graders find this textbook deadly. No wonder that children don’t like to read.

Now let’s move on to a jollier subject: beer. Of course, not just any beer but the world famous “Igazi Csíki Sőr,” which I wrote about earlier. There was a trademark battle between a Dutch-Hungarian mini-brewery in Transylvania and the Romanian division of Heineken, the well-known Dutch brewery. For some inexplicable reason the Hungarian government decided to weigh in on the side of Igazi Csíki Sőr against Heineken. János Lázár and Zsolt Semjén traveled to Sânsimion/Csíkszentsimon to show their support. The government contemplated passing legislation that would discriminate against larger foreign-owned companies and promote the business interests of small Hungarian firms. And the government gave money to the company that produced the Igazi Csíki Sör. For a while patriotic beer drinkers boycotted Heineken and Igazi Csíki Sőr disappeared from the shelves as soon as it was put out. But these happy days for the owners of Igazi Csíki Sör didn’t last long. When the large breweries’ products are half the price of the beer from Csík, customer enthusiasm doesn’t last long. The mini-brewery decided that the government-favored beer will no longer be available in supermarkets. They will try their luck with direct distribution, providing home delivery to customers. I don’t know, but I have the feeling that this is the end of Igazi Csíki Sör. Market forces are simply too strong.

The last item is the intensive registration campaign the government has been conducting in the last month or so in the neighboring countries to entice ethnic Hungarians to vote in the 2018 national election. Those familiar with the details of the 2014 election know that Fidesz’s all-important two-thirds majority was achieved only because of the votes that came from Transylvania, Serbia, and Ukraine. Although Fidesz is way ahead of all the other parties in the polls today, Viktor Orbán leaves nothing to chance. In 2014 the government managed to register 193,793 voters in the neighboring countries, though only 128,712 of these were valid. A whopping 95.49% of them voted for Fidesz. Therefore, getting as many people registered as possible is of the utmost importance for Viktor Orbán and his party.

The government hopes that of the one million dual citizens at least 500,000 will vote in the election. The government had 332,000 registration requests by the time of the referendum on the migrant quota issue, in which dual citizens could vote. The intensive registration campaign since then has produced only meager results. In the last ten months the number of registrants has grown by only 18,000. The current figure is 350,000, with 148,000 from Romania, followed by Serbia with 40,000. Of course, it is possible that large numbers of people will register only in the last few weeks, but the goal is very ambitious.

Viktor Orbán himself sent letters to all dual citizens living abroad. In addition, the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (Romániai Magyar Demokrata Szövetség/RMDSZ or in Romanian Uniunea Democrată Maghiară din România/UDMR), the only serious Hungarian party in Romania, is actively involved in the campaign, especially since Viktor Orbán’s speech in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad on July 22. The relationship between RMDSZ and Fidesz was not always amiable, but efforts to create a new ethnic political force to be used against RMDSZ failed. RMDSZ was the only Hungarian ethnic party left standing. Lately, RMDSZ and Fidesz have been working hand in hand for the reelection of Viktor Orbán.

August 12, 2017

Foreign language teaching in Hungary: Progress is very slow

Hungarians’ subpar knowledge of foreign languages in comparison to other European countries becomes a hot topic in the media from time to time. The reasons for this periodic interest in the topic vary. There are times when an international poll is taken, from which the population can learn that Hungary is again the very last on the list. That piece of news is usually followed by some soul-searching and analyses of the probable causes of the problem. Second, at this time of the year we normally learn that thousands of new college graduates cannot receive their diplomas because in four years they didn’t manage to pass a B2 (intermediate) language exam. (Here are some sample English and German tests a student would be confronted with.) Or, the occasion may be a new government decree that would change the current requirements. It just happened that in the last few months all three of these scenarios converged. A new poll was published, news came about the thousands of graduates without language certification, and the government announced its intention to require the infamous B2 exam prior to entry to college or university.

HVG called the results of a graph published by the European Commission’s Directorate General for Interpretation “shocking.” According to the graph, which the directorate general published on Facebook, the very last country out of 24 European countries is Hungary, where only 37% of adults between the ages of 25 and 64 can speak at least one foreign language. The runner-up is Bulgaria with 39%. Among the poor performers–countries whose score is below the EU average–are Poland (62%), Italy (60%), France (59%), Belgium (58%), Greece (58%), Portugal (58%), and Spain (51%). These scores might place the countries toward the bottom of the list, but they are still way ahead of the scores Bulgaria and Hungary achieved.

Although the problem is great, it is only now that the government decided to conduct a scientific study on the probable causes for these poor results. Those who want to pass the buck try to convince themselves and others that the grammatical structure of Hungarian is the principal obstacle to learning Indo-European languages. But, according to a survey, 69% of Finns speak one or more foreign languages. So clearly, this theory can easily be debunked. One cannot complain about the number of hours Hungarian students spend learning languages. For example, Hungarian kids spend 936 hours over nine years to learn their first foreign language, compared to 537 in Poland and 472 in Romania. According to foreign language experts, to pass the B2 test 500-600 classroom hours are plenty.

If Hungarian speakers are not inherently handicapped when it comes to learning languages and if more than enough time is allotted to foreign language study, the problem must be either with the teachers or with the teaching methods. Experts specializing in foreign language education claim that the quality of the Hungarian foreign language teachers is satisfactory. That is, they are competent in the languages they teach. The problem lies with the methodology. Studies show that one-third of all language teachers still use methods that are responsible for the dismal performance of their students. For example, the primary language in the classroom is Hungarian. The classes are deadly because the students mainly memorize words out of context and picayune grammatical points are discussed, for example tenses that are rarely used in normal conversation. The mainstay of the classroom routine is a question by the teacher followed by a student answer, which is dissected and corrected right there. Once that is done comes the new victim. This practice kills Hungarians’ willingness to speak freely for fear of making a mistake.

But there are structural problems in the school system itself that affects not only foreign language learning but learning other subjects as well. That is the 8 + 4 school system, which was originally designed for the time when compulsory education ended after grade 8. That meant that history, literature, chemistry, physics, geography, math, and a foreign language—in those days Russian—were taught on a very elementary level. Relatively few students continued their education in gymnasiums. And so, all these essential subjects were taught again, allegedly on a higher level, in high school. Since 40-45% of grade 8 students still don’t attain the expected level of competence in the foreign language they studied since grade 4, the level of instruction must inevitably be lowered in the first couple of years of high school. Some experts claim that in many schools foreign language teaching in grade 9 begins from square one.

Then there is the problem of overemphasizing the importance of the language tests, although we know there is no clear correlation between passing the tests and knowing the language. In the Kádár regime, once someone passed an official language exam, he was set for life. Whether he needed that foreign language in his work or not, he received extra pay for the rest of his working life. To some extent this is still the case. I read an article in which the author tried to find an explanation for those 10,000 or so students yearly who cannot receive their diplomas because in four or five years they didn’t manage to pass the foreign language exam. The author’s explanation is that in a great number of cases the diploma-less student finds a job without that infamous B2 exam. In her opinion, the motivation is still insufficient. But I suspect that the universities themselves are in part responsible for this state of affairs because students are rarely required to use a foreign language during their years in college. The inclusion of foreign-language articles in the list of compulsory readings would certainly provide some motivation to improve one’s language skills.

The latest government decision to require passing the B2 foreign language exam prior to entering university is a typical Orbán government move. Such a requirement would be fair only if students could learn a foreign language well enough to be able to pass this intermediate language test, but as things stand now this is not the case. In fact, according people familiar with the situation, in order to overcome this hurdle students need extra tutoring by competent teachers from language schools. These lessons are not inexpensive, and only better-off parents can afford them. This will mean that thousands of students coming from a lower socio-economic background will be barred from acquiring a college education. Although even the Orbán-appointed ombudsman has reservations about this plan, the government is bound and determined to introduce it by 2020. To give you an idea of the gravity of the situation, in 2016 39% of all entering college students didn’t have their B2 language exam behind them. The numbers were especially high among those who entered teacher’s colleges. Some smaller universities outside of Budapest also did very badly.

At the moment we don’t know what’s going to happen by 2020, but the government decided in June that a nationwide survey should be conducted between now and February 2018. The survey of 17,000 students will be conducted in 70 high schools and 100 elementary schools. I must say that such a survey should have been done decades ago because the problems of foreign language teaching are at least a century old. In the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy those soldiers who served in the k. und k. (kaiserlich und königlich) army, in which the language of command was German, managed to learn rudimentary German. But especially after 1945, during a long period of linguistic isolation and the exclusive teaching of Russian, the situation deteriorated significantly. Unfortunately, opening the borders didn’t make a quick and appreciable difference. It would be high time to remedy the situation, but the Orbán government’s educational philosophy is antagonistic to modern teaching methods, so desperately needed in Hungarian schools.

August 7, 2017

Introducing patriotic physical education classes

Back to education of sorts. Of sorts because the Orbán government, like all authoritarian regimes, looks upon education as a vehicle for its political agenda. It has been constantly fiddling with education ever since 2010, trying to adapt it to its own ideas and needs. Acquiring knowledge is taking a back seat to nationalistic indoctrination. As the latest test results attest, these “improvements” produced lower scores in all categories–math, science, and verbal skills. Instead of beefing up academic skills appropriate to the modern age, the government added subjects such as religious education (or ethics), and it increased the number of physical education classes. Of course, rote learning is still the pedagogical method of choice. As a result, children spend an inordinate number of hours in the classroom with less and less to show for it.

The Orbán government’s real aim is to use the school system for the infusion of values that the political leadership deems essential. Among these values, perhaps the most important is nationalistic patriotism, which they think young Hungarians lack. Therefore, the Orbán government’s new curriculum places special emphasis on pride in Hungarian cultural and scientific achievements and, in general, on historical and folk traditions. As the ministry of human resources put it, teachers of history and literature are supposed to instill national pride in their pupils.

Over the past seven years the government’s educational “experts” floated several ideas that were supposed to arouse students’ interest in what the Orbán government considers to be Hungarian specialties. Examples were the introduction of horseback riding and the compulsory daily singing of folk songs in schools. Luckily, the crazy idea of daily singing was soon abandoned.

Here I would like to focus on one notion that was put into practice: five gym classes a week instead of the earlier three. In theory, this might have been a good idea, but as usual it was introduced without due preparation and there are still many students who must do their exercises in the corridors instead of a gym due to lack of space. I was also very suspicious about the real reason for this great emphasis on physical education. We all know that a daily exercise program is good for us, and everywhere in the world only a small percentage of children and adults are physically active. Hungary is no exception. So, more gym classes could be a step in the right direction. Still, I was worried from the beginning that the greater emphasis on gym was not for the sole benefit of physical well-being but that the powers-that-be had a hidden agenda. Soon enough there were signs that my fears were justified.

The first sign that the government was thinking about general military training was Viktor Orbán’s surprising announcement that those men who received military training during the Kádár era and afterward, until it was abolished in 2004, gained immeasurably from the experience. The announcement was surprising because Orbán loathed his year in the military between high school and law school. According to his own admission, this was the time when he came to hate the regime and decided to turn against it. But today he seems to be convinced that Hungary must be able to defend itself and therefore must have a strong army. I believe that if the idea of conscription weren’t so unpopular, he wouldn’t mind reinstating compulsory military service. But since this is not possible politically, at least at the moment, he would like to have a strong reserve force.

István Simicskó, minister of defense, has been for the longest time a promoter of the idea of a “home army.” A year ago there was a lot of talk about building one, but it seems that the army found it difficult to convince men and women to enlist. Once that failed, Simicskó floated the idea of establishing shooting galleries in every “járás,” an administrative unit smaller than a county. Today not much can be heard about this idea either. Instead, at the beginning of June RTL Klub reported that the Klebelsberg Center (KLIK), which oversees Hungary’s educational system, inquired from school principals about the feasibility of establishing shooting galleries on school premises. A day later Magyar Nemzet learned that KLIK is also interested in the practicality of introducing martial arts. KLIK wanted to know what kinds of martial arts they teach now, because as of May students can replace gym classes not just with football but also with some kind of martial art. I should add that Simicskó is a practitioner of Wing Chun, a traditional Chinese martial art specializing in close range combat. Simicskó achieved the 4th master level.

The word is now out that by the end of this year schools will have to change the curriculum of gym classes to reflect “a program of patriotism and national defense.” Critics of the Orbán government’s educational policies are baffled and somewhat worried about these plans because of the coupling of patriotism/nationalism and the defense of the homeland. As it is, Hungarian education is supposed to instill an admiration for those who over the years have fought against “foreign oppression.” One only wishes the curriculum placed as much emphasis on the fight against domestic oppressors and the love of individual freedom.

It looks as if it is never too early to start patriotic/nationalistic indoctrination. According to the description of the project, it will begin when children enter kindergarten at the age of three. It is still not clear when students will have to start learning the rudiment of “the basics of military training.”

The plan strongly resembles the “levente movement,” which was introduced in 1921 and came to an end in 1945. It was the primary organization for pre-military training in the Horthy era. According to the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary could maintain only a very small army, so the introduction of the levente movement helped to circumvent the military restrictions imposed on the country. Every male between the ages of 12 and 21 who no longer attended school had to join a local levente group, where he was forced for 8-9 months a year to take physical education classes for three hours a week. So, it’s no wonder that some educational experts are worried that the patriotic physical education classes signal plans to reintroduce conscription sometime in the future.

Members of the levente movement practicing the shot put, 1928

But the very idea of “teaching” patriotism/nationalism to youngsters is frightening by itself. Often the distinction between patriotism and nationalism is blurred. It’s enough to take a look at the dictionary definitions of the two terms. Patriotism is “love and devotion to one’s country” while nationalism is “devotion, especially excessive or undiscriminating devotion to the interests or culture of a particular nation state.” But what is excessive? The second meaning of nationalism is even more telling. Nationalism is “the belief that nations will benefit from acting independently rather than collectively, emphasizing national rather than international goals,” which is certainly true of the “patriotic” aspirations of the Orbán government.

In brief, the present regime is introducing the teaching of blatant nationalism into the school curriculum. This highly questionable project is being financed to the tune of 318 million forints by, I’m sorry to say, the European Union. It is one of the many paradoxes that most of us find intolerable. Here is the European Union, which is supposed to stand for international cooperation and ever closer integration at the expense of nationalistic egotism, and that organization finances Viktor Orbán’s latest plans to bring up a generation of Hungarians antagonistic to the very ideas the European Union stands for.

August 6, 2017

A quick look at three recent events in Hungary

Medián’s latest opinion poll on parties and politicians

Today I will again cover several topics, all of which, I believe, deserve attention. I will start with Medián’s latest opinion poll, which shows a slight uptick in Fidesz support while the opposition parties’ positions remain fairly constant. I will not burden you with too many details and will provide figures only for those voters who claim they will certainly vote at the next election. In this group Fidesz leads with 53%, followed by Jobbik at 21%, while MSZP, which looks upon itself as the leading party on the left, currently garners only 12%. DK stands at 6% and LMP at 3%, which means that it wouldn’t meet the 5% threshold for representation in parliament. The smaller parties like Momentum, Együtt, Two-tailed Dog, and MoMa each have a 1% share of the active voters while the Hungarian Liberal Party and Párbeszéd have even less support. As it stands, about 10% of votes would be absolutely wasted if all these parties decided to run on their own. Given the fractured state of the left-of-center opposition, it is not at all surprising that 33% of the likely voters have no idea at the moment for which party they will vote at next year’s election.

Medián also asked people’s opinion of politicians. Hungarians have a very low opinion of politicians in general. Usually, János Áder heads the list, but his rank is due only to his office. People feel they must respect the president of the country. But even Áder’s “popularity” is only 49%. Viktor Orbán trails at 44%. The most popular opposition politician is Gergely Karácsony, mayor of Zugló (District XIV), with 39%. Currently he is Párbeszéd’s candidate for the premiership, which might be responsible for an 8% jump in his popularity in the last two months. On the other hand, MSZP’s László Botka hasn’t captured the imagination of the electorate. On the contrary, between April and June he has lost 8%. His current standing is a mere 26%. There are only two politicians who are less popular than Botka: Lajos Bokros and Ferenc Gyurcsány. Given Botka’s lack of popularity and the stagnating low support for MSZP, the socialist party’s prospects don’t seem too bright. I must say that I’m not surprised.

Egypt and Hungary are political neighbors

At least this is what Viktor Orbán claimed yesterday when Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited Hungary to confer with the prime ministers of the Visegrád 4 and to have bilateral talks with Viktor Orbán.

El-Sisi arrived in Budapest in secrecy late Sunday night. MTI reported his presence in the Hungarian capital only after his meeting with Viktor Orbán yesterday. The Egyptian press was much more forthcoming. They announced the impending visit to Budapest already on July 1. As 168 Óra said of the strange circumstances of el-Sisi’s arrival, “the Orbán government first wanted to hide the dictator but at the end he was greeted with open arms.” Indeed, just as in the case of Erdoğan, Orbán went out of his way to flatter the dictator. He again came forth with some strange comments. Orbán, who likes to speak in the name of all Hungarians, claimed that when Hungarians look at other countries their first inquiry is “how much they are in love with their own independence.” I’m sure that this odd comment comes as a surprise to most Hungarians. But, the most incredible sentence was: “Egypt is not only a country close by but also politically speaking a neighbor.”

In addition to political matters there was again a lot of talk about the great economic opportunities and the prospects of more intensive trade relations in the future. All the talk about trade with Turkey a couple of days ago and now with Egypt prompted Bálint Ablonczy of Válasz to write an opinion piece titled “Wouldn’t it be time for a western opening?” He rightly pointed out that seven years after the announcement of the Eastern Opening the diversification of Hungarian trade relations hasn’t changed at all. In fact, in 2010 77% percent of Hungarian exports went to the countries of the European Union. Today that figure is 80%. This is so despite bilateral talks with leaders of countries east of Hungary. Meanwhile, Orbán meets European politicians only at EU summits. Perhaps, says Ablonczy, it would be time to turn toward the west. What Ablonczy doesn’t say but I’m sure he knows is that at present there are not too many European politicians who would like to be chummy with Viktor Orbán, friend of Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Abel Fattah el-Sisi, Nursultan Nazarbayev, Ilham Aliyev, and other unsavory leaders.

Trade schools versus gymnasiums

I once wrote a post with the title “Hungarian politicians and learning: Not a good mix,” in which I listed a few truly harmful people in and around Hungarian education, starting with Rózsa Hoffmann, KDNP undersecretary of education between 2010 and 2014, László Palkovics, her successor, and László Parragh, president of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The fact that a businessman might have such an outsize influence on public education might surprise most people, but the fact is that for one reason or another Parragh managed to convince Orbán that his ideas reflect the way Hungarian education should be structured for maximum economic benefit. Unfortunately, his ideas are totally misguided. He sees Hungary as a huge factory floor where blue-color workers toil on assembly lines. In his opinion, these workers don’t need a broad liberal arts education before embarking on a trade or profession. After eight years of general public education, they should be sent to trade schools. Orbán’s educational establishment has begun to promote trade schools over traditional high school education.

But there is one serious problem. Hungarian parents are smarter than László Parragh and want to have their children go through 12 years of academic learning. Interest in gymnasiums is still as high as ever. A furious Parragh blamed the municipalities for not shuttering gymnasiums. So, if the people don’t do something he and his fellow politicians want, the only way to remedy the situation is to force people to obey. A few days ago Magyar Nemzet received a copy of a background study on the subject which advocates “the introduction of an entrance exam to be taken in grade eight” that would determine the future of 14-year-olds. In addition, the authors of the study suggest “a gradual restriction on the number of gymnasiums.” Let’s kill children’s opportunities after a single test. Because once children are forced into these trade schools there is no way they will ever end up in college or university.

Let me include here a couple of recent photos taken in these “szakközépiskolák.”

My favorite is the one below that accompanies Magyar Nemzet’s article on the so-called educators’ plan for ruining a whole generation.

What in the world will these two guys do with what they are allegedly learning here?

July 4, 2017