Tag Archives: education

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

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 “government.info” 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 mandiner.hu, 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

Wakeup call: The PISA results reveal deep problems

The outcry over the PISA results is not subsiding. On the contrary. As more details surface, the magnitude of the problem is dawning on commentators. If almost 30% of Hungarian students at the age of 15 are functionally illiterate, it is difficult to imagine how the rosy future of the Orbán propaganda can ever be achieved.

The chief villain, of course, is silent. HVG asked the prime minister’s office for a response but was told to get in touch with Zoltán Balog’s ministry of human resources. Balog seemed to be in hiding. His undersecretary, László Palkovics, complained that this heartless OECD measures the performance of countries without taking into consideration local conditions, like his great efforts at a second wave of “reforms.” As Árpád W. Tóta, the witty political commentator, said, this problem can easily be remedied. Hungary should turn its back on the OECD just as it did today on the Open Government Partnership because it didn’t like the organization’s report on systemic corruption in Hungary over the last six years. Officials try to say as little as possible, but it seems that the party line is to whitewash the system they introduced and to blame the one-size-fits-all approach of PISA. Hungarian students have to take the same test as Japanese and German students, without any regard for the “Hungarian soul” and idiosyncratic “Hungarian thinking.” At least Viktor Orbán believes that Hungarian thinking is unique.

The consensus that has emerged in the last two days is that the cause of this drastic drop in performance is the reorganization of the educational system. The government set out to introduce a uniform system where all teachers teach the same material and thus all children end up with the same body of knowledge. Prior to the reform teachers could choose from a long list of textbooks. After the reform the choice was restricted to only two textbooks for each subject. If there had not been widespread protests, the government would have opted for only one. The old, favored textbooks were withdrawn and in record speed new texts appeared. In addition, the government decided that children need to work more and to acquire more factual knowledge. Even first-graders are required to stay in school until 4:00 p.m. Teachers, although they received raises, have to teach more classes and are forbidden to leave the building before 4:00 p.m. whether they have teaching duties or not. The result: overworked teachers, overworked students, and underperformance.

Some commentators are certain that the poor results are the consequence of too much teaching. A fair number of the many hours spent in school are frittered away on non-essentials. To appease the churches the government introduced religious instruction (or, alternatively, ethics classes). At least one hour a day is spent in physical education, which because of a lack of facilities often takes place in the corridors or consists of running up and down staircases. Since one of the undersecretaries in Balog’s ministry is a conductor and an expert on sacred music, even the crazy idea of daily singing came up at one point. Zoltán Balog was most enthusiastic. Wouldn’t it be splendid if these good Hungarian children would learn as many folk songs as possible? I don’t know what happened to this brilliant idea, but I hope it was dropped. Meanwhile, schools either don’t have any computers or, if they do, they are ancient and pretty useless. So it’s no wonder that students had difficulty answering the PISA test questions digitally.

Now let’s take a look at some of the details, which give us a fuller picture of the dreadful state of Hungarian education. In three years the number of students who haven’t reached even minimal reading competence has grown dramatically. These are the people whom we call functional illiterates. It is hard to believe, but 27.5% of 15-year-olds can’t figure out the meaning of quite simple texts. Six years ago only 17% of Hungarian students fell into this category. Hungary’s functional illiteracy rate is double that of Poland’s. That makes Hungary one of the poorest performers in the OECD countries, along with Mexico, Turkey, Greece, and Chile. Unfortunately, the situation is no better in the sciences, where 26% of the students performed under the minimum standards. Three years ago this was 18%. The situation is about the same in math as well. In brief, 18% of all Hungarian fifteen-year-olds underperformed not just in one subject but in all three.

You will write one hundred times: “Next time I will cram better for the PISA test” / Népszava , Gábor Pápai

According to Péter Radó, the foremost authority on education in Hungary today, if everything remains the same “Hungarian public education will produce 25,000 new functional illiterates yearly, in addition to about the same number who are deficient in math and science skills.” If one concentrates only on males, every third 15-year-old boy is functionally illiterate (31.9%).

Compare the 18% of Hungarian underperformers in all three areas with the Polish results, where only 8.3% fall into this category. Poland’s well thought-out educational reform has produced spectacular results. Long discussions among teachers, educational experts, students, and parents preceded the introduction of the Polish reform plan. In Hungary government officials talked to no one who would object to their retrograde plan and discussed it with only a small group of people with no expertise in education.

Let me add that the European Union as a whole is not doing as well as one would expect in the field of education, especially since it has a plan according to which by 2020 the proportion of students who perform under the minimum requirements must be reduced to 15%. As you can see on the following graph, the European Union’s results leave a great deal to be desired. It is unlikely that by 2020 it will achieve the desired result, especially if Hungary keeps adding to the already dismal figures.

Proportion of underachievers in Europe and Hungary in all three subjects

Among his many sins in the field of education Viktor Orbán set out to reduce the number of university graduates in Hungary. During the Kádár period only about 10% of the population had a higher degree. After 1990 successive Hungarian governments opened the doors of universities just like in other developed countries. As a result, enrollment soared, at least until Viktor Orbán decided that Hungary didn’t need so many university graduates. By exacting high tuition fees and decreasing the number of free places he managed to substantially reduce the number of students enrolled in Hungary’s colleges and universities.

Moreover, Orbán decided that among the high school population were some whose presence until the age of 18 was undesirable. The government therefore decreed that education was compulsory only to the age of 16. As a result, children of very poor families drop out of school as soon as possible in order to join the public workforce and help the family economically.  In the last couple of years Orbán also set out to decrease the number of academic high schools (gymnasiums) and to favor trade schools.

These moves, not without reason, raise the suspicion that Viktor Orbán wants to lower the educational attainment of Hungarians. The less educated can be more easily influenced and led. As Tóta said in his opinion piece today, Orbán managed to create a school system for sheep.

And he will undoubtedly continue along the same path unless someone stops him. For example, if the results of these tests rekindle teacher dissatisfaction. Lately, there have been signs that high school students, being perhaps foolishly brave, are standing up and even arguing with Zoltán Balog on matters of education. After all, their futures–and the future of the country–are at stake.

December 7, 2016

PISA: The abysmal results of Viktor Orbán’s educational “reforms”

St. Nicholas (Mikulás) brought a birch rod instead of sweets today. How inconsiderate of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a study conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), to release its latest results on the scholastic performance in mathematics, science, and reading of 15-year-olds on December 6. The first such study was undertaken in 2000 and it has been repeated every three years.

Hungarian children have taken part in PISA since the very beginning. Their performance was never exactly sterling, but thanks to the efforts especially of Bálint Magyar (SZDSZ) as minister of education, the scores of Hungarian students improved a bit, at least in reading comprehension. While in 2006 they scored 482, in 2009 they got 494. In math and science, however, there was no appreciable difference between 2006 and 2009. Then came the 2012 results, which were really bad. Hungarian children did worse in all three categories than three years earlier.

In December 2013 Viktor Orbán’s undersecretary Rózsa Hoffmann, of the Ministry of Human Resources, announced that the 2012 PISA results “support the urgent necessity of the renewal of public education.” As we know, the Orbán government began in earnest to “reform, ” or as its critics say “destroy,” public education by nationalizing all schools, taking away the autonomy of teachers, introducing five-day physical education and religious or ethical education, reducing the number of foreign language classes and computer science, and piling endless hours of rote learning on overworked students and teachers. All that eventually led to the “teachers’ revolts” we talked about so much this past spring.

In 2013 one couldn’t say with certainty whether Viktor Orbán’s initial educational “reforms,” undertaken in the first two years of his administration, had a major impact on the abysmal 2012 PISA results. Today there can be no doubt. Retro-reform is a disastrous idea. Returning to the teaching methods of the 1960s and 1970s will not do. Failure is guaranteed, especially as measured by a test like PISA, which focuses on how students can apply their knowledge in real-world contexts. It’s hard to apply things learned solely by rote.

The first reaction to the latest results was disbelief followed by anger. Critics of the educational “reform” can now point to hard data. The media called the test results a national tragedy and a disgrace. Not only did Hungary’s students fail. So did Viktor Orbán, whose ideas were put into practice by Rózsa Hoffmann and her successors, claims the Demokratikus Koalíció. MSZP’s Ágnes Kunfalvi, the party’s educational expert, is calling for Zoltán Balog’s resignation. Meanwhile László Palkovics, undersecretary in charge of education in whom Viktor Orbán found the perfect man for the job of transforming the country into one large factory of blue-color workers with minimal educational attainment, is trying to explain away the results.

So what happened in the last three years? Students’ reading comprehension fell from 488 to 472; their knowledge of sciences from 494 to 477. Only their math score of 477 remained the same, which is less impressive if we consider that in 2009 it was 494. Hungarian students’ test scores are considerably under the OECD averages.

Natural sciences–blue; reading comprehension–yellow; math–orange

The government is consoling itself with the results of another test, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), according to which Hungarian fourth and eighth graders performed way above average. This is all very nice, but what can students do with knowledge that they have no idea how to apply?

The teaching methods in Hungary, I’m convinced, have changed very little in the last 150 years. I assume by now children don’t have to sit with their hands behind their backs for 45 minutes, which is certainly an improvement. But rote learning is ingrained in the system, especially among older teachers, whose percentage is steadily growing. Undersecretary Palkovics, just like his predecessor Hoffmann in 2013, claims that the second wave of reforms he introduced haven’t yet had a chance to exhibit their beneficial effects. He added that this was the first time the test had to be performed digitally, which may have negatively influenced the outcomes. Well, that is an indictment of the present state of Hungarian education. I wouldn’t mention it if I were in his place.

Válasz, a conservative weekly and internet site, desperately tried to give a balanced picture when it comes to responsibility for the poor scholastic performance of Hungarian youngsters. It rightly pointed out that the state of public education is a reflection of the condition of the society as a whole. Yes, but to what extent is the Orbán government responsible for the sick Hungarian society everybody is talking about nowadays? Válasz is correct in noting that public education is a very complicated affair which cannot be turned around overnight. It called attention to some of the core problems of Hungarian education: segregation, great differences in school quality, and the poor educational background of parents of a great number of students. It is also true that given the low prestige of the teaching profession, on balance the quality of teachers is poor.

The problem is that the Orbán government has been in power for over five years and by now, if their policy was sound, there should be some sign of improvement. But I’m afraid the trajectory of the “reforms” is fundamentally wrong, leading to undereducated adults who will not be able to fill the kinds of high-tech jobs our modern age requires. Moreover, the growing number of parochial schools, especially outside of Budapest, only intensifies segregation. Unfortunately, this aligns with government policy. Zoltán Balog is convinced that Roma kids are better off in segregated schools because they allegedly receive more attention there.

444.hu was a great deal more critical than Válasz. In their opinion education is the greatest failure of the Orbán government. Unfortunately, I don’t see any recognition of this fact by those politicians who have been busy in the last five and a half years ruining the already flagging educational system. I found a handy chart that lets you compare Hungary’s performance to other countries in every possible category. You will be surprised.

I think it would be time for Palkovics and Co. to swallow their pride and at least talk to those educational experts who think that the present course should be abandoned and an entirely different approach slowly introduced. However, knowing Viktor Orbán’s unwillingness to admit his mistakes, I fear he, Palkovics and Parragh, president of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce who thinks he is an educational expert, will decide that all’s well, that they should proceed on the already chosen road to eventual great success. In fact, Magyar Idők yesterday announced that “Hungarian students are outstanding” according to TIMSS results. But if one reads a little further, one also learns that although 12% of fourth graders’ knowledge of math is excellent, the percentage of students who are below grade level is also high (8%), which puts Hungary in the group of poorly performing countries.

But how can the government improve the situation when the minister responsible for education doesn’t think that functional illiteracy even exists? Or when the chief of staff of the prime minister’s office comes up with the preposterous idea that being a good Christian and a good Hungarian is more important than acquiring knowledge since it might soon become outdated? I’m afraid it’s hopeless as long as Viktor Orbán is in power.

December 6, 2016

Learning? Secondary to being “a good Christian and a good Hungarian”

Before I begin today’s topic, János Lázár’s most unfortunate remarks about the goal of Hungarian education–to bring up good Christians and good Hungarians, let me return to the Habsburgs.

The Orbán government’s fascination with the House of Habsburg is not a new phenomenon, but in the last few years it has become more pronounced. Moreover, relations  between certain members of the Habsburg family and the Orbán government are excellent.


Let’s start with Otto von Habsburg or, as he was called in Hungary, Dr. Habsburg Ottó, whose archives will be deposited in the Royal Castle in Budapest. Although he was buried in Vienna with the rest of the Habsburgs, his heart was sent to Pannonhalma. His second son Georg (Habsburg György) and his family live in Hungary. Until 2012 he was president of the Hungarian Red Cross and he currently serves as one of the “traveling ambassadors,” promoting Hungary’s bid for the 2024 Olympic Games. He and his wife have three children, and the second girl was named Ildikó. How much more Hungarian can you get?

Great was the surprise when in July 2015 the Hungarian government named Eduard von Habsburg, an Austrian TV producer and scriptwriter, Hungarian ambassador to the Vatican. Eduard didn’t know any Hungarian at the time, but “he has been studying the Hungarian language intensively for the last year,” Hungary Today reported. His father Michael (Mihály) was born in Hungary, so Eduard is a bona fide Hungarian citizen.

The latest news on the Habsburg front is that the Hungarian government commissioned a bust of the last Hungarian king, Charles/Károly IV, who, since his beatification by the Catholic Church in 2004, has been known as Blessed Charles of Austria. As you can see from the photo, Zsolt Semjén thinks very highly of Charles both as a king and as a perhaps to-be saint.


The above was just a footnote to yesterday’s post. My main topic today is a speech János Lázár gave at the opening of the Mezőtúr Reformed College’s refurbished “Old Library.” Perhaps in his eagerness to please his hosts, he declared that “the government believes that the most that can be given to students is to raise them as good Christians and good Hungarians.” He added that “everything beyond this is debatable and questionable” since we don’t know whether the acquired knowledge will stand the test of time in the next centuries.

The reaction of liberal commentators and leaders of the teachers’ unions was undisguised outrage. One of the bloggers of gepnarancs.hu pointed out that he always suspected that “a hidden curriculum existed” and now, thanks to the overly talkative Lázár, we have learned the truth. After all, ever since 2013 the number of parochial schools has multiplied and an incredible amount of public money has ended up in the hands of the favored churches, the Catholic and the Hungarian Reformed. But now it is no longer a secret. The Orbán government wants to entrust the churches with the education of future generations of Hungarian children.

Kolozsvári Szalonna, as usual, was even more outspoken. The blogger considers Lázár’s words a calamity. “I can’t imagine a more horrible thing than for a relatively young minister in the twenty-first century to say such immensely stupid and tragically frightening things. I get really scared when a sickly dictatorship and religion cling together trying to suffocate a whole country.” The Orbán government, in his opinion, fears nothing more than independent thinkers. Until now they have stolen everything material, now “they want to divide among themselves the education of our children and our rights to be believers or not.” The author is convinced that the “marriage of state and church results in defenselessness, poverty, ignorance, later dissatisfaction, blood, and tears.” His conclusion is that if the Hungarian people allow this nuptial “we will write ourselves out of Europe and the twenty-first century as well.”

Less emotional but still hard hitting was the reaction of the two teachers’ unions. The Pedagógusok Szakszervezete (PSZ) expressed its hope that since it was János Lázár and not Zoltán Balog, the minister responsible for education, who spoke, this unacceptable statement is merely Lázár’s personal opinion because no government can force its worldview on the whole nation. “It cannot be more than a private opinion because—as is clear from all the signed and declared international treaties—the state must honor the parents’ religious and ideological convictions.” The curriculum must be free of any ideological or religious bias. PSZ expects Zoltán Balog to clarify the government’s position on the matter.

László Mendrey, head of the Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szakszervezete (PDSZ), while emphasizing that no one should question the right of the churches to maintain schools, added that “they cannot attain supremacy.” In his opinion, Lázár’s ideas are unconstitutional and in conflict with the law on public education. “Lázár doesn’t realize who the most important persons are in education. We will help him: the children … For them, the most important consideration is not to be good Christians and good patriots. Rather, the goal is to acquire knowledge that will meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.”

I’m certain that this issue will not go away quickly. I wouldn’t expect any reassurance from Zoltán Balog who is, after all, a Protestant minister. He is also woefully ignorant of what education is all about, and his past interactions with children have shown him to be incapable of any meaningful exchange with young people. Moreover, what can one expect from a man in charge of education who announced the other day that he doesn’t believe in the notion of functional illiteracy because “if someone can read he also understands the text.”

I share the concerns expressed above by teachers and political commentators because I remember only too well the days when, because of the intertwining of state and church before 1948, education was entrusted mostly to the Catholic Church. More than half of the elementary schools were Catholic parochial schools while “an overwhelming majority” of gymnasiums and teachers’ colleges were also in the hands of the Catholic Church. Creating a secular school system was long overdue by 1948. It is another matter how the Stalinist regime of Mátyás Rákosi handled the nationalization of parochial schools. Yet I would find it unacceptable to return to the pre-1948 days in the twenty-first century.

November 28, 2016

OECD’s “Education at a glance, 2016”: An indictment of the Orbán regime

Upon checking the more than 3,000 posts that have appeared on Hungarian Spectrum, I realized that this is the first time I’ve covered the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development/OECD’s annual publication, “Education at a Glance.” It is a massive volume of over 500 pages with data from 35 OECD countries.

From this latest “glance” it is evident that the Hungarian government has been shortchanging education. Although I know that the amount of money spent on education doesn’t necessarily correlate with the educational attainment of students, it is still worth noting that only Mexico and Turkey spend less money per student than Hungary does.

Since 2006 Hungary has been spending less and less money on education, both in real terms and as a percentage of the GDP. Austerity measures after 2008 affected the spending of all European countries on education, but the Hungarian cutbacks were the steepest, even in comparison to other countries in the region. In 2013, the last year for which we have data, Hungary spent only 76% of what it did in 2008. It is true that the number of students, due to the low birthrate and emigration, also decreased, but in 2013 the government spent only 82% per student of what had been spent in 2008. Both the EU22 and the OECD countries taken together have increased educational spending. Looking at it another way, in the countries of the OECD students spend an average of 13.1 years in school and, over this time, governments spend on average $121,899 per student. That figure in Hungary is $57,093.

Here are some basic facts about the economic situation after the 2008 economic crisis. Between 2008 and 2010 GDP decreased, in real terms, in 22 of the 44 countries with available data while public expenditure on educational institutions fell in only 6 of the 31 countries with available data, Hungary being one of them. As of 2013 Hungary’s spending on education as a percentage of GDP was a mere 3.8%, just ahead of last-place Russia, as opposed to the OECD average of 5.2%. These figures also include expenditures from private sources. The government’s contribution was only slightly above 3%. Table after table attest to the fact that Hungary is among the few countries where very little money is spent on education and what is spent most likely is not spent effectively. For example, for tertiary education, Hungary spends a fair amount of money, yet Hungarian universities are not judged to be of exceptionally high quality.


Hungarian teachers get paid on average around $25,000, as opposed to western European countries of about $50,000. Teachers’ salaries in the first four grades are even lower than that, under $20,000, which puts Hungary at the end of the list, alongside Slovakia and Brazil. In Hungary the starting salary for pre-school teachers is $13,228, which 10 years later is $17,858, and fifteen years later $19,181. One could continue with sad statistic after sad statistic.

The Hungarian media spent little time on this report. Árpád W. Tóth wrote one of his clever op-ed pieces titled “As if there were no tomorrow,” decrying the shortsightedness of the Orbán government for not wanting to understand that Hungary has no natural resources and therefore must rely on its human resources as the foundation of a better, more prosperous society. And yet Viktor Orbán ever since 2010 has been cutting back on spending for education. In addition, with his experimentation with teaching methodologies and concepts he is ruining the little that was good in the system. Billions are spent on useless stadiums, billions are stolen by favorite oligarchs, billions of public money end up in “private foundations,” billions are spent on “racist billboards.” Little goes for education. It is simply not a priority.

The government propaganda media was naturally rather quiet on the subject of the OECD’s report. They limited their coverage to reporting on a press conference that László Palkovics, the undersecretary of education, gave.

Palkovics, it should be noted, is the perfect man to finish the butcher job on Hungarian education that was conceived in Viktor Orbán’s mind and begun under Christian Democrat Rózsa Hoffmann, the schoolmarm from the 70s of the Kádár era. The fast-talking new undersecretary, a transport engineer by profession, is a man of action for whom there are no obstacles. Everything is simple. Everything can be done practically overnight. A new subject is being introduced in September and there is no textbook. No problem, it will be solved. I understand that Orbán is extremely satisfied with him.

But however self-confident Palkovics is, after looking through the hundreds of tables in OECD’s study he must have realized that these results are devastating. They are an indictment of Hungary’s commitment to education, which somehow must be papered over in a great hurry. Hence the press conference, which was dutifully reported by MTI and published in Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap. The headline in the latter was “Palkovics: Improving results in education,” followed by “Hungary spends more than the OECD average on the education of very small children, the salaries of teachers have improved and the earning power of university graduates is higher [in comparison to non-grads] than the OECD average.” I’m sure that he (or more likely one of his staffers) had to look high and low to find a few items in which Hungary was above the OECD average. I myself had no time to study the hundreds of tables, but I have the feeling that Palkovics cited the only three positive results that appeared in 500 pages.

In addition, he pointed to all the improvements that have been introduced. Numbers were flying every which way, numbers that cannot be verified and that were probably introduced only to obfuscate the issue. But nowhere did he say that the Hungarian government will spend more than 3.8% of the GDP on education either this year or the next. Instead, he talked about cheaper or free textbooks for poor students, proudly adding that Hungary spends 4.7% of the GDP on family assistance whereas the OECD average is only 2.5%. He also announced that the Hungarian government spent 0.7% of GDP on kindergartens as opposed to the OECD’s average of 0.6%. Pitiful, I must say.

As long as the Orbán government is in power and the likes of László Palkovics run the show, there can be no improvement. But every wasted year will have a lasting effect on the generation now coming of age, with a devastating effect on the future of the country.

September 20, 2016

Educational activist István Pukli’s encounter with the media

I think it is time to talk a little about “the art of communication” or rather the lack thereof in Hungarian political life. It was only a couple of days ago that Gyula Molnár, the newly elected MSZP chairman, mangled his party’s message on the forthcoming referendum to such an extent that Népszabadság gave the following title to an opinion piece: “If you want to get completely confused on the issue of the referendum, listen to Gyula Molnár.”

These verbal mishaps are far too common. Two days after the Molnár affair, István Pukli, the brave principal of the Blanka Teleki High School in the Zugló section of Budapest, gave two interviews a day apart in which he made contradictory statements that were turned against him by the pro-government media.

For months now I have been listening four times a week to György Bolgár’s call-in show on Klubrádió on which one can hear invited guests’ ideas about the best ways to advance the departure of the Fidesz regime. When the person begins with “in order to answer this question we have to go back a bit in time” I already know that he/she will never return to the question.

Confusion, contradiction, rambling: not exactly the stuff of good communication. And yet the funny thing is that communication as a college major is extremely popular in Hungary, and every organization or business has a spokesman, sometimes more than one, like the Tom Lantos Institute I wrote about yesterday. In the Hungarian school system it is almost a mantra that students’ verbal participation in the classroom will make them good public speakers. Teachers as well as parents complain about the growing number of written tests, which they consider to be detrimental to verbal proficiency. But it is doubtful that the regurgitation of a few pages from a textbook does much to promote either logical reasoning or verbal fluency.

Here is István Pukli who, before he became a school principal, had taught literature and history. You’d assume he would know how to think on his feet. But no, he wound up in a tangle of contradictions. Pukli gave two interviews, one to The Budapest Beacon, which appeared in English on September 1, and the other to Magyar Idők, which was published on September 2.

István Pukli / Source: Magyar Idők

István Pukli / Source: Magyar Idők

In the Budapest Beacon interview, he was asked the following question. “Can you really imagine genuine education reforms taking place within NER [System of National Cooperation]? Or is the failure of the current government minimally required.” To which Pukli answered: “We have to say that the answer is no. But this is not our primary goal. We resolved to lobby educational matters and fight to achieve our objectives until they are realized. If a side effect of that is that Viktor Orbán falls from power, then so be it.” He was categorical in rejecting the proposition that a change of prime minister might solve the problem. “No, it is necessary to defeat the Fidesz system,” he answered.

So far so good, but then a few minutes later he said that he “would not like to see a left-wing turn” because he is “not sure that solidarity among the left-wing parties and their coming to power is the solution.” Yet he liked György Magyar’s call for “the opposition to cooperate, win, create a proportionate electoral law, dissolve the new parliament and hold an election under a respectable electoral law” although “as a teacher of Hungarian and history, what would I have to do with that?” Well, does he want solidarity among the opposition parties on the left or doesn’t he? As for the meaning of the last sentence, I am not even trying to decipher it.

As the leader of a movement that has achieved considerable success so far, Pukli sadly lacks civic responsibility. He doesn’t even know whether he will vote in 2018 because he doesn’t know for whom he would vote. He considers Gyurcsány and the rest on the left as bad as Orbán on the right. He believes that there will be no change of government in 2018 because “a lot of people lap up Fidesz’s stupidity.” Or, I would add, because of apathy. His own political apathy is difficult to reconcile with his activities as a leader of those who want a complete turnabout in the educational policy of the government, which he knows can be achieved only after the fall of the present political system.

So, let’s move on to the Magyar Idők interview. Keep in mind that Magyar Idők is the most loyal pro-government organ in the country. Still, Pukli bravely announced his disappointment in Fidesz. He told the less than sympathetic journalist that “the party in which [he] believed doesn’t represent conservative values. It is being guided by political and economic interests and has ruined the educational system. There is party loyalty and there are principles.” But then, without any qualification, he stated that “The goal is not the removal of the Orbán regime, only that they should realize and correct their mistakes.” As the journalist reminded him, his movement’s school-opening message this year contains Pukli’s slogan used at the spring demonstrations he helped to organize: “They have no power over us.” Pukli clarified the source of the message, saying that it was borrowed from the film Labyrinth where “it refers to the demons within us.” So, it’s no wonder that Magyar Idők gave the following title to the interview: “The current political left cannot be an alternative. István Pukli: We have no enemies, we struggle with our own demons.” Because of his confused thinking and poor verbal literacy the right-wing paper managed to make a liar and an opportunist out of Pukli. The other right-wing organ, Magyar Hírlap, reinforced this assessment in an article titled “Pukli’s public schizophrenia: “If the press writes about us, they cannot not reappoint me.” Unfortunately, Pukli did utter this unfortunate sentence in the Magyar Idők interview, so he could also be viewed as someone who is involved in the protest movement to save his job.

After such a blunder come the usual attempts to explain the inexplicable and to distance oneself from the person who got himself into the mess. Yesterday afternoon both Olivér Pilz, the other leader of the “We Want To Teach” movement, and István Pukli were interviewed on Klubrádió’s “Esti gyors” (Evening express) program. Pilz suggested that Pukli in his interviews was talking only about his own political views, which got mixed up with the program of the movement. As for Pukli, he repeated what he told The Budapest Beacon. It looks as if the Orbán government has no intention of changing course in its educational policy and therefore, although their original aim was certainly not the overthrow of the government, “if this is the only way, so be it.”

September 3, 2016