Tag Archives: geography

Teaching and politics: A grade-eight geography book

The liberal media tends to overestimate the desire of most teachers to move away from traditional teaching methods. We are apt to forget the incredible resistance the teachers put up when Bálint Magyar, minister of education between 1996 and 1998 and again between 2002 and 2006, cautiously attempted to reform Hungarian public education. I’m convinced that the majority of teachers are quite satisfied with the way the material is taught and wouldn’t know what to do with all those “newfangled” methods a small group of top-notch teachers in elite schools would like to introduce.

This feeling was reinforced today when I listened to a screaming devotee of Viktor Orbán. She went on and on, singing the praises of the Hungarian prime minister, whom she considers the only far-sighted, modern politician in Europe. All the others are useless liberals who will be swept away by the spirit of a new age of people like Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán. She turned out to be a high school teacher. I have no idea what she teaches, but I shudder to think of the influence she might have on some of her students.

Then there is an incredible illustration in the grade 8 geography textbook. It depicts Germany as a sow, feeding four little piglets that represent countries that are dependent on Germany’s financial help: Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Belgium. A fifth piggy, identified by a Hungarian flag, stands aside, giving the impression that Hungary is not the beneficiary of money that Germany pays into the common purse of the European Union.

I do give the book credit for explaining the structure of the European Union quite well. It also spells out the benefits a Hungarian citizen receives as a result of the country’s being part of the European Union.

One chapter of this textbook is devoted to demographics, within which “migration” is discussed at some length. The book points out that Hungary is “a transit country.” Most migrants stay in Hungary for a very short time and move on to Western Europe. When it comes to emigration, the book doesn’t divulge the extent of the problem, even though it does mention that half of those who leave Hungary are under thirty and “many of them are well-educated professionals.”

Although the authors ask students probing questions about the differences between “refugees” and “immigrants,” there is nothing in the textbook that could possibly guide the students on the matter. I assume that here the political views of the teacher are of some importance, especially since students would rarely have heard the word “refugee.” Viktor Orbán and the members of his government judiciously avoided the term and talked only about “migrants.” There is another question that most likely allows the teacher to interpret current events: “Why are the majority of refugees only traveling across Hungary” instead of settling here?

I was impressed with the chapter on “The present and future of domestic industry.” In it the textbook quite honestly reports on the inadequacies of the educational system and government support for research and development. I especially liked the sub-chapter “The future is information societies—what about us?” It talks about the necessity of investors with sufficient capital to support R&D. Otherwise, “the intellectual capital will go to other countries.” Again, there is plenty of opportunity for teachers to add their own views on these subjects. The same is true of renewable energy, which the authors admit has not been promoted by the government.

These are some of the laudable features of the textbook. When it comes to chapters on Hungary’s neighbors, the treatment is less even-handed. Saying that “Transylvania is the home of Hungarians” is more than misleading, even though in the text the student learns that Hungarians constitute only 19% of Transylvania’s population. Unfortunately, once these students leave school they seem to forget such “details.” I remember a fairly recent sociological study of young people’s knowledge of Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries. They are woefully ignorant of basic facts about the size of Hungarian minorities both in Slovakia and in Romania.

USA-NATO confetti factory

By the time I more or less finished reading the book I came to the conclusion that the inclusion of “political” cartoons in this textbook was most unfortunate. I would love to know what message a cartoon titled “USA-NATO confetti factory” intends to send. Does the textbook blame the United States for the breakup of Yugoslavia or for the Russian-Ukrainian conflict? I can’t think of anything else.

Who should have Ukraine?

I also find the cartoon on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict unfortunate, especially since the screaming right-wing teacher this morning blamed the United States for Ukraine’s recent problems with Russia. The accompanying text is also puzzling. After explaining that about one-fifth of the population speaks a mixed Russian-Ukrainian language, it adds: “nevertheless, the two ethnic groups are often in conflict within the country. Their antagonisms led to armed conflict for the Crimean peninsula.” Well, that is not how I remember Putin’s recent excursion into Crimea.

All in all, this textbook is a mixed bag. There is an often expressed requirement that teaching be politically neutral, but even the most superficial look at this book reveals that it is packed with information on recent events that are political in nature. I can’t help but think of the famous movie “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.” Teachers can have a huge influence on their students, especially when those of the more liberal persuasion are afraid to express any opinion that might brand them as not fully supportive of the current regime. It’s too bad that there is no way of knowing what goes on in Hungarian classrooms in such a politically divided country as Hungary.

January 6, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s latest attack against Hungarian education

There is trouble again in the field of public education. With the reverberations from the teachers’ strike not entirely quelled, the government has already managed to get the teachers wound up anew by introducing yet another set of school reforms. As if the Orbán government had lost its magic touch and is unable to gauge the mood of the country. Even if at the moment no strike is in the offing, neither the teachers nor the general public are satisfied with the government’s response to what they consider to be an educational crisis. To announce a total reorganization of the public school system at this junction can only lead to further tension. I find it intriguing that while the government has been hyperactive in the field of education, introducing one so-called reform after another, in healthcare, another trouble spot, the Orbán administration has done practically nothing. It is hard to say which strategy is better since both education and healthcare are in terrible shape. Viktor Orbán’s luck seems to be running out.

In order to understand what the government is contemplating, we have to take stock of the current Hungarian school system which, I must say, is pretty complicated. A Hungarian child begins his studies at the age of six in an eight-grade elementary school (general/általános iskola), from which he can move on to middle school (középiskola). There are three types of middle schools: “specialty middle schools” (szakközépiskola), gymnasiums, and trade schools (szakiskola).

Gymnasium courses of study are of varying length. Most common is a four-year program, entered after finishing eighth grade. But there are gymnasiums that can be entered after the fourth grade. And there are a few in which a student spends six years, leaving elementary school after the sixth grade.

Just to complicate things, there are also the specialty middle schools which, I understand, are as popular in Hungary as the gymnasiums (approximately 200,000 students in each, or 40% of all high school students). Until now at least diplomas from specialty middle schools allowed students to enter college or university. Their “matriculation” was the equivalent of those who finished gymnasium.

Only about 100,000 children, or 20% of all high school students, attend the third type of middle school, the trade school.

The new “reform” focuses on the specialty middle schools and trade schools. As usually happens in Orbán’s Hungary, we have no idea whom the government consulted before presenting its plans because those considered to be experts on education were horrified when they learned the details.

In my opinion, the essence of the reform is to lower standards while trying to give the impression of higher value by changing the branding. The “specialty middle school” (szakközépiskola) will from here on be called “specialty gymnasium,” and “trade school” (szakiskola) will be named “specialty middle school.” All three kinds of schools, the government claims, will enable students to take their matriculation exam, which is a necessary prerequisite to entering college or university. But in reality, there are huge differences between the quality of education the students in the three types of schools will receive.

In these new specialty schools the time allotted to academic subjects will be grossly reduced. Formerly 22-23 hours a week were devoted to these subjects. According to plans, the study of a broad range of academic subjects will be reduced to 12-15 hours. Study of the “specialty” subjects will be increased to 12-15 hours a week. While the same number of hours will be devoted to literature, math, and history as before, students will be able to study only one of the natural sciences, depending on their “specialty.” Those whose specialty is healthcare will study only biology. If the specialty is engineering, the person will study only physics. Only those who are interested in mining, tourism, and surveying will study geography. Those who are interested in hotel management will learn only a foreign language. In brief, if parents enroll their child in one of these schools, the child’s whole career might be determined at the age of fourteen.

Teachers are horrified. In our complex, fast-changing world, to narrow the educational base to such an extent is a totally mistaken notion. Viktor Orbán imagines the Hungary of the future to be a mini-China where millions of blue-collar workers toil in large factories. But we all know that in the long run such an economic structure cannot be maintained, even in China. As people often say, Hungary can offer only intellectual capacity, which can be attained only through education. Yet Orbán is systematically lowering educational opportunities and cheapening educational offerings.

Critics of Orbán’s vision are worried about the educational opportunities of children herded into “specialty gymnasiums” or even worse “specialty middle schools” whose career opportunities will be greatly diminished. Children at the age of fourteen cannot make responsible decisions about their future careers. It is most likely the parents who make the decision, often without any knowledge of their children’s inclinations or true talents. I can speak from experience that even at the age of eighteen many people only think they know what they want to study. One of my favorite stories is of a freshman who complained about the faculty adviser to whom he was assigned. Who on earth came up with the idea of hooking him up with a psychologist? In fact, there was a very good reason for the decision because on his application he indicated that his “possible major” would be psychology. Half a year later he didn’t even remember what he put down. I also met a college student who was busily preparing to study medicine after graduation but halfway through discovered East European history. Today he is a university professor. That’s why I’m such a fan of the so-called liberal education, with little specialization at the B.A. or B.Sc. level. Specialization can come later.


Shortly after this latest brainstorm of the government became public came the “revolt of the geographers.” The Magyar Földrajzi Társaság (Hungarian Association of Geographers) began collecting signatures against the decision. In their estimation, no geography will be taught in about 900 high schools if the government goes through with its plans. They were soon followed by chemists and physicists. In brief, the government is setting the stage for even more intense conflict with educators.

After word got out that very few high schools will teach geography, the joke began to circulate that the reason for this decision is that perhaps this way Hungarian students will be unable to find the country to which they want to emigrate on the map.

April 28, 2016