Tag Archives: high school textbooks

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 history textbooks under scrutiny

Recently the Hungarian government purchased/nationalized two of the larger textbook publishers: Apáczai Kiadó and Nemzedékek Tudása Tankönyvkiadó. Perhaps it should be mentioned for the sake of Hungarian cultural history that János Apáczai Csere (1625-1659), polyglot author of the first textbook written in Hungarian, was one of the many Transylvanian scholars who studied at Dutch universities (Leiden and Utrecht). What linked the Principality of Transylvania and The Netherlands was their common Calvinist heritage.

Because of the Hungarian state’s direct interest in textbook publishing, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the new list of “recommended” textbooks heavily favors these two publishers although, if the quality of textbooks is any indication, these publishing houses are not the best. Of the 3,223 textbook titles currently available, the ministry approved only 922 (29%). Private publishers tend to fall into the “unapproved” category. For instance, one private publisher, Mozaik, has 17 titles and, according to the CEO of the company, 260,000 books currently in use in Hungarian classrooms. But there is not a single Mozaik title on the recommended list.

A few years back I became very interested in what Hungarian high school students learn about modern Hungarian and world history in grade 12. At that time the most popular history textbook in this category was Konrád Salamon’s. I ordered a copy of it as well as another textbook that was the work of a team of historians whom Viktor Orbán would surely find unacceptable. Names like János Kende, Tamás Krausz, Zoltán Ripp, Péter Sipos, and Éva Standeiszky. I found the joint effort of these historians far better than Salamon’s textbook, which included many questionable notions about such fundamental values as democracy. The historian László Karsai wrote a detailed critique of the Salamon book, which was pretty devastating. Yet it was at one point the most popular book, not because teachers liked it so much but because the matriculation questions on history were based on this particular textbook. (Personally, I think it’s high time to get rid of matriculation exams altogether, but that’s a topic for another day.)

tortenelem konyvek

Recently, as part of a foundation study, László Miklósi analyzed five grade 8 and three grade 12 modern history textbooks, with special focus on their treatment of the fate of Hungarian Jews. The one he liked best was published by Műszaki Kiadó–Csaba Dubcsik and Ildikó Repászky’s Történelem IV. It is especially strong in providing important source material and asking thought-provoking questions based on the material. Instead of taking it for granted that students understand the meaning of certain concepts (racism, political anti-Semitism, differences between fascism and Nazism), the authors explain their meanings. In general, the book devotes more time than the others do to ideologies. Its authors spend considerable time defining concepts like conservatism, liberalism, “Christian-national,” and the different meanings of “Christian” in the Hungarian setting. While among the books discussed there is at least one that claims that Horthy was not anti-Semitic, this textbook actually publishes Miklós Horthy’s infamous letter to Pál Teleki in which he tells the prime minister that he always was an anti-Semite.

The book also includes a speech from Hitler from which it becomes clear that the Führer’s final goal was the physical elimination of all Jews. And students should learn something about the dangers of fanaticism when reading a Himmler quotation in which he admits that he would be willing to kill his own mother if Hitler so ordered. This seems to be the only book that quotes from people who survived Auschwitz. The description of the situation after March 19, 1944 seems to be detailed and accurate, including Horthy’s role. There is mention of the fact that, although Horthy in his memoirs claimed that he knew nothing about the fate of the Jews, “there are several sources that prove his knowledge of the truth about the deportations.” All in all, this seems to be the best modern history textbook on the market at the moment. At least as far as the question of the Hungarian Jewry’s fate between the two world wars is concerned.

I can’t imagine that this book will be available in state high schools. It is a shame, but Viktor Orbán’s worldview is so radically different from what Dupcsik and Répászky summarize in this textbook that he couldn’t possibly tolerate exposing Hungarian students to such intellectual “poison.” After all, we hear often enough how unique and magnificent the Hungarian nation is. This regime puts so much emphasis on “Christian-national” values that the less than glowing description the authors offer of this term would be unacceptable. This and similar textbooks couldn’t possibly be tolerated by an authoritarian regime that wants to be in charge of what people think.

What else can one expect from a regime that has the temerity to set up a state research institute under political supervision (just like in the one-party system of Rákosi and Kádár) and call it, of all things, Veritas?


A Hungarian high school textbook on the numerus clausus of 1920

A few days ago we had a new visitor to Hungarian Spectrum who called himself “Éljen Fidesz” (Long Live Fidesz). He had a peculiar notion about the meaning of numerus clausus as it was applied in a law enacted by the Hungarian parliament in 1920. He turned to Wikipedia and found that “Numerus clausus (‘closed number’  in Latin) is one of many methods used to limit the number of students who may study at a university. In many cases, the goal of the numerus clausus is simply to limit the number of students to the maximum feasible in some particularly sought-after areas of studies.” The Wikipedia article adds that “the numerus clausus is currently used in countries and universities where the number of applicants greatly exceeds the number of available places for students.”

This is a grave misunderstanding of the Hungarian version of the numerus clausus that aimed at restricting the number of Jewish students in all Hungarian universities.

Of course, I don’t know the age of our Fidesz fan, but if he is in his 30s he most likely used Konrád Salamon’s textbook, which is the most popular choice of high school teachers. Not necessarily because it is the best but because in the days when students had to pass a test to be admitted to college or university the test questions were based on this textbook. Salamon’s text is for grade 12 when the history of the twentieth century is taught. The cover is decorated with modern and folk art and perhaps not by accident at least two of the pictures contain religious motifs. It is published in a large-size format (28 x 20 cm) and is 300 pages long. So, as one can imagine, it is packed with facts.

One could write pages and pages about the shortcomings of the book. László Karsai, historian of the Holocaust, wrote a lengthy critique of the way in which several high school and college textbooks deal with Jewish themes and the Holocaust, including Salamon’s text, which I have in manuscript form. Page 57 of Salamon’s book has three sentences about the numerus clausus. The first sentence states that the “members of the right and the extreme right forced through the acceptance of the law that was devised to decrease the overproduction of university graduates.” He adds that this meant quotas for “races [népfajok] and nationalities” according to their proportion in the population as a whole. And finally, Salamon writes that this law “placed Hungarians of Jewish origin in a  disadvantageous position.”

Anyone who is familiar with the Hungarian political situation in 1920 and knows anything about the numerus clausus understands that the law had nothing to do with the overproduction of  university graduates. In fact, at the two new universities in Pécs and Szeged there was a shortage of students. The two new universities, by the way, weren’t really new. They existed before, one in Kolozsvár (Cluj) and the other in Pozsony (Bratislava), but after Trianon they were moved to Szeged and Pécs respectively.

It is also wrong to say, as Salamon does, that it was only the extreme right that insisted on the introduction of a law that restricted enrollment of students of Jewish origin. The greatest supporters of the bill came from the ranks of the Party of National Unity, and even people who were considered to be moderate, like Kunó Klebelsberg and István Bethlen, were in favor of it.

Mária M. Kovács, Afflicted by Law: The Numerous Clausus in Hungary, 1920-1945 / IPon.hu

Mária M. Kovács, Afflicted by Law: The Numerus Clausus in Hungary, 1920-1945 / IPon.hu

Currently I’m reading a book on the numerus clausus  (Törvénytől sújtva: A numerus clausus Magyarországon, 1920-1945 / Afflicted by Law: The Numerus Clausus in Hungary, 1920-1945) by Mária M. Kovács, a professor at the Central European University in Budapest. In it Kovács shows that if the removal of Jewish students was intended to encourage children of the Christian middle class to enter university in greater numbers it was clearly a failure. But this wasn’t the aim of the bill. The leading politicians of the period were trying to restrict the number of Jews in the professions and the arts. In order to achieve their goal they reinterpreted the meaning of “izraelita.” Until then the word simply meant someone who considered himself to be a member of a religious community. With the adoption of the numerus clausus suddenly Hungarian Jews were considered to be an ethnic minority. According to Kovács, the law was unconstitutional both formally and substantively.

And finally a few words about Jewish overrepresentation in higher education. Yes, on the surface that seems to have been the case. During the academic year of 1918-1919 there were 18,449 students enrolled; of this number 6,719 were Jewish. One reason for these lopsided figures was that very few students came from villages and  small towns. Most of them were city dwellers, and Hungary’s Jewish population was concentrated in larger cities. In Budapest 25% of the inhabitants were Jewish. The other reason for this overrepresentation was that a greater number of Jewish youngsters finished gymnasium and took matriculation exams than did their non-Jewish contemporaries. In 1910 among Jewish men over the age of eighteen 18.2% took matriculation exams, among Catholics only 4.2% and among Protestants only 3.9%. And since you needed to matriculate in order to enter university one mustn’t be terribly surprised at the lopsided statistics. Kovács quotes the antisemitic Alajos Kovács, head of the Central Statistical Office, who found the situation “terrifying.”

Other figures often cited are the very high percentages of Jews in the medical and legal profession: 49.4% of lawyers and 46.3% of physicians were Jewish. One must keep in mind, however, that these professions attracted only 20% of all people with higher education. It is practically never mentioned that among the 30,000 college-educated civil servants one could find very few Jews–4.9% to be precise.

All in all, Kovács argues, the numerus clausus of 1920 can be considered the first anti-Jewish discriminatory law in Europe. According to some of the creators of the law it was a form of punishment of the Jews for Trianon. István Haller, minister of education in 1920, wrote an autobiography in 1926 which included a chapter entitled “As long as there is Trianon there will be numerus clausus.” The Jews must use their influence in the world to restore the old borders of historical Hungary. This opinion was shared by the entire political elite. Klebelsberg, for instance, announced in one of his speeches in parliament: “Give us back the old Greater Hungary, then we will abrogate the numerus clausus.”

And finally, on a different topic, a real gem from Konrád Salamon’s book (p. 8). The author of this high school textbook lists six reasons for the sorry state of the civilized world in the twentieth century. One of the reasons is that “the media became a significant factor in politics … and could easily influence the uninformed masses with the promise of creating material wealth quickly.” Should we wonder why Hungarian youngsters have so little knowledge of or attraction to democratic institutions? Unfortunately, the new textbooks that are being planned by Rózsa Hoffmann’s ministry will most likely be even more slanted than Konrád Salamon’s opus.