Tag Archives: KLIK

Criticism and self-criticism of Hungarian teachers

I have written many times about the state of Hungarian education, which in the last 25 years has gone through multiple changes, not necessarily for the better. In the past I usually concentrated on the quality of education and teaching methods and bemoaned the fact that, as far I can see, life hasn’t changed very much in the last 60-70 years in the average Hungarian school. But now I would like to turn to the teachers, who are the focus of the latest drama in Hungarian education.

In 25 years there have been ten ministers of education, and policy has shifted back and forth. Sometimes policy favored modernization, at other times it looked back a hundred years for its models. The socialist-liberal administrations were the modernizers, and the policies they tried to introduce met with resistance from teachers and their union leaders. Although naturally we have no hard data on the political affiliations of elementary and high school teachers, I would guess that they are basically a conservative lot. Therefore, I assume that by and large teachers were quite happy with the results of the 2010 elections.

Since then, however, teachers who might have been supporters of Fidesz have learned what it’s like to be powerless vis-à-vis the state. After 1990 schools, just like in Canada or the United States, were maintained by local communities. School boards were established and parents became heavily involved in school affairs. Faculty, parents, students, and school boards decided jointly on who, among the applicants, would be the school’s principal. All that is gone. The schools were nationalized and all teachers became state employees. The state established a professional association that every teacher had to join. Its structure was determined in a law passed by the Hungarian Parliament. Most teachers didn’t even know they had become members of this association, Nemzeti Pedagógus Kar (NPK), because KLIK (Klebelsberg Intézményfenntartó Központ), the “employer” of all teachers, hid the application form on the back of a page that teachers had to sign to complete their employment contract. From its website it is difficult to ascertain how many teachers actually participated in electing the association’s officers.

The law that established NPK also stipulated that it must propose an ethical codex. And, indeed, the newly elected leadership came up with a 23-page document which includes the precept that one of the most important duties of a teacher is to practice his profession “in the interest of the nation.” For good measure, a teacher will conduct himself “on the basis of the unity of criticism and self-criticism.” The phrase “criticism and self-criticism” sounds ominous to those who lived through the Stalinist times of the Rákosi regime.

guzsba kotve

Source: Körkép.sk

KLIK came out with a 97-page handbook describing the new process of internal self-assessment. Here’s how it works. The principal, who was appointed by the minister in Budapest, will designate three or four teachers whose job, in addition to their regular teaching assignment, will be to assess the work of their fellow teachers. Each teacher must be assessed every two years. Since there are 140,000 teachers in Hungary, this means 70,000 evaluations per year by these self-assessment groups. The evaluations will, of course, be stored centrally. These groups will be called Belső Ellenőrzési Csoportok (BECS), not what naughty internet meme creators called them–Pedagógiai Önértékelési Csoportok, whose acronym is a four-letter word that cannot be uttered in polite company.

Members of these groups will have to conduct interviews and fill out long questionnaires, a relatively onerous task. But the real problem lies elsewhere. The creation of such groups may poison personal relationships within the teaching staff. It rarely happens, but in this case the leaders of the two trade unions agree. Such “self-assessments,” they argue, will be ruinous to the atmosphere in schools. And that’s not all. Parents will also have to fill out long questionnaires, assessing the teachers’ performance. If the teacher gives a child a bad grade, it’s not inconceivable that the parent will write a damning assessment of that teacher. In light of this possibility, a teacher might be afraid to give a bad grade to the child, fearing repercussions. Moreover, it can easily happen that as a result of some subjective criterion (Is she really teaching in the interest of the nation or is she a subversive liberal?) a teacher will be found unfit, which will mean that she will not be able to teach in any school. After all, the teacher is the employee of one central authority, the Hungarian state.

According to TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, the current Ethical Codex–part of which is the internal self-assessment scheme–is illegal. TASZ has already made suggestions to NPK on how to change the Codex. It is unclear at this point how much of the text will remain intact.

Meanwhile we just found out that on the latest PISA test, designed to measure the digital literacy of fifteen-year-olds, Hungarian students finished dead last among European countries. The results were not made public for a while because the officials of PISA didn’t want to believe the figures. Unfortunately, there was no mistake. Hungarian students obviously have little opportunity to use computers, either in school or at home. As a result, some of the students apparently didn’t even try to answer any of the questions. They just sat there doing nothing. Those who tried had difficulty finding the functions that would allow them to answer the questions. And some of them simply didn’t understand the text about a fictional Belgian village.

But even though Hungarian students have very poor to nonexistent computer skills, we can be happy. They have gym every day, and soon enough they will also have to sing. Every day. Undoubtedly Hungarian folk songs. I wonder how popular this latest brainstorm of the Ministry of Human Resources will be with today’s teenagers.

Resistance to a school closing in Budapest

Can you imagine a developed country anywhere in the world where closing a high school is subject to cabinet approval? It’s hard to imagine, but there is one that lies “in the heart of Europe.” Of course, I’m talking about Hungary, where unfortunately “the heart” is often missing from decisions reached by the country’s political leaders.

Those of you who have been following Hungarian politics already know that I’m talking about the Raoul Wallenberg School, which teaches “human studies,” such as health care, social work, and special education. The school trains healthcare workers (nurses, dental assistants, pharmacy assistants, ambulance nurses, etc.), social care providers (social assistants, child caregivers), and special education assistants.  The school was completely renovated ten years ago and cost 3 billion forints. The money, as usual, came from the European Union and, this time, also from Sweden. Since the year 2004 the school has borne the name of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who in 1944 saved several thousand Jewish citizens from certain death in Auschwitz and other extermination camps in Germany. The school has developed close relationships with schools in other European countries. They have yearly student exchange programs, scholarships, teachers’ visits, and conferences. All in all, “Raoul,” as everybody calls the school, is considered to be the best of its kind in Hungary.

So, why did the Orbán government decide to close it and scatter its 1,200 students and 70 teachers among six different vocational schools that don’t teach the subjects Wallenberg specializes in? The schools designated to receive “Raoul” students teach such trades as bricklaying, carpentry, and plumbing. All this was decided in two minutes at a cabinet meeting on March 18. In early April the principal of the school was told that, as of the end of the school year sometime in June, the Raoul Wallenberg School will be no more. And, she was warned, she cannot tell a soul about the school closing. No reason for the sudden decision was given.

It didn’t take long before everybody knew that the building that housed the Wallenberg School will be taken over by the new Nemzeti Közszolgálati Egyetem/National Civil Service University. The expanding new university needs the space. The next victim most likely will be the Museum of Natural Sciences. The administration of the Wallenberg School knew that sooner or later they would have to evacuate the building, but they felt safe until at least April 30, 2016, because the EU grants Hungary received required that they remain in the same building for at least fifteen years. Well, the Hungarian government decided otherwise.

The way the government handled this case is typical. First, decisions are reached in secrecy, so there is no opportunity for those affected by the decisions to express their views. Second, the authorities don’t bother with rules and regulations. In the case of a contemplated school closing, there must be discussions with school boards, parents, teacher’s unions, etc. Of course, none of these people was consulted. Third, it really doesn’t matter what objections are voiced. The government goes full steam ahead anyway. Fourth, if there is trouble, as there was in this case, they send in a man who has no authority to make any decision. Fifth, they would like, if at all possible, to keep the media away. In this case, they also forbade the principal to talk to reporters. And finally, the last word is always that of the highest authority, who is Viktor Orbán himself. Even the minister of education cannot decide on a simple school closing without “the approval of the government.” What a country.

But sometimes the government meets stiff resistance and is forced to make concessions. It took about a week, but it now looks as if the Raoul Wallenberg School will continue as a unit, we just don’t know where. Since the city of Budapest will have only a couple of months to ready a building to receive a school currently equipped with special classrooms and equipment to teach healthcare subjects, it is hard to imagine that the school can open its doors in September. But, still, school officials are relieved and grateful. How did the administration of the school manage to win against the almighty state? Everybody involved refused to obey the order to keep quiet, and they all acted together: school officials, students, teachers, parents, and trade unions.

Heart and Sul of Raoul I will be a student of Raoul as long as I live

Heart of Raoul, Soul of Raoul–I will be a student of Raoul as long as I live

Although the principal was forbidden to speak, the deputy principal bravely went to ATV and told her story. She was impressive and fearless. The journalists, who initially were not allowed to attend a meeting of students, parents, and teachers with an official of the Klebelsberg Kunó Intézményfenntartó Központ (KLIK), the mammoth office in charge of all Hungarian elementary and high schools, ignored the instructions and gave vivid descriptions of the tumultuous gathering of at least a thousand people. Brave and surprisingly articulate fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds barraged the hapless KLIK representative with hundreds of questions and criticisms until he himself admitted that he doesn’t agree with the decision. Leaders of both teacher’s unions were present and threatened KLIK with a law suit. After the meeting, it became clear that this crowd could not be easily appeased. The closing of the Wallenberg School would be another scandal.

And we mustn’t forget about the outside help the school’s defenders received. The ELTE students who had already twice demonstrated against the government’s trampling on the autonomy of the universities decided to add to their own grievances the unfair treatment of the Raoul Wallenberg School. Their last demonstration ended in front of the Wallenberg School.

Both the Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of Hungarian Jewish communities, and the Raoul Wallenberg Society and Foundation also raised their voices in defense of the school. After all, this is the only school in the country that bears the name of Wallenberg. The Raoul Wallenberg Society was especially upset because in the last six years the Society, together with the Holocaust Memorial Center and the Wallenberg School, had organized a program called “Was it a long time ago? Where was it?” If you want to know more about the program, take a look at the Society’s online site. It sounds fascinating. Clearly, in the Wallenberg School students learned more than the normally prescribed subjects. The school took seriously the message of Wallenberg’s activities in Hungary.

It is not over yet, but Zoltán Balog showed up at the school yesterday and announced the change of plans. It is hard to tell why he decided to give in. Perhaps because his hands are full of other troubles concerning healthcare and the so-called reforms of higher education? Or was it the united front formed by teachers, students, parents, and trade union leaders? Was he worried about abolishing a school that bears Raoul Wallenberg’s name? Perhaps a combination of all of these things.

People are increasingly pushing back against the government and perhaps standing a little taller.

Civic courage is returning to Hungary

There were two noteworthy events during the March 15th celebrations, about which I will write more tomorrow. First, a scuffle broke out between Fidesz loyalists waiting for Viktor Orbán’s speech in front of the National Museum and a handful of demonstrators. It was described by the official Fidesz communiqué as “a clash between far-right and far-left elements.” I guess the government party felt it had to distance itself from Fidesz supporters who physically attacked the demonstrators as well as from those people who screamed “Go to Dohány utca,” the street where the “Great Synagogue,” the largest in Europe, is located. The other event was the large demonstration organized by civic groups but supported by all democratic parties with the exception of LMP. It was especially welcome that the organizers came out with a list of demands they propose to put forth for a popular referendum, which could be the first step toward a change of regime. But more about the national holiday tomorrow.

Today I want to call attention to two incidents which may not be earth shattering in and of themselves but which, I believe, signal a change in public attitude. The Hungarian people are beginning to exhibit civic courage.

The popularity of Viktor Orbán and the government is no longer what it was a year ago. Already last year, for the March 15th celebration, either Fidesz or the government hired university students to stand behind Viktor Orbán during his speech. At that point, I assume, they only wanted young faces. This year, however, there seemed to be genuine worry in government circles that the turnout for Viktor Orbán’s speech might be sparse. Robocalls urged people to attend. In addition, KLIK, the employer of all teachers, sent requests (some people claim that it was more an order than a request) to 375 high school principals all over the country to send one teacher and ten students to Budapest to listen to the prime minister’s speech. All expenses would be paid, and lunch would be included. Well, one high school, the Imre Madách Gymnasium in Vác, decided to announce publicly that they will not oblige because “they don’t support or organize student participation in political events.” Of course, some people might argue that a national holiday celebration is not a political event, but we know that this is not the case. Viktor Orbán’s audience comes from the party faithful and his words are addressed to his followers.

A lot of people welcomed this sign of civic courage, including the journalists of Válasz, which is certainly not an opposition paper. But others feared for the jobs of the principal and the 50 teachers who made that decision. And indeed, there was at least one attempt at intimidation by the Fidesz-KDNP mayor, Attila Fördős. He called the principal and vice-principal into his office and demanded to know what kind of “patriotic education” is going on in the school. He said that if he had the power, which thankfully he doesn’t, he would immediately fire them. As it turned out, although it was only the Imre Madách Gymnasium that had the courage to openly announce their opposition to the government’s crude methods, only 44 high schools obliged. The negative feelings toward this latest government or Fidesz ukase are perfectly understandable. There are far too many people who still remember when it was compulsory for students to attend such national celebrations, which included November 7, the anniversary of the Great Russian Revolution of 1917.

Attila Fördős, Fidesz-KDNP mayor of Vác

Attila Fördős, Fidesz-KDNP mayor of Vác

The other story is from the village of Gánt in Fejér County (pop. 860). To people familiar with Hungarian politics, the name Gánt immediately brings to mind Viktor Orbán’s father and his original business venture, a quarry he managed to buy with some financial help from his eldest son’s party. The quarry by now has been exhausted, and Győző Orbán would like to use the empty pit as a landfill site. His goal is to dispose of some 250,000 tons of refuse there a year, mostly bricks and concrete, which must be broken up by heavy equipment. Apparently about 1,000 tons could arrive daily and be processed on the spot. Many people who bought property nearby, close to a nature preserve, are mighty unhappy about the elder Orbán’s latest business venture.

So, the village of Gánt organized a forum to discuss the matter. To their surprise Győző Orbán, in the company of his youngest son Áron, showed up for the meeting. Orbán tried to convince the participants that everything will be fine, but they were adamant. The dust would settle everywhere–on their vegetable gardens, on their vineyards–and the noise eight hours a day would be unbearable. All hell broke loose when Győző Orbán announced that the property is his and he can do whatever he wants on it. After a while Győző Orbán left, followed by his son. He refused to answer questions from “malicious journalists” unless they give two million forints to the old folks home in Gánt.

Orbans departing

Győző and Áron Orbán leaving the Gánt town meeting

But even before the departure of the Orbáns, those present at the meeting pretty well decided to fight the father of the prime minister. One of them already hired a lawyer, and the others put together, right on the spot, a sizable amount of money to cover the initial expenses. They also organized an association to represent their case most forcefully. I am convinced that a year ago such an encounter wouldn’t have happened. I’m also sure that Győző Orbán never in his wildest imagination thought he would be so forcefully opposed and at the end unable to prevent a law suit. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have shown up at the town meeting. It seems that times really are changing in Hungary. The prime minister’s father can no longer ride roughshod over the people, unopposed, to achieve his aim.

Learning history in Orbán’s Hungary

The new school year began yesterday and with it an entirely new system as far as textbook distribution is concerned. As you most likely know, a couple of years ago all schools were nationalized and put under the authority of one monstrous organization called Klebelsberg Intézményfenntartó Központ (KLIK), named after Kunó Klebelsberg, minister of education between 1922 and 1931. Critics predicted the failure of such a centralized system where KLIK was to be the employer of about 150,000 teachers. They were right. It was a disaster, which even Zoltán Balog, who is in charge of education, had to admit. The head of KLIK was sacked and right now the government is in the midst of a “reorganization” of KLIK.

One of the important demands of Rózsa Hoffmann, former undersecretary in charge of education, was a reduction in the number of textbooks teachers can choose from. Indeed, as of this year, teachers can only pick one out of two. The textbook publishing industry was also nationalized, so government control over education became all embracing. The new textbooks appeared on the market only a few days ago and therefore each teacher had to decide within a couple of days which one she will use. At the same time a number of “experimental” textbooks were written and introduced in 150 schools picked by the ministry.

Since the “experimental” textbooks have been available for only a few days, critics haven’t had time yet to find all the objectionable passages in them. According to some, at first glance these textbooks are “problematic” in pedagogical terms and reflect “an anti-modernization world view.” There are just too many “political-ideological” messages. One history book spends far too much time on the injustices of Trianon, which only adds to the self-pity of the current generation instilled by the nationalism of the current regime. Others looked at a book on literature (grade 7) that reflects the authors’ distaste for our modern market economy and expresses antagonistic feelings toward life in western countries. For example, to eat hamburgers, visit Disneyland, watch MTV or CNN  means to be satisfied with a lower level of culture.

The same grade 7 textbook is full of anti-American sentiments. In it one can read that “we ought to be proud that according to sociologists for the average Hungarian person the most important value is logical thinking while in the eyes of the Americans this is the least valued trait.” Hungarian medieval poetry that praises war and Petőfi’s calls for struggle can be explained by our “biological roots.”

After reading a few of these critical articles I decided to take a look at a grade 10 history book, one of the experimental textbooks available online. The book covers the period between the age of discovery (15-16th centuries) and 1848. It didn’t take me long to find some glaring problems with the book.

tortenelem 10

At the beginning the students are told–thank God–that they don’t have to learn absolutely every fact in the book but that the concepts that appear in boldface are very important. So, I decided to see how our author deals with some basic concepts. Since anti-Semitism is a topic we encounter a lot nowadays, I decided to start there. To my great surprise, the word appeared only twice in the textbook. Both times as a concept of the utmost importance. But nowhere in the book do we find a definition of the term.

My second search was for the word “nationalism.” That initially looked more promising. The word “nationalism” was mentioned eleven times, but I found no instance that dealt with the concept per se. On page 131 the student learns that after the French revolution there was a new interpretation of the historical nation (nobility) and that it was the “national idea” (nemzeti eszme) or “nationalism.” Proponents of the movement desired national renewal. They tried to form a common national identity and made efforts to discover the national past. So, what does this young man or woman learn? Nationalism is a good thing! Not a word about the negative connotations of the term.

The most controversial discussion of nationalism occurs in connection with the “nationality question” in the so-called reform period, i.e. the last twenty years or so prior to the 1848 revolution. The Hungarian “reform forces” greatly feared the Pan-Slav ideology supported by Russia and were frightened by Gottfried Herder’s vision of the Hungarian language disappearing in the sea of Slavic people. (Pan-Slavism is not explained anywhere in the book.) Therefore, the Hungarian reform generation paid a great deal of attention to the Hungarian language and culture. At the same time they wanted to be sure Hungarians maintained their political primacy in the Carpathian Basin, to which they felt entitled by their 1,000-year history of statehood. Hungarians were able to establish a viable state (államalkotó nemzet) while the others–Slovaks, Romanians, Ruthenians–were not. Rights and privileges were to be extended to all regardless of nationality. This Hungarian concept of nation was based on the definition of the term in the French Encyclopédie. What the authors neglect to mention is that the famous encyclopedia was published between 1751 and 1772, that is before the French revolution. What was a viable way to unify the people of France was no longer true in Eastern Europe.

After this brief discussion, the authors move on to interpretations of Hungarian nationality problems in the first half of the nineteenth century. “Central-European, non-Hungarian historiography unanimously consider the Hungarian language laws of this period as ‘Magyarization’. However, nowadays Hungarian historians present a more complex, more layered study of the question. It recognizes that there were abuses, but the political forces urged a liberal handling of the nationality question.”

I’m trying to imagine myself as a studious fourteen- or fifteen-year-old acquiring a basic knowledge of Hungarian history. What kind of a picture would I get of the history of my own country? By and large a very positive one. I would learn that Hungarians are superior to others living in the Carpathian Basin because they had the ability to establish a state. And that this would entitle them to have political primacy within the historic borders of Hungary. I would learn that non-Hungarian historians are prejudiced against the Hungarians and that in the past Hungarian historians were far too hard on the Hungarian political elite. Lately, I would come to understand, a much more balanced view is emerging that shows liberal tolerance toward the nationalities.

I just heard that István Hiller (MSZP), former minister of education,  is launching a kind of alternative curriculum called “School of Reasoning” (Gondolkodás iskolája). It will be a series of video lectures given by outstanding teachers who donate their time to the project. I think it is a capital idea, and next week when the project begins I will be one of those listening to the lectures on modern history. It will be interesting to compare these lectures to the experimental textbooks.