Tag Archives: László Mendrey

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.

mezotur2

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.

karoly-kiraly

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

A new chapter in Hungarian politics?

I will try to cover two topics today, although practically every time I decide to do that I discover about half way through that I was too ambitious. This time, however, I really would like to talk to about two new developments. The first is the announcement by Piroska Galló that negotiations between her union and the government broke down and so a nationwide one-day strike will take place on April 20. The other astonishing news is that István Nyakó’s referendum question sailed through the Kúria. MSZP can begin collecting the necessary 200,000 signatures to enable them to hold a referendum on the question of Sunday closings.

Since I have followed the teachers’ revolt very closely and often have engaged in discussions with commenters, I think it is clear to all regular readers of Hungarian Spectrum that I consider this movement much more than a run-of-the-mill teachers’ strike of the kind that flare up in communities worldwide. As I have repeated often enough, the goal of the Orbán government’s educational policy is to transform the new generation into cogs in the wheel of the “illiberal state.” Just as the Bolsheviks wanted to create a new Soviet man, so Viktor Orbán wants a certain type of citizen. The school system introduced in 2013 feeds into Viktor Orbán’s system of “national cooperation.” Revolt against it is insurgency against the world Orbán has forced on the Hungarians.

In the last few days we have seen a concerted effort on the part of the government to set the two trade unions, PSZ and PDSZ, against each other, with not much success. Undersecretary László Palkovics went so far as to invite László Mendrey to the ministry for a discussion on the impending strike, but when he and his team got there they discovered that instead of one-to-one strike negotiations the complete membership of the round table was waiting for them. The attempt failed. So tonight PDSZ, PSZ’s strike committee, the Tanítanék Mozgalom, and the Civil Public Education Platform will hold a joint meeting. It looks as if all the organizations involved in the movement are cooperating and will support the strike. According to Piroska Galló, support for the strike among teachers is substantial. The only question is how effective the strike will be and, even more important, how much outside help the teachers will receive. If dissatisfaction spreads to other groups and public support is overwhelming, the government will have to offer substantial concessions, which can undermine the very foundation of the system.

The other important topic is MSZP’s referendum question–“Do you agree that parliament should annul Law CII of 2014 that forbade performing work on Sundays in the retail sector?”–was approved by the Kúria, the supreme court of the land. This decision was totally unexpected. Even the MSZP leadership, whose members kept repeating that the case was so clear cut that the Kúria couldn’t do anything else, were deep down not at all sure. They were ready for rejection. For the last three days MSZP representatives stood in front of the National Election Office to prevent a repeat of what happened last time when about a dozen skinheads prevented István Nyakó, an MSZP politician, from handing in his referendum question.

Yesterday I watched an interview with a particularly obnoxious talking head, who went on and on about the pettiness of Hungarian politics. This came up in the middle of a conversation about the tenth anniversary of the famous Gyurcsány-Orbán debate, which was such a fiasco for Orbán that from that moment on he refused to yield to any demand for a debate. Our talking head asserted that today there would be no topic for a meaningful debate. What would the candidates talk about? Sunday closings? Something that trivial?

I would rather side with the editorial of Magyar Narancs titled “Hungarian politics revived.” The author defines politics as “competition between different modes of management of public affairs.” He claims that politics in this sense came to a halt in 2010. Now it looks as if there might be a change. After this decision “we have reason to be happy” was the last sentence of the article.

The happiest of all are the MSZP politicians, who scored a huge victory. They showed themselves to be so dogged that eventually the government ran out of steam. After the skinheads it was difficult to come up with yet another obstacle. I would be very surprised if MSZP’s popularity would not rise substantially in the coming months. All the criticism of the party’s hesitancy and its political ineptitude will fade if MSZP politicians manage to keep up their present energy and political finesse. At last here is an opposition party that managed to defeat the state machinery, which was bent on preventing a referendum that would question a decision of the government.

MSZP’s victory might also improve the generally lethargic mood of the population: the situation is not hopeless after all. Today’s triumph will most likely help the mood in opposition circles in general. Jobbik already announced that they will join MSZP and will assist in the collection of signatures, and they will encourage their followers to support the cause. DK will do the same. Zsolt Gréczy, spokesman of DK, called the Kúria’s decision “another deep fissure in the Orbán regime.”

István Nyakó and Sándor Lukács / Photo: Miklós Szabó, Népszabadság

MSZP MPs István Nyakó and Sándor Lukács / Photo: Miklós Szabó, Népszabadság

As things now stand, MSZP is planning a repeat of the Fidesz “referendum of the three yeses,” as the 2008 referendum is called. In that case, on Fidesz’s insistence, citizens had to vote on whether they don’t want to pay tuition fees, don’t want a €1 co-pay at doctors’ visits, and don’t want to pay €1 a day during hospital stays. Not surprising, by an overwhelming majority they said “yes, we don’t want to pay” to all three questions. The result of the referendum was interpreted at the time as a rejection of the Gyurcsány government and directly led to the prime minister’s resignation a few months later.

What József Tóbiás, MSZP chairman, is now talking about is another “referendum of the three yeses” because, in addition to Nyakó’s question on Sunday closings, Zoltán Gőgös (MSZP PM) submitted a question on the fate of the agricultural lands currently owned by the state, and Zoltán Kész, an independent MP, submitted a question on the remuneration of business leaders of state enterprises. Yes, says Tóbiás, people should say yes to all these questions: the stores should be open on Sunday, the sale of state lands should come to a halt, and no state business leader should receive more than 2 million forints a month. Indeed, these questions should be very popular with the electorate. Gőgös and Kész collected 50,000 signatures in a single day, and therefore I have no doubt that collecting another 200,000 will be a cinch. Meeting the requirement of about 4 million valid votes, however, might be another matter. The Orbán administration changed the law on referendums. Instead of requiring a turnout of 25% to have a valid referendum, they raised the requirement to 50%, which makes the task almost impossible.

According to some commentators Fidesz has only two options. Either it encourages its followers not to vote or it tries to take the wind out of the sails of the opposition by repealing the law on Sunday closings. The second option would mean a loss of prestige for Orbán, which would be tough for the prime minister to swallow.

Gábor Vona of Jobbik suggested that Viktor Orbán’s own referendum on compulsory quotas should be added to the three current questions. Would that help or hinder the cause of the opposition leaders? We know that the government has overwhelming support for its anti-refugee stance, so the administration might be able to convince large numbers of people to go to the polls to cast their ballot in favor of its referendum question. Would that boost the chances of the three questions submitted by Nyakó, Gőgös, and Kész? And if it does, would Fidesz want that outcome? I’m really curious what Fidesz’s next step will be.

April 6, 2016

The Orbán government’s sigh of relief was too hasty: the teachers are not appeased

I must say that last night, after reading some of the early reports on the results of the “negotiations” at the roundtable discussion convened by the ministry of human resources, I was certain that the Orbán government had again managed to quell the widespread dissatisfaction of teachers, parents, and students over the dismal state of Hungarian education.

A few days before the planned mass demonstration of teachers, bus drivers, and railroad workers Zoltán Balog, the minister in charge of education, hastily called together the representatives of diverse organizations. In addition to those with skin in the game, like representatives of the teachers’ unions and the organizers of the current protest, members of civic groups that either have nothing to do with education, like the Hungarian Academy of Artists, or are unknown entities, like the Nemzeti Iskolai Tanács (National School Council), which doesn’t even have a website, also attended. Representatives of organizations that are known to be staunch supporters of the present government, like the parents’ association representing large families, got invitations. But no one from the Diákparlament (Student Parliament), which stands by the teachers in the present conflict, was invited. In brief, Balog made sure that supporters of the government’s position were in the majority around the table.

Those familiar with the Hungarian educational scene were surprised to learn that László Mendrey of the Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szakszervezete, which is normally highly critical of the government, decided to attend. By contrast, Piroska Galló of the Pedagógusok Szakszervezete (PSZ) announced her union’s boycott of the first meeting of the roundtable. A last minute invitee was Péter Madarász, principal of the Ottó Herman Gymnasium in Miskolc, where the movement to change the current educational system had its roots.

After the meeting Balog tried to give the impression that the representatives invited to the roundtable discussion could actually make decisions. But, as Piroska Galló of PSZ pointed out, she received an invitation to “a talk” and not to “negotiations.” The government’s plan is to listen to the complaints and then change as little as possible in the current flawed system. Balog also wants to avoid dealing with scholars whose field is education because he knows that most of them are against the educational philosophy espoused by the Orbán government. So, he made sure that only those experts would be welcome “who have something worthwhile to add to the topic.” That in Fidesz parlance means: only those who agree with us.

László Mendrey made a huge mistake by attending the conversations initiated by the government. Members of his union are now demanding his resignation, and some of them have already quit. Their dissatisfaction stemmed from his comments after the meeting that “the conversations were encouraging” because the government officials were ready to discuss even the most sensitive issues, which means that in the next round they will be able to talk about the role of the state, the autonomy of the institutions, and their economic independence. After the upheaval on Facebook and elsewhere by PDSZ members and teachers in general, the other leader of PDSZ who was present tried to explain what went wrong. The union’s original idea was to leave the meeting immediately after the first negative answer to one of their key demands. The government, however, outfoxed them and was ready to talk about anything. Therefore, they had no occasion to get up and leave. Well, talk is cheap, and it should have been clear to Mendrey that convening the roundtable a few days before the planned demonstration had only one purpose: to prevent the demonstration and a possible strike. With the passage of time and the promise of a few bones perhaps the teachers will calm down.

Another clever move was to invite Péter Madarász, principal of the Ottó Herman Gymnasium. The ministry officials must have known that he doesn’t fully share the opinions of his teachers and that, after a little sweet talk, he would support the government’s position of very limited changes to the current system. (The principal of the Blanka Teleki Gymnasium in Budapest, who appeared in several television discussions and who stands squarely behind the teachers’ demands, was not invited.) Madarász got the royal treatment. He sat at the head table alongside Zoltán Balog, Péter Horváth of the National Teachers’ Corps, and László Palkovics, the new undersecretary. Balog had a little tête-à-tête with the principal, and the rest is history. He expressed his total satisfaction with what transpired at the meeting. Balog asked Madarász to convince the teachers in and around Miskolc to participate in the forthcoming negotiations. Afterward, in an interview with Olga Kálmán, he expressed his ambivalence about attending the demonstration after such a successful conversation with Balog and Palkovics.

Zoltán Balog is charming Tamás Madarász, principal of Ottó Herman Gymnasium

Zoltán Balog is charming Tamás Madarász, principal of the Ottó Herman Gymnasium

So, although last night it seemed that the government had won this round, then came today. The original organizers of the movement in the name of the 737 schools which supported them published a statement in which they succinctly presented their demands. At the same time they disavowed the principal of Ottó Herman Gymnasium who, they claimed, spoke only in his own name.

  1. The government should declare that it considers the present law on education temporary and immediately should begin talks with the proper representatives of public education to create a new law on education.
  1. We demand that the discussions on the new law on public education should deal with the professional basics.
  1. We demand that the government spends 6% of the GDP on education.
  1. We demand immediate changes in the rules and regulations that make the situation of students and teachers unbearable.

It was signed by Katalin Törley, Ferenc Kölcsey Gymnasium, Budapest; Olivér Pilz, Ottó Herman Gymnasium, Miskolc; and István Pukli, principal, Blanka Teleki Gymnasium.

Meanwhile Piroska Galló explained why her union decided not to attend the meeting called together by Zoltán Balog. At the moment there exists a strike committee in which both PSZ and PDSZ participate. It is Zoltán Balog who represents the government in these negotiations, but during many meetings the minister’s position has been entirely negative with regard to the teachers’ demands. Therefore she can’t imagine what use such a roundtable discussion could be unless it is to pacify the teachers and pull the wool over their eyes. On Friday the strike committee is scheduled to meet Balog, and Galló is curious whether Balog’s “rigid position” changed or not as a result of his conversations with the invited representatives. In my opinion, there will be a change in the government’s position only if the demonstration turns out to be a real show of force.

February 10, 2016