Tag Archives: physical education

Introducing patriotic physical education classes

Back to education of sorts. Of sorts because the Orbán government, like all authoritarian regimes, looks upon education as a vehicle for its political agenda. It has been constantly fiddling with education ever since 2010, trying to adapt it to its own ideas and needs. Acquiring knowledge is taking a back seat to nationalistic indoctrination. As the latest test results attest, these “improvements” produced lower scores in all categories–math, science, and verbal skills. Instead of beefing up academic skills appropriate to the modern age, the government added subjects such as religious education (or ethics), and it increased the number of physical education classes. Of course, rote learning is still the pedagogical method of choice. As a result, children spend an inordinate number of hours in the classroom with less and less to show for it.

The Orbán government’s real aim is to use the school system for the infusion of values that the political leadership deems essential. Among these values, perhaps the most important is nationalistic patriotism, which they think young Hungarians lack. Therefore, the Orbán government’s new curriculum places special emphasis on pride in Hungarian cultural and scientific achievements and, in general, on historical and folk traditions. As the ministry of human resources put it, teachers of history and literature are supposed to instill national pride in their pupils.

Over the past seven years the government’s educational “experts” floated several ideas that were supposed to arouse students’ interest in what the Orbán government considers to be Hungarian specialties. Examples were the introduction of horseback riding and the compulsory daily singing of folk songs in schools. Luckily, the crazy idea of daily singing was soon abandoned.

Here I would like to focus on one notion that was put into practice: five gym classes a week instead of the earlier three. In theory, this might have been a good idea, but as usual it was introduced without due preparation and there are still many students who must do their exercises in the corridors instead of a gym due to lack of space. I was also very suspicious about the real reason for this great emphasis on physical education. We all know that a daily exercise program is good for us, and everywhere in the world only a small percentage of children and adults are physically active. Hungary is no exception. So, more gym classes could be a step in the right direction. Still, I was worried from the beginning that the greater emphasis on gym was not for the sole benefit of physical well-being but that the powers-that-be had a hidden agenda. Soon enough there were signs that my fears were justified.

The first sign that the government was thinking about general military training was Viktor Orbán’s surprising announcement that those men who received military training during the Kádár era and afterward, until it was abolished in 2004, gained immeasurably from the experience. The announcement was surprising because Orbán loathed his year in the military between high school and law school. According to his own admission, this was the time when he came to hate the regime and decided to turn against it. But today he seems to be convinced that Hungary must be able to defend itself and therefore must have a strong army. I believe that if the idea of conscription weren’t so unpopular, he wouldn’t mind reinstating compulsory military service. But since this is not possible politically, at least at the moment, he would like to have a strong reserve force.

István Simicskó, minister of defense, has been for the longest time a promoter of the idea of a “home army.” A year ago there was a lot of talk about building one, but it seems that the army found it difficult to convince men and women to enlist. Once that failed, Simicskó floated the idea of establishing shooting galleries in every “járás,” an administrative unit smaller than a county. Today not much can be heard about this idea either. Instead, at the beginning of June RTL Klub reported that the Klebelsberg Center (KLIK), which oversees Hungary’s educational system, inquired from school principals about the feasibility of establishing shooting galleries on school premises. A day later Magyar Nemzet learned that KLIK is also interested in the practicality of introducing martial arts. KLIK wanted to know what kinds of martial arts they teach now, because as of May students can replace gym classes not just with football but also with some kind of martial art. I should add that Simicskó is a practitioner of Wing Chun, a traditional Chinese martial art specializing in close range combat. Simicskó achieved the 4th master level.

The word is now out that by the end of this year schools will have to change the curriculum of gym classes to reflect “a program of patriotism and national defense.” Critics of the Orbán government’s educational policies are baffled and somewhat worried about these plans because of the coupling of patriotism/nationalism and the defense of the homeland. As it is, Hungarian education is supposed to instill an admiration for those who over the years have fought against “foreign oppression.” One only wishes the curriculum placed as much emphasis on the fight against domestic oppressors and the love of individual freedom.

It looks as if it is never too early to start patriotic/nationalistic indoctrination. According to the description of the project, it will begin when children enter kindergarten at the age of three. It is still not clear when students will have to start learning the rudiment of “the basics of military training.”

The plan strongly resembles the “levente movement,” which was introduced in 1921 and came to an end in 1945. It was the primary organization for pre-military training in the Horthy era. According to the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary could maintain only a very small army, so the introduction of the levente movement helped to circumvent the military restrictions imposed on the country. Every male between the ages of 12 and 21 who no longer attended school had to join a local levente group, where he was forced for 8-9 months a year to take physical education classes for three hours a week. So, it’s no wonder that some educational experts are worried that the patriotic physical education classes signal plans to reintroduce conscription sometime in the future.

Members of the levente movement practicing the shot put, 1928

But the very idea of “teaching” patriotism/nationalism to youngsters is frightening by itself. Often the distinction between patriotism and nationalism is blurred. It’s enough to take a look at the dictionary definitions of the two terms. Patriotism is “love and devotion to one’s country” while nationalism is “devotion, especially excessive or undiscriminating devotion to the interests or culture of a particular nation state.” But what is excessive? The second meaning of nationalism is even more telling. Nationalism is “the belief that nations will benefit from acting independently rather than collectively, emphasizing national rather than international goals,” which is certainly true of the “patriotic” aspirations of the Orbán government.

In brief, the present regime is introducing the teaching of blatant nationalism into the school curriculum. This highly questionable project is being financed to the tune of 318 million forints by, I’m sorry to say, the European Union. It is one of the many paradoxes that most of us find intolerable. Here is the European Union, which is supposed to stand for international cooperation and ever closer integration at the expense of nationalistic egotism, and that organization finances Viktor Orbán’s latest plans to bring up a generation of Hungarians antagonistic to the very ideas the European Union stands for.

August 6, 2017

The first day of school in Hungary

Although in the last half an hour several  short news items appeared about the Demokratikus Koalíció’s “offer” to the leadership of MSZP, I would rather wait a day until we know a little more about the details. Instead, I will talk about the beginning of the school year. It was at 8 a.m. this morning that the 2013-14 school year officially began. In most schools there was an opening ceremony, which has become something of a ritual in Hungarian schools.

In my days the beginning of school was not such a big deal. We packed up and went to school. That was all. But in Hungary it is now an all-national affair. Ministers, undersecretaries, mayors, and other politicians feel compelled to give long speeches to bored students and their teachers. This year even the prime minister honored a newly refurbished school with his presence.

One must keep in mind that the coming school year will be drastically different from what students and their parents have become accustomed to. Schools are no longer run by the municipalities but by the state. Teachers are employees of the state and new principals were appointed by Rózsa Hoffmann, the undersecretary in charge of public education.

The very structure of the educational process has also changed. From here on children cannot leave school before 4 p.m. That blanket rule would have made private lessons for children well nigh impossible. However, after some hesitation the ministry allowed principals to grant exemptions if they feel that the request is  justified.

The amount of material teachers have to cover was far too great even before, but from this year on students will have to memorize even more “stuff.” In first grade there used to be only four hours of classroom work, but henceforward six-year-olds will have to spend five periods learning the three Rs. In grade five children used to receive 22.5 hours of instruction, but from here on it will be 28 hours. In grade nine instead of 27.5 hours of instruction the children will receive 35 hours! I think that is horrendous. After listening to a teacher drone on hour after hour, who will be able to actually think about the course material? In addition, daily gym was introduced in grades one, two, five, nine, and ten although apparently there is not enough gym capacity in most schools to offer that many daily classes. And either religion or ethics must be taught in grades one, five, and nine. Why this particular four-year cycle, especially since it coincides in part with the physical education cycle? I have no idea.

There have been a lot of complaints about the newly centralized distribution of textbooks. According to government announcements, all went wonderfully. Critics of the system, however, talk about chaos.  The new distributor often just dumped the books at the gates of the schools, leaving it to teachers and students to sort things out. Apparently, they were not successful everywhere. I heard about a class of 22 where none of the kids managed to get the right books.

I also heard about one school where all the cleaning ladies were fired and the teachers were cleaning for a week to prepare the building for school opening. Naturally, Fidesz politicians and government officials are entirely satisfied with the results.

Here I would like to call attention to two speeches, one by Viktor Orbán and the other by Lajos Kósa. Each would deserve a full post, but I’ll just call attention to a couple of “highlights.”

Orbán, in his speech in Törökbálint, announced that “schools have become over the years no more than repositories.” I wonder how the teachers who have been working pretty hard to educate the children, often under adverse circumstances and with very little pay, must have felt listening to the great leader telling them that they did nothing. They just kept the kids locked up inside four walls. I for one would have been furious.

Those beautiful clouds  Viktor Orbán in Törökbálint

Those beautiful clouds
Viktor Orbán in Törökbálint

I also found some of Orbán’s remarks about physical education amusing. He claimed that daily gym classes are necessary “in order to awaken in the students their desire to be in proper physical shape.” Perhaps the chief football player should go back to school to rekindle his own waning desire for physical fitness.

Lajos Kósa talked without notes for sixteen minutes in one of the best gymnasiums in the country, the Árpád Tóth Gymnasium in Debrecen. According to the Népszabadság‘s stringer from Debrecen, his speech was not exactly welcomed by either the students or the teachers. As is his wont, Kósa made some rather unfortunate remarks. His first slip was: “TÁG [as everybody refers to the school] is one of the country’s best high schools. For that I would especially like to congratulate the school’s principal who has decided not to continue as principal but uhum, uhum, yes, Mr. Szabolcs Szilágyi, who will continue his work as a teacher in this school.”

There are only two high schools in the country that offer what is called “international matriculation.” If a student passes, he or she can attend the 300 best universities “from Oxford to Yale” without any further entrance exams. Under the former principal TÁG managed to achieve this status, but as of this year he was demoted and his place was taken by Mrs. Fenyős, Amália Kircsi. She and her husband Zoltán Fenyős are the authors of textbooks for grades five to seven.

Another Kósa gem was: “Good children perform well if they are beaten, but even the most talented child, if no one holds his hands, will get lost.”

And no one seemed to be amused when Kósa reminisced about his own school years in another Debrecen gymnasium where the students tried to guess how many of their fellow students would faint because they had to stand throughout this joyous occasion. Normally, their number was no more than four. Kósa was happy that no one fainted during his speech. It seems, he continued, that today’s youngsters are in better physical shape. Nobody laughed.