Does Hungary education reform mean more patriotism, but less democracy?

Why We Wrote This

What youth learn can shape their country's destiny, so national curricula are hotly contested. But Hungary's government is pushing patriotism over critical thought, to the frustration of teachers and parents.

Dorottya Czuk
Students share a picnic at Budapest’s Kossuth Square on Sept. 13. The students, who had come from private and state schools as well as from the countryside, were skipping school in protest over the state of public education.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

As Prime Minister Viktor Orbán solidifies his grip on Hungary, education has become a key battlefield, as his government pushes for a curriculum seemingly based on patriotism rather than critical thinking. “Everybody has to have the basic physical, mental, and spiritual ability to protect the nation,” he said in July. “The national curriculum must teach this.”

The curriculum has been revised twice to that end, first in 2018, and again now. But the changes have been made in an atmosphere of secrecy denounced by parents and educational professionals. With the revisions has come uncertainty among parents over what their children will be taught and distress among underpaid teachers over how much freedom they can exercise in their classrooms.

Textbooks are a prime example. Within the European Union, the Hungarian state stands out for exercising the greatest control over the content of school books, says Péter Kereszty, head of the national association of school book producers. “Controlling this market and turning it into a state monopoly violates the right of free publishing, which is a basic right in a democracy.”

The debate over what students should be taught is universal – and politically fraught. Witness the arguments in the United States over the presentation of history in Texas textbooks.

But as the issue’s prominence has ebbed in the United States in recent years, it has flared up elsewhere – especially in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been solidifying his grip on the country. Education has become a key battlefield, as his government pushes for a curriculum seemingly based on patriotism rather than critical thinking.

Textbooks are a prime example. The official state list of private publisher books that could be ordered by schools following the national school curriculum has witnessed a dramatic decline in the last five years. One of the largest private publishing houses, Mozaik, saw government approved titles for classroom use drop from 335 in 2015 to just 21 in 2019. What is left are mostly foreign language titles.

Roughly 1 in 2 school books came from private publishing houses in 2015. Now it is less than 1 in 3, covering primarily computer science, physical education, German, and English – topics where the state is absent. The state publishes more than 90% of the books related to Hungarian art, literature, and music, according to data compiled by Tanosz, the national association of school book producers.

Within the European Union, the Hungarian state stands out for exercising the greatest control over the content of school books and has become the biggest producer of academic content in the national market, says Péter Kereszty, head of the national association of school book producers. “Schoolbooks are a good mirror of the the condition and quality of the education system of a country,” he says. “Controlling this market and turning it into a state monopoly violates the right of free publishing, which is a basic right in a democracy.”

And the changes to Hungarian textbooks are just one facet of the education reforms the government has in mind for this academic year. With them has come uncertainty among parents over what their children will be taught; distress among underpaid teachers over how much freedom they can exercise in their classrooms; and anxiety among private publishers who are being squeezed out of the market.

Patriotism and democracy

Centralized education stirs up bad memories for many Hungarians who associate state control with the communist period under Soviet rule in which the ruling party’s view colored all aspects of life. Some of the most valued reforms after Hungary regained full sovereignty in 1989 were freedoms of speech, press, and education.

“Before the changes [in 1989], there was one state book with one ideology and then came freedom,” recalls László Miklósi, president of Hungary’s history teachers association.

But that has reverted as Mr. Orbán has pushed forward with his effort to reshape Hungary into an “illiberal democracy.” The prime minister has said that the next generation must be prepared to repel attacks from “two fronts,” an allusion to East and West. “We know how to make it clear to our children that protecting the nation is a task that all of us have to take part in,” he said in July. “Everybody has to have the basic physical, mental, and spiritual ability to protect the nation. ... The national curriculum must teach this.”

The national curriculum has been revised twice to that end, first in 2018. It is being revised again this year after Mr. Orbán deemed its content not “patriotic” enough. But the changes have been made in an atmosphere of secrecy denounced by parents and educational professionals. The government declined to provide someone to answer questions about the motivations for its curriculum changes, the extent of which will likely be made public in November.

Critics are alarmed that Mihály Takaró, a professor of literature whose writings have been criticized by many of his peers for the inclusion of anti-Semitic or pro-Nazi overtones, will be included in the nationalistic update.

“Not only is he impossible to cope with morally, professionally he is not okay,” says Mr. Miklósi. “There is no question that if someone like this is included, it was decided at the highest level. ... The teachers usually stay silent, like the people. Face-to-face they will say, ‘This is not good,’ but they don’t say anything too loudly.”

Once colorful textbooks are increasingly giving way to monochromatic texts full of errors that Mr. Miklósi has to fight to get reviewed, let alone fixed.

One correction he fought for was a textbook exercise contrasting the words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the height of the migrant crisis in 2015 with a speech by Mr. Orbán. The Hungarian premier extolled the merits of a homogeneous society and argued that countries that were former colonial powers should bear the brunt of the refugee burden.

“The prime minister gave his opinion on an issue that is very debatable,” says Mr. Miklósi. “The book had no sources that allow you to doubt or debate this option. The child’s thinking cannot deviate from the words of the prime minister. The child had to explain why the prime minister is right.”

The correction replaced the exercise’s leading question with an open one.

Loaded questions, scandalous sentences, and mistakes are only a fraction of his concerns. What truly worries him is that the curriculum packs in so much in terms of quantity – myriads of facts that need to be packed into the lesson plan – that real teaching, based on back and forth questions with opportunities for discussion and debate, is impossible.

The goal? “An obedient citizen,” he says.

“I don’t want the state to run the life of my children”

Meanwhile, the new education law has further boosted government control over what state school teachers present in their classrooms. It raises the prospect of professional dismissal if any activity is held at the schools that “endangers the children.” The well-understood is subtext: Don’t invite nongovernmental organizations focused on human rights, LGBTQ issues, or migrant communities – anything the government could deem unfit for a Christian Hungary.

The law also restricts under what circumstances students may attend private schools, alternative schools, and homeschooling – options sought out by wealthier parents who are worried about the low quality and lack of freedom at state schools. It also does away with school administration consultations, which are meant to ensure a minimum parent and teacher input on education.

Finally it boosts state support for religious schools at the expense of other schools, allowing church-run schools to play a larger role in the creation of academic content. While an average state school receives $183 per student to spend over the academic year, a church school receives almost four times more, according to Hungary’s central statistics office.

Some parents in online forums object to religion spilling into other subjects – for example, an exercise found in the fifth grade patriotism class that asks children if they are Christian, and if not, tells them to ask their parents why. This, parents and educators point out, flies in the face of a constitution that still upholds separation of state and church.

The education reforms have spurred a series of protests involving parents, teachers, and students in front of Hungary’s parliament in Budapest. “I don’t want education that is remote-controlled from the center,” said Monika Pal, one of the parents who showed up to support one student-led demonstration, which was small but lively by Hungarian standards. “They are taking away the autonomy of parents, teachers, and children.”

“I don’t want the state to run the life of my children,” said Zsuzsa, a private tutor at the demonstration, who asked that her last name be withheld because of potential repercussions on her professional life. “The middle-class people can find their way to avoid [government controls], but those who are very poor and disadvantaged have to just suffer the system.”

“We have to open the minds of our children and not let the state get away with limiting their thinking behind the closed doors of the classroom,” says Ms. Pal. “Politics have no place in school.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.