A serendipitous Google search. Yesterday I wrote about judges of the Hungarian Supreme Court and a few hours later (when searching to see whether Dr. Tamás Dizseri had anything to do with the Rev. Sándor Dizseri, a Calvinist minister in Pécs), I happened upon an online copy of a book by Győző Csorba (1916-1995), a talented poet and translator and a native of Pécs. The book, entitled A város oldalában: Beszélgetések [On the slope of the city: Conversations; 1991], is a treasure trove of Hungarian literary life from the 1930s. By the way, as a teenager I was a great admirer of this kind and gentle man. Csorba worked in a library where I did volunteer work as a high school kid.
Csorba came from a miserably poor family with nine children. His father was employed by the railroads as a sign painter. Apparently a talented man but entirely uneducated. So was his mother, who finished perhaps six grades. His father died when he was ten. None of his siblings finished more than eight grades. He himself, on the other hand, went to the best high school in Pécs run by the Jesuits (although he was Calvinist) and finished law school in Pécs, receiving his D.J. in 1939. Most likely Csorba would have ended up like his brothers–working as a house painter or a locksmith–but he was born with a shriveled right arm which precluded any kind of manual labor.
The book is very entertaining. Csorba has a good memory and his descriptions are colorful and detailed. Although he was discriminated against in the Catholic gymnasium because of his religion, he has only praise for the priests who taught him. They were, he claims, excellent teachers and the standards were very high. But then came law school. And I think it’s worth of our while to hear what was going on in a Hungarian law school in those days.
The faculty in Csorba’s law school days was a mixed lot: some of them hadn’t really finished law school but something called lycee of law because, prior to 1920, Pécs didn’t have a full-fledged law school. There were several professors who were refugees from Transylvania, specifically from the law school of Kolozsvár (Cluj). Out of the whole bunch he mentions only one who was well prepared with a solid academic background. He was the one who told Csorba that every time there is a graduation at the law school a black flag should be hoisted on the university’s flagpole!
Csorba mentions a professor who didn’t dare look at the class while he was lecturing. He looked out the window. Meanwhile incredible things were happening in the classroom. Some students played blackjack while others around them were kibitzing. The noise was so great that the professor couldn’t even hear his own voice. Not quite "The Paper Chase."
Then there were the "eternal law students," i.e. those who spent at least double the standard four years it took to get a law degree. One of these "eternal students" had a routine: when the lecture, according to his own watch, had filled the allotted time, he got up, started shaking a bunch of keys, opened the door, and yelled: "The lecture is over!" All the students got up and started toward the door regardless of what the professor was doing.
Contributing to the dubious academic integrity of the law school were the "professional prompters." In Csorba’s first year there were two such prompters who were willing to help out at exams. Of course, for a fee. Csorba helped his classmates gratis, and the professionals threatened to beat him. As for the level of these exams, here is an example: one of the professors asked the name of a landless peasant. The answer is "zsellér," and in my opinion any high school graduate should have known that. The professional prompter whispered "zsellér," but it didn’t ring a bell with one genius of a law student who announced: "Zsengellér." It turned out that there was a fairly well known Hungarian soccer player by that name!
By his third year Csorba himself became a professional prompter. He still helped his former classmates from high school without remuneration, but in return these students became his business agents. They looked up who was scheduled to take exams when and inquired from these students whether they needed a prompter or not. The price was quite high: 2 pengős for an easy exam, 3 pengős if the course was more difficult. Csorba tells a funny story. A new student joined the Pécs law school from Budapest. Csorba’s "agents" asked him whether he needed a prompter but he haughtily turned down the offer. He began his recitation while the professor paced back and forth. Then the professor stopped dead, looked at him and said: "What kind of nonsense are you reciting here to me?" Then came a new question: "How much does the soil contribute to agricultural production?" The Budapest student said something that was obviously not right as far as the professor was concerned, and at this point Csorba saw the fellow’s hand appear behind his back with two pengős. The proper answer was, believe it or not, that "in vain we put a grain of corn under the table and push it upward, it will not grow." Apparently one couldn’t change a word in this answer. Or, another favorite question: "Who exercises power in public administration?" The proper, the only answer was: "The people."
Csorba was a shining light in this environment. Every time he went to take an oral exam, a few minutes later the professor interrupted: "Enough, enough! You talk too much!" Apparently the important part of the answer was still nowhere. After graduating he wrote doctoral dissertations for others. For money, of course. For two years Csorba was unemployed, and he had to live on something. At the beginning he actually put a lot of work into these dissertations, but eventually he became lazy and brazen. He modified old dissertations ever so slightly. The professors wouldn’t have known the difference.
The professional prompters also wrote crib notes. One of them misheard Baruch Spinoza’s name and wrote "Baron Spinoza." For a number of years, all those students who used this prompter’s notes talked about Baron Spinoza. It seems that no one noticed the slip-up.
I don’t really think that the Pécs law school was so much worse than the others. It is enough to read Mihály Károlyi’s autobiography and his "diligent" studies at the Budapest law school quite a few years earlier. He hardly showed up at lectures. His examination was perfunctory. After all, a Count Károlyi is a Count Károlyi. (Csorba talks about a Count Szapáry who passed his exams regardless of what he knew or didn’t know because the professors were awe struck every time they heard a noble title.) And these ignorant people with law degrees and "Dr." in front of their names were running the Hungarian administration. Those who graduated with Csorba were in their early thirties in 1950. When another blow was struck against the legal profession. So I’m not at all surprised at the present situation.