The new Hungarian curriculum: Hungarian language and literature (I)

The current Hungarian government is inclined to move backward instead of forward. In almost every facet of life its ideal harks back to a time that is long gone. If the ideal ever existed, because this kind of nostalgia is rife with self-delusion. Life was never as idyllic as some Fidesz and especially Christian Democratic politicians try to portray it. The ideal family never existed and neither did those perfect schools that produced little geniuses.


Rózsa Hoffmann’s ideal school from the nineteenth century

Life has changed fundamentally in the last hundred years, and today’s needs cannot be satisfied by the reintroduction of old concepts and old institutions. It simply will not work. This government’s experiment in the field of education is dangerous. The reorganized schools and the reintroduction of old pedagogical concepts might have a negative effect on Hungarian society for decades to come.

A few days ago Rózsa Hoffmann’s office made the new “Basic National Curriculum” (Nemzeti Alapterv or NAT) available on the ministry’s website and asked for comments. Since then, I noticed, only three professional organizations complained in writing. All three made their objections public via MTI, the Hungarian news service.

The text of the NAT is 204 pages long and is jam-packed with information. I feel sorry for the professionals who are supposed to comment on the proposals within a week. Mind you, I doubt that it matters what these people think or say; nothing will be changed in the document.

I’m not going to waste anyone’s time here with the NAT’s emphasis on morality, national self-realization, patriotic education, or self-knowledge. Neither will I dwell on the puzzling questions of “education for media consciousness.” Instead I will focus on one subject: Hungarian language and literature. The part of the NAT dealing with this subject has been severely criticized by the Association of Teachers of Hungarian (Magyartanárok Egyesülete or MTE).

One major problem seems to be the amount of material that children are supposed to learn. According to the Hungarian literature teachers, the material outlined in the document is about triple what could possibly be covered properly. And that despite the fact that Hungarian students log more classroom time than most of their counterparts worldwide. By high school, students spend about eight hours a day in school. And I assume they still have homework to do.

So what are students required to learn about Hungarian and world literature under the new curriculum? For starters, they will have to memorize poems and long prose passages: Endre Ady, Attila József, Dezső Kosztolányi, Miklós Radnóti, János Arany, Mihály Csokonai Vitéz, Janus Pannonius, Ferenc Kölcsey, Sándor Petőfi, Mihály Vörösmarty, and Sándor Weöres. Often the specific poem is mentioned. Part of János Arany’s “Toldi,” an abominably long epic poem; Petőfi’s “János Vitéz.” Oh, “Toldi”! Will I ever forget you? Yes, I managed to forget every line I memorized. But I will never forget the hours I spent as an eleven year old trying to learn one hundred lines of this poem.

When it comes to the analysis of Hungarian literature, again, the number of authors and their works is staggering. The laundry list goes on for two solid pages. Moreover, in Hungarian classes the student is also supposed also learn something about the literature of other nations. In the curriculum I found the following compulsory topics: at least one novella by Boccaccio, parts of Don Quixote, parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Homer, Iliad, a little Goethe, a little Swift and Voltaire, and two novels and two short stories to be chosen from Balzac, Emily Brontë, Chekhov, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Gogol, Victor Hugo, Pushkin, Stendhal, and Lev Tolstoy. They must read at least two prose works by Borges, Bulgakov, Camus, Faulkner, Garcia, Marquez, Hrabal, Kafka, Thomas Mann, Orwell and Solzhenitsyn. Plus a contemporary writer’s novel.

And this is not the end. They will study a range of poetry: Horace, Virgil, Petrarch, Villon, Apollinaire, Baudelaire, T. S. Eliot, Goethe, Keats, Poe, Rimbaud, Schiller and Shelley.  As far as drama goes, they start with Sophocles, continue with Shakespeare and Molière, and conclude with one drama from the nineteenth century plus two works from the twentieth.

Are you surprised that the Association of Teachers of Hungarian finds the whole thing unacceptable? I’m not. How much will students learn and in what depth? How much will they remember? And will what little they remember in fact be worth remembering? I doubt it.


  1. Bowen: “A free bus trip to Budapest and cash in hand?”
    I can imagine that but perhaps they will not be “needed” on Kossuth square. The government reserved for its own purposes large areas in the city centre, and these have to be filled too…

  2. I simply don’t understand why a nationalist movement is proud to have thousands of foreigners bussed in to boost it’s nationalistic demonstration.
    I can’t imagine the BNP or English Democrats welcoming busloads of French, Germans or Poles to one of their demos.
    ‘Special relationship’ with the Poles? When was that – a hundred years ago? How many of them speak Hungarian?

  3. @ Paul: “why a nationalist movement is proud to have thousands of foreigners bussed in”
    One of the things that this present government has succeeded in is further polarising Hungary. Things have become rather binary. You are with us or against us. Discussion, compromise and debate are not encouraged. From your own clues, this is happening in your family.
    I think Orban is keen to extend this beyond Hungary now. He is collecting allies within the EU. The Hungarian government wants to pass a decree officially thanking Poland and Lithuania for backing Hungary against the ‘international attacks’ it has received from abroad (i.e. the EU/IMF, the US).
    By showing that Poles are marching together with the Hungarians on March 15(expect some Lithuanians, too), the government can portray this as a united movement *within the EU* against neo-colonial attacks on long-suffering European nations.
    It’s all about how the government wants to frame ‘reality’ in order to get what it wants.

  4. “It’s all about how the government wants to frame ‘reality’ in order to get what it wants.”
    I think he’s going to live to regret getting what he wants. Most of Hungary certainly will.

  5. @ Paul English text via Jobbik Hungarian Ambiance site.
    Well, I got the same version as the Jobbik Party on the New Constituition. You have to ignore the page numbers because every format is different.
    Penny Sue Oswalt Westerville, OH USA

  6. @Penny: English text via Jobbik Hungarian Ambiance Site…..
    I went there and printed the New Constituition in English, compared it to my Public Library Printout. The format is different but the language and words do match to a tee. It is worthy of printing on your home computer, where available.
    Penny Sue Oswalt

  7. Prime Minster Orban and his party are sick in the head, trying to schmooze the Hungarian, it is bold, abrasive, harsh,and I do not mind being critical on this issue. He gets the “biggest brownie award”!! It has been extended the Jobbik Site New Contituition, NOW I got 3 bloody Constituitions!!!

  8. @Penny Dear,
    Your crappy commenting robot has a bug. You have commented yourself …

  9. London Calling!
    PSO what in heavens name are you on about?
    You are just clogging up this blog – it isn’t Twitter you know.
    You may have noticed that other contributions make sense because they are well thought through and expertly presented. Each entry stands on its own.
    And how many spellings of ‘Constitution’, inter alia, are you going to amuse us with? (They even change within an entry!)
    Why don’t you slow down; think a bit more – decide if what you are saying really justifies an entry? And stop treating Eva’s blog like Twitter – Allez vous en.
    There are a lot of erudite and intelligent contributors on here – and you dilute the mix.
    If you do contribute further I look forward to more consideration to the structure of your ejaculations. Or preferably none at all.

  10. London Calling!
    Paul re your English version.
    I have found the following a very interesting read (so far!) and have had it on my Kindle for a while – Although I am not sure of its Bona Fides as the commentators are mainly professors of Pazmany Peter Catholic University:
    The Basic Law of Hungary – a First commentary
    Lorant Csink; Balazs Schanda Andras ZS.Varga
    It is very well written in English.
    I would be very interested in all of your views – Am I being brainwashed?
    I’m trying to find the link if there is one – will post in due course
    Charlie H

  11. To CharlieH: I heard about this book from Professor Scheppele. Maybe we should ask her to comment.

  12. London Calling!
    Eva – I’d really value her thoughts – and yours!

  13. This telecom tax is incredible even by the usual OV standards. I actually got a headach trying to think through its logic and implications!
    How long before the EU realises that what it really needs is a squad of ‘men in white coats’ to take Fidesz-Jobbik away and lock them up somewhere with padded walls for a good few years?

  14. It gets worse – we have an insurance maturing at Easter worth 500,000 Ft (£1,412 at today’s rate). Had it matured last summer, we’d have got over £250 more.
    In theory we get a cheaper few weeks over there at Easter to ease the pain. But, from what we’re hearing about Hungarian prices, I don’t think we’re going to notice much difference.

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