Hungarian academic standards: Analysis of a textbook

It looks to me as if the Hungarian academic community is closing ranks. Not necessarily because the people involved are supporters of the current government but because they realize that if a serious investigation of Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén’s so-called research is undertaken the greatest loser will be Hungarian academe.

What is the difference between the current plagiarism scandal and that of President Pál Schmitt? Schmitt’s was a open and shut case even if the Hungarian authorities took their own sweet time in reaching the right decision.The plagiarism was so blatant that there was never any question that the work Schmitt submitted was a translation of French and English texts and that not even the translation was his own. Moreover, the academic community could brush aside the case, claiming that a doctoral dissertation written for the College of Physical Education was “a joke.” Something like that could never happen at a “real” university.

And yet here we are. ELTE, one of the top universities if not the top, finds itself in the middle of a controversy. It turns out that the university bestowed a degree in sociology on Zsolt Semjén when the readers most likely knew that a large part of the senior paper (szakdolgozat) was simply copied from a mostly plagiarized dissertation submitted for the fulfillment of the requirements in another subject at another university. That other university was Péter Pázmány Catholic University, a favorite of the current government and the Christian Democratic Party, chaired by Semjén.

And today I’ll focus on another blot on Hungarian scholarship: the substandard textbook produced by one of the professors of Corvinus University. Corvinus otherwise has an excellent reputation as a university specializing in economics, finance, and business.

All in all, I’m not surprised that the scholars involved are eager to close the case. Because, let’s face it, it is deplorable that they set the bar so low that they accepted these two pieces of work and considered Semjén’s performance excellent. What does this say about the standards of Hungarian higher education? Or about education in general?

Now, on to the Corvinus textbook.

A few days ago I received the text of  Géza Jeszenszky’s chapter on “Minorities in Hungary: The issue of the Roma (Gypsies. Minority self-government).” In an earlier post I called Jeszenszky a “lousy scholar.” Now that I have the full text I can reiterate the same with even greater emphasis.

I don’t know how much research went into this particular chapter but it couldn’t have been much. Jeszenszky wrote the English-language text himself without asking a native speaker to check it. Thus, in the very first sentence there is a grammatical error. Moreover, Jeszenszky is quite capable of writing the word “Gypsy” two different ways on two consecutive lines. Once properly and then as “Gipsy.”

Painting by János Balázs (1905-1977)
Roma painter and poet

I will not have time to go line by line and point out everything that I consider to belong to the realm of unacceptable scholarship. My observations will be general since I am not sufficiently familiar with the subject matter. But if one claims (and note that I’m not editing Jeszenszky’s English) that “the greatest number of Roma with full higher education in the whole of Europe is in Hungary, both in absolute and relative terms” one would like to see some numbers. Instead, we read that “among the 24 Hungarian members of the European Parliament, two are Roma.” (I might add that since the book was written there is only one because SZDSZ didn’t get enough votes and since then its Roma representative Viktória Mohácsi has been seeking political asylum in Canada.)

Jeszenszky seems to have problems with numbers in general. In one place he correctly estimates the percentage of Roma in Hungary’s population as 7-8%, but a few lines later we read that “in some countries [in Eastern Europe] their share of the overall population exceeds 5 per cent.” Or how meaningful is this assertion: “In terms of estimated figures for the number of Gypsies resident in 38 European countries, Hungary lies in the fourth place, after Romania, Bulgaria and Spain.” In absolute numbers or as a percentage of the population? According to Romanian statistics, Gypsies constitute 3.4% of the population. Spain apparently has 700,000 Roma, about as many as Hungary, but Spain’s population is close to 50 million as opposed to Hungary’s 10 million.

Or what about this? “Since 2001 the size of the Roma population has increased rapidly. Today every fifth or sixth newborn Hungarian child belongs to the Roma minority.” Where is he getting these numbers since very few Gypsies actually declare themselves as belonging to the Roma minority?

And then comes the notorious sentence that received so much publicity: “”The reason why many Roma are mentally ill is because in Roma culture it is permitted for sisters and brothers or cousins to marry each other or just to have sexual intercourse with each other.” Judging from this sentence, Jeszenszky doesn’t seem to know the meaning of the word “mentally ill.” Intermarriage might result in genetic problems or retardation but not in mental illness. Of course, it is possible that Jeszenszky knows the difference in Hungarian but perhaps not in English.

But there are other peculiar assertions. Here is one example: The Roma’s “attachment to established religions, whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian, appears to have been a matter of convenience rather than conviction.” The example he gives is of Gypsies who lived in the Balkans under prolonged Turkish rule as opposed to those who lived under Christian rule. One doesn’t have to be an expert to know that this is a ridiculous assertion. Serbs who lived under Turkish rule for a long time became Muslims, something the Christian Serbs haven’t forgotten to this day. Or Syria before the Arab conquest was overwhelmingly Christian, but eventually they converted to Islam. Moreover, the Hungarian Roma population is a great deal more religious than the non-Roma population of the country.

There is a section that talks about the Roma invasion of Western Europe in early modern times, but “because of their alien culture and unwillingness to be engaged in agricultural production they were soon expelled and deported from Western Europe, sometimes brutally. Some tribes managed to hold out in the Mediterranean region but the majority retreated to Central and Eastern Europe.” The suggestion here is that Western Europeans were intolerant while in Eastern Europe, specifically in Hungary, Gypsies found shelter.

Here is a description of the current situation: “Criminality is high among them, consequently a negative attitude to Roma is wide-spread among the population at large.” Again, the suggestion is that discrimination is solely due to the Gypsies’ criminality. “Many Roma live in self-made squatter settlements on the outskirts of towns or villages.” As if the Roma chose to live in isolation at the far end of villages.

Here is an interesting description of the discrimination against Roma children in schools. “A large proportion of their children do not regularly attend school. Discrimination plays some part in this as the birth-rate among Roma has increased while the general population has a zero or negative growth rate, and many elementary schools are inundated by unruly Gypsy children.” Hence discrimination and truancy?

And finally, here is another telling sign of the incredible prejudice that can be found in practically every line. After a long description of the “very serious efforts to improve the lot of [Hungary’s] citizens of Gipsy origin” Jeszenszky continues: “The media, especially the international, gives publicity mainly to the negative tendencies and to the controversies. (Recently hot debates started about a few criminal cases. Some were described as ‘hate crime’ against Roma, others involved family feuds between Gipsy families, but on several occasions Gypsy gangs killed innocent non-Gypsies.)”

Well, we all remember the cases of serial murders of absolutely innocent Roma by a gang of far-right Gypsy haters. If those were not hate crimes, I don’t know what they were.

Honestly, what can we expect from Hungarian higher education when textbooks such as this are being used at one of the best universities in the country? The reputation of Hungarian scholarship is at stake.

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58 comments

  1. Following on from Paul’s comments, what kills me is that there are no signs of rebellion coming from the street to all this c**p. No weekly action/demonstration, no crazy fly positing, rebellious T-shirts or even signs of people wanting to organize. Maybe there are but I don’t see the signs and I live slap bang in the middle of the city. My wife and I sit throwing our shoes at the news programs as the daily rape and bare faced humiliation of the country is calmly announced by ATV news. Thank god they are here to tell the story.

    We are not so well connected here. We don’t know so many people, I speak just a little Hungarian, not enough to communicate a message or express and opinion beyond most simple “wtf is going on here?”. But to all appearances, I as an English idiot living here seem to have a stronger emotional reaction to what is going on than the vast majority of Hungarians.

    I am not saying that this is true and is really the case. I am saying that this is how it looks. Perhaps I am wrong on all fronts, but I do not believe in saviours.. especially not political saviours. There need to be leaders at all levels not just party leaders. Organisers on a neighbourhood, civil organisations at base level showing and demonstrating that there IS an opinion on the street. It’s just not adequate just to vote every four years.

    But where to start? On the street… that’s where.

  2. @Hoping:

    Right now it’s a difficult time for most Hungarians. Just to make ends meet they have to try everything, one job is not enough, over the weekend and in the evenings they work for some extra money …

    Just today I heard from a neighbour and someone in my wife’s family that they haven’t even got all of their October wage/salary – will they get their November wage in time for Christmas ? They just don’t know …

    These people are too occupied and too frustrated to go on the street.

    Two women have left for better jobs in Austria – they’ll work during the winter season seven days a week and won’t see their family again before Easter.

    Christmas in a foreign country – maybe/hopefully they can skype their relatives …

    It’s a sad picture …

  3. @ Mutt: “My money is still on laziness … we are not stupid – we are lazy.”

    Let’s agree to disagree. No, many Hungarians are really stupid – or just not with it – just see how they drive (although they pay one of the highest fuel prices. – One of the self-priding jokes about Hungarians is: Who comes last in a revolving door but comes out first? A Hungarian!

    Come on.

  4. Minusio :
    @ Paul: I hate to agree with you, and I think you didn’t write this in a light-hearted or cynical manner.
    It will be as bad as we (or at least some of us) have envisaged. My first skeptical remarks were before the elections in 2010. Hungarian Voice barred me from commenting in spring of 2011.
    I admire your keeping up in adversity. I am referring to what you wrote about the ‘table talk” at your home. That must be very difficult.
    Kindest regards!

    I don’t have much choice!

    When we married, 10 years ago, Orbán and Fidesz meant nothing to me, 2008 was 6 years in the future, 2010 and the “two-thirds majority” would have seemed like a dream/nightmare, Hungary was a lovely, civilised country, not long out of Communism and making rapid strides forward. I was both pleased and proud to call myself an honorary Hungarian, and we were making plans to move there and bring our kids up there.

    I had no idea any of this was going to happen, or that I was marrying into a rabid Fidesz-Jobbik family, or of all the anti-Semite and anti-Roma madness.

    We just had another “table talk” tonight about the Hungarian education system and its future. My wife is convinced that it is better than the UK’s and that Hungarian universities produce only the best graduates and doctors – despite the fact that she knows very little about any of this (having been educated in the USSR and only having lived in Hungary for 10 years).

    I could go on (and on) but it is pointless.

  5. wolfi :
    @Hoping:
    Right now it’s a difficult time for most Hungarians. Just to make ends meet they have to try everything, one job is not enough, over the weekend and in the evenings they work for some extra money …
    Just today I heard from a neighbour and someone in my wife’s family that they haven’t even got all of their October wage/salary – will they get their November wage in time for Christmas ? They just don’t know …
    These people are too occupied and too frustrated to go on the street.
    Two women have left for better jobs in Austria – they’ll work during the winter season seven days a week and won’t see their family again before Easter.
    Christmas in a foreign country – maybe/hopefully they can skype their relatives …
    It’s a sad picture …

    I agree that this is a “good justification”. But in my eyes it is not an adequate explanation or excuse. There are always “good reasons” why we don’t have time/money/energy/courage/ to do the thing we know deep in our hearts must be done. I know coz I do it all the time haha! But to not even care, to not get a bit upset? To not talk about it. Boy that kills me to see.

    In the meantime I am sitting trying to see through all my justifications for not doing anything (oh there are so good ones… I’m foreign, don’t speak Hungarian etc etc). But I know that this does not excuse me. At least lets be honest with ourselves.

  6. Hoping – that is pretty much how I feel/see things. But what Wolfi writes is also very true from my experience.

    Where is the breaking point? How far down do people have to go, how mad do Orbán and his mates have to get, before people have had enough and have nothing left to lose?

    People point to the memory of 56, when we in the west were so proud of Hungary’s brave stand. But that was only 11 years after the war, with the Communist state only just established. It was a very different world, and there was a much clearer ‘enemy’ than there is now.

    Any western European people would have taken to the streets months ago and Orbán would have been ousted. But Hungary is not a western country, possibly not even a European one. The language both isolates them and makes them isolationist, their history teaches them that there is no hope and no friends, and 40 years of Communism and 20 years of consumerism have left them beaten and disillusioned.

    I fear the breaking point is still a long way away – we may never actually reach it. The Orbán ‘government’ will reach a state of equilibrium where the country just struggles along and the EU decides that toleration and turning a blind eye is the better bet than interference.

    It may not be another 40 years before impending social and economic collapse forces another change of regime, but it will be a long time. At nearly 60, I don’t know if I’ll live to see it.

  7. @ Paul: I am afraid I am with you on every point, every frustration, and any faint hope you raised. And for you the outlook – at nearly 60 – is especially bitter. I’m pushing 70 (from this side), my girlfriend and her family (or what my people left of it) and her friends all clearly share the same thoughts, fears and discussions. But they are at least on your side, and that doesn’t seem to be the case in your family. That makes it far worse, or at least I imagine so.

    I don’t envisage going to Hungary much more often – perhaps next year when my girlfriend’s father will turn 100. Then I practically have to. But it will never be the same as in 1993, when I first went.

    At present and for the near future, my small place here in the wonderful south of Switzerland has already become a kind of asylum for my Hungarian friends (for whom I tucked away some of their last savings – at appallingly low interest rates, but probably safe. At present, I am the trustee of four bank accounts belonging to Hungarians, would you believe it. And I have to soon think of making provisions for the day after I kick the bucket. Because as I predicted and you just wrote: This nightmare wont be over tomorrow or the day after. Cameron is a huge help in his imbecility…)

    But we have to thank Éva that at least we were able to meet on her pages…

    The “western” Hungarians with any hope to make it in Germany or Britain have already left. The same seems to be true for 100 doctors a months leaving the country. But I wonder about what they are leaving behind. But those with young kids won’t come back once the kids go to school and become integrated.

    However, I have always believed that because of FDI, Hungary can stay in this limbo much longer than any similar state – and most people like to believe (read my posts).. It really may mean the 20 years VO had in mind.

    Good night.

  8. @Hoping, to find people who do work on alternatives, you will have to contact the newly founded organisations.
    http://www.hazaeshaladas.hu/en/home.html
    http://www.szolidaritas.org/
    http://negyedikkoztarsasag.hu/
    http://www.millamedia.hu/

    I know that the situation appears quite hopeless from the point of view of immediate improvements but there are Hungarians who have not yet left the country and who do think about possible routes from where we are. That the way how discontent is signalled, how people react to Orbanisztan, and which ideas they have about what could be done will be quite different from what you would expect or do, is very likely. But the point is that what is frequently suggested here (at least implicitly) is that people would have “just to wake up” and then all will be fine (=democratic), that is a misunderstanding. The range of ideas and interpretations that you hear currently reflect what people think. Which means there are some people with clearer ideas about how to introduce democracy and the rule of law and others who may not even share the goal. If Paul and Minusio say that “in 20 years we wake up and then eventually the situation will have changed”, they forget to say that during those 20 years some people will have worked for that, will not have been “stupid” and “lazy” and will have created the ideas, programmes and the widespread support in the society that are crucial for such changes. IT IS THE ABSENCE OF SUCH COHERENT PROGRAMME, IDEAS AND STRATEGIES THAT CURRENTLY MAKE PEOPLE SEEM TO BE WILLING TO SWALLOW EVERYTHING. As far as I remember from “revolution theory”, great upheavals of this sort are more likely if people have the impression that the “revolution” will improve their lifes with a high probability. A clear idea what should be done is of the highest importance. If there is disaggreement to the extent that we see currently in Hungary, many people will prefer to (or will have no alternative to) concentrate on making a living. But that does not mean that they will not be willing to get involved again if it will appear more “promising”.

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