history textbooks

Learning history in Orbán’s Hungary

The new school year began yesterday and with it an entirely new system as far as textbook distribution is concerned. As you most likely know, a couple of years ago all schools were nationalized and put under the authority of one monstrous organization called Klebelsberg Intézményfenntartó Központ (KLIK), named after Kunó Klebelsberg, minister of education between 1922 and 1931. Critics predicted the failure of such a centralized system where KLIK was to be the employer of about 150,000 teachers. They were right. It was a disaster, which even Zoltán Balog, who is in charge of education, had to admit. The head of KLIK was sacked and right now the government is in the midst of a “reorganization” of KLIK.

One of the important demands of Rózsa Hoffmann, former undersecretary in charge of education, was a reduction in the number of textbooks teachers can choose from. Indeed, as of this year, teachers can only pick one out of two. The textbook publishing industry was also nationalized, so government control over education became all embracing. The new textbooks appeared on the market only a few days ago and therefore each teacher had to decide within a couple of days which one she will use. At the same time a number of “experimental” textbooks were written and introduced in 150 schools picked by the ministry.

Since the “experimental” textbooks have been available for only a few days, critics haven’t had time yet to find all the objectionable passages in them. According to some, at first glance these textbooks are “problematic” in pedagogical terms and reflect “an anti-modernization world view.” There are just too many “political-ideological” messages. One history book spends far too much time on the injustices of Trianon, which only adds to the self-pity of the current generation instilled by the nationalism of the current regime. Others looked at a book on literature (grade 7) that reflects the authors’ distaste for our modern market economy and expresses antagonistic feelings toward life in western countries. For example, to eat hamburgers, visit Disneyland, watch MTV or CNN  means to be satisfied with a lower level of culture.

The same grade 7 textbook is full of anti-American sentiments. In it one can read that “we ought to be proud that according to sociologists for the average Hungarian person the most important value is logical thinking while in the eyes of the Americans this is the least valued trait.” Hungarian medieval poetry that praises war and Petőfi’s calls for struggle can be explained by our “biological roots.”

After reading a few of these critical articles I decided to take a look at a grade 10 history book, one of the experimental textbooks available online. The book covers the period between the age of discovery (15-16th centuries) and 1848. It didn’t take me long to find some glaring problems with the book.

tortenelem 10

At the beginning the students are told–thank God–that they don’t have to learn absolutely every fact in the book but that the concepts that appear in boldface are very important. So, I decided to see how our author deals with some basic concepts. Since anti-Semitism is a topic we encounter a lot nowadays, I decided to start there. To my great surprise, the word appeared only twice in the textbook. Both times as a concept of the utmost importance. But nowhere in the book do we find a definition of the term.

My second search was for the word “nationalism.” That initially looked more promising. The word “nationalism” was mentioned eleven times, but I found no instance that dealt with the concept per se. On page 131 the student learns that after the French revolution there was a new interpretation of the historical nation (nobility) and that it was the “national idea” (nemzeti eszme) or “nationalism.” Proponents of the movement desired national renewal. They tried to form a common national identity and made efforts to discover the national past. So, what does this young man or woman learn? Nationalism is a good thing! Not a word about the negative connotations of the term.

The most controversial discussion of nationalism occurs in connection with the “nationality question” in the so-called reform period, i.e. the last twenty years or so prior to the 1848 revolution. The Hungarian “reform forces” greatly feared the Pan-Slav ideology supported by Russia and were frightened by Gottfried Herder’s vision of the Hungarian language disappearing in the sea of Slavic people. (Pan-Slavism is not explained anywhere in the book.) Therefore, the Hungarian reform generation paid a great deal of attention to the Hungarian language and culture. At the same time they wanted to be sure Hungarians maintained their political primacy in the Carpathian Basin, to which they felt entitled by their 1,000-year history of statehood. Hungarians were able to establish a viable state (államalkotó nemzet) while the others–Slovaks, Romanians, Ruthenians–were not. Rights and privileges were to be extended to all regardless of nationality. This Hungarian concept of nation was based on the definition of the term in the French Encyclopédie. What the authors neglect to mention is that the famous encyclopedia was published between 1751 and 1772, that is before the French revolution. What was a viable way to unify the people of France was no longer true in Eastern Europe.

After this brief discussion, the authors move on to interpretations of Hungarian nationality problems in the first half of the nineteenth century. “Central-European, non-Hungarian historiography unanimously consider the Hungarian language laws of this period as ‘Magyarization’. However, nowadays Hungarian historians present a more complex, more layered study of the question. It recognizes that there were abuses, but the political forces urged a liberal handling of the nationality question.”

I’m trying to imagine myself as a studious fourteen- or fifteen-year-old acquiring a basic knowledge of Hungarian history. What kind of a picture would I get of the history of my own country? By and large a very positive one. I would learn that Hungarians are superior to others living in the Carpathian Basin because they had the ability to establish a state. And that this would entitle them to have political primacy within the historic borders of Hungary. I would learn that non-Hungarian historians are prejudiced against the Hungarians and that in the past Hungarian historians were far too hard on the Hungarian political elite. Lately, I would come to understand, a much more balanced view is emerging that shows liberal tolerance toward the nationalities.

I just heard that István Hiller (MSZP), former minister of education,  is launching a kind of alternative curriculum called “School of Reasoning” (Gondolkodás iskolája). It will be a series of video lectures given by outstanding teachers who donate their time to the project. I think it is a capital idea, and next week when the project begins I will be one of those listening to the lectures on modern history. It will be interesting to compare these lectures to the experimental textbooks.

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The new ethics textbook for Hungarian fifth graders

What can one say about the newly introduced ethics textbook for Hungarian fifth graders? For starters, it is not, strictly speaking, an ethics text.  Ethics is not a branch of religion, and being ethical is not the same as following the law or adhering to societal norms. So a textbook that lauds religious virtues and advocates unquestioning civil obedience doesn’t belong in an ethics class.

The authors of this non-ethics textbook are Ferenc Bánhegyi and Mrs. Olajos Ilona Kádár. Bánhegyi seems to be a favorite of the Orbán government because he is also the sole author of the history book intended for fifth graders. Perhaps the best introduction to Ferenc Bánhegyi’s worldview is his outline for a forthcoming history textbook. The dominant theme of the book is the unjust attacks on Hungary and Hungarians through the ages. His goal is to refute these charges and to blame foreigners for Hungary’s misfortunes. Pity the poor student who has to give the “right” answer to such questions as why Mihály Károlyi was viewed favorably in the West and given a villa in France. Or, in a similar vein (and with, I presume, a similar answer expected) why Ferenc Gyurcsány is more acceptable in Western Europe than Viktor Orbán.

Surely, the bureaucrats of the Ministry of Human Resources, in particular Rózsa Hoffmann and her crew, knew about this man’s predilection for both historical falsification and anti-Semitism and racism. One of Bánhegyi’s history textbooks already had to be withdrawn in 2000. It seems that the first Orbán government was less forgiving than the second one.

Admittedly, there was some serious editing of the new ethics textbook. Here’s one notable passage. The original read: “The Hungarians are one of the most welcoming people in Europe. They are hospitable and friendly. This was the case from the time of Saint Stephen until the beginning of the twentieth century when the lost war and the many different people whom Hungarians welcomed helped to break up the country. Our people even after that remained welcoming and hospitable, but the deep wound Trianon caused still hasn’t healed.” That’s how the text read in May when reporters of 444.hu got hold of it. In the final product the text was changed to: “The Hungarians are one of Europe’s hospitable nations. We know that King Saint Stephen urged our ancestors to welcome strangers and honor other people.” Quite a difference. Of course, today’s Hungarians are among the most xenophobic people in Europe; just lately whole villages were in an uproar over plans to build shelters for political refugees in their vicinity.

The parents who didn’t want their children to receive religious education and who opted for ethics as the lesser evil are not better off. Perhaps worse. The whole book sounds like a guidebook to Christian-national conservative ideology. The book is full of religious references and praise for Christian communities. Thus virtue figures large in the textbook. Among the virtues the Bánhegyi-Olajos textbook lists are patriotism, religiosity, pride, heroism, and strength. Moreover, we learn from this book that “the greatest act of a brave man is martyrdom.” I hope that none of the children take that too seriously.

The line between religion and ethics is blurred: “religious communities provide values, order, security.” The authors bemoan the fact that relatively few young people seek the help of the clergy in solving their problems. I might add here that the only religious communities the textbook refers to are Catholic and Hungarian Reformed. The textbook claims that religious people are more caring than others and that “religious communities can greatly assist in the development of deep and close friendships.” It blames the media and the free market economy for the deterioration of public morality.

Michelangelo's Seven Virtues, Uffizi Gallery

Michelangelo’s Seven Virtues, Uffizi Gallery

However objectionable all this may be, it is a marked improvement over Bánhegyi’s earlier ethics textbook that caused quite an upheaval in 2004 when it came out. That book contained such sentences as “the communist leading members of the Hungarian Soviet Republic came from the Jewry who were responsible for many people’s death.” Or, “the Roma came from India and spread all over the world. Because of prejudice and of their own attitude they were forced to the neglected far ends of the villages where they just manage to subsist. Many Roma children finish school without sufficient knowledge and thus unfortunately the mass of unschooled and uneducated children will get reproduced.”

Bánhegyi’s troubles with at least two of his earlier textooks may actually have been a plus as far as Rózsa Hoffmann was concerned. Religiosity and nationalism are the two pillars of the current Orbán government.  The Bánhegyi-Olajos textbook serves this purpose perfectly. After all, “the goal of morality is to make our nation strong.” Read that sentence again and weep. The present government surely must be satisfied with the book’s emphasis on law and order and its claim that all laws must be obeyed. Laws presumably are never immoral. Or at least the laws enacted by the Orbán government aren’t.

The authors don’t hide their prejudices. Just like Rózsa Hoffmann they complain about the widespread use of the English language; they don’t understand why the American dollar is used worldwide as a reserve currency; they find it objectionable that American films are popular. They don’t like computer games and contend that older games were better. They expect youngsters always to ask the advice of adults, and they insist that today’s youngsters are not as moral as their predecessors. They hold old-fashioned views on the family and consider modernity the source of many evils in this world.

In brief, the book doesn’t pose questions about ethical issues but tells the children what, according to currently dominant Hungarian ideology, is right and what is wrong. It reminds me of books written for teenage Catholic boys in the 1930s that gave advice on how to become an ideal Catholic youth. To mangle Tennyson, theirs not to reason why, theirs just to accept and comply.