religious education

The first day of school in Hungary

Although in the last half an hour several  short news items appeared about the Demokratikus Koalíció’s “offer” to the leadership of MSZP, I would rather wait a day until we know a little more about the details. Instead, I will talk about the beginning of the school year. It was at 8 a.m. this morning that the 2013-14 school year officially began. In most schools there was an opening ceremony, which has become something of a ritual in Hungarian schools.

In my days the beginning of school was not such a big deal. We packed up and went to school. That was all. But in Hungary it is now an all-national affair. Ministers, undersecretaries, mayors, and other politicians feel compelled to give long speeches to bored students and their teachers. This year even the prime minister honored a newly refurbished school with his presence.

One must keep in mind that the coming school year will be drastically different from what students and their parents have become accustomed to. Schools are no longer run by the municipalities but by the state. Teachers are employees of the state and new principals were appointed by Rózsa Hoffmann, the undersecretary in charge of public education.

The very structure of the educational process has also changed. From here on children cannot leave school before 4 p.m. That blanket rule would have made private lessons for children well nigh impossible. However, after some hesitation the ministry allowed principals to grant exemptions if they feel that the request is  justified.

The amount of material teachers have to cover was far too great even before, but from this year on students will have to memorize even more “stuff.” In first grade there used to be only four hours of classroom work, but henceforward six-year-olds will have to spend five periods learning the three Rs. In grade five children used to receive 22.5 hours of instruction, but from here on it will be 28 hours. In grade nine instead of 27.5 hours of instruction the children will receive 35 hours! I think that is horrendous. After listening to a teacher drone on hour after hour, who will be able to actually think about the course material? In addition, daily gym was introduced in grades one, two, five, nine, and ten although apparently there is not enough gym capacity in most schools to offer that many daily classes. And either religion or ethics must be taught in grades one, five, and nine. Why this particular four-year cycle, especially since it coincides in part with the physical education cycle? I have no idea.

There have been a lot of complaints about the newly centralized distribution of textbooks. According to government announcements, all went wonderfully. Critics of the system, however, talk about chaos.  The new distributor often just dumped the books at the gates of the schools, leaving it to teachers and students to sort things out. Apparently, they were not successful everywhere. I heard about a class of 22 where none of the kids managed to get the right books.

I also heard about one school where all the cleaning ladies were fired and the teachers were cleaning for a week to prepare the building for school opening. Naturally, Fidesz politicians and government officials are entirely satisfied with the results.

Here I would like to call attention to two speeches, one by Viktor Orbán and the other by Lajos Kósa. Each would deserve a full post, but I’ll just call attention to a couple of “highlights.”

Orbán, in his speech in Törökbálint, announced that “schools have become over the years no more than repositories.” I wonder how the teachers who have been working pretty hard to educate the children, often under adverse circumstances and with very little pay, must have felt listening to the great leader telling them that they did nothing. They just kept the kids locked up inside four walls. I for one would have been furious.

Those beautiful clouds  Viktor Orbán in Törökbálint

Those beautiful clouds
Viktor Orbán in Törökbálint

I also found some of Orbán’s remarks about physical education amusing. He claimed that daily gym classes are necessary “in order to awaken in the students their desire to be in proper physical shape.” Perhaps the chief football player should go back to school to rekindle his own waning desire for physical fitness.

Lajos Kósa talked without notes for sixteen minutes in one of the best gymnasiums in the country, the Árpád Tóth Gymnasium in Debrecen. According to the Népszabadság‘s stringer from Debrecen, his speech was not exactly welcomed by either the students or the teachers. As is his wont, Kósa made some rather unfortunate remarks. His first slip was: “TÁG [as everybody refers to the school] is one of the country’s best high schools. For that I would especially like to congratulate the school’s principal who has decided not to continue as principal but uhum, uhum, yes, Mr. Szabolcs Szilágyi, who will continue his work as a teacher in this school.”

There are only two high schools in the country that offer what is called “international matriculation.” If a student passes, he or she can attend the 300 best universities “from Oxford to Yale” without any further entrance exams. Under the former principal TÁG managed to achieve this status, but as of this year he was demoted and his place was taken by Mrs. Fenyős, Amália Kircsi. She and her husband Zoltán Fenyős are the authors of textbooks for grades five to seven.

Another Kósa gem was: “Good children perform well if they are beaten, but even the most talented child, if no one holds his hands, will get lost.”

And no one seemed to be amused when Kósa reminisced about his own school years in another Debrecen gymnasium where the students tried to guess how many of their fellow students would faint because they had to stand throughout this joyous occasion. Normally, their number was no more than four. Kósa was happy that no one fainted during his speech. It seems, he continued, that today’s youngsters are in better physical shape. Nobody laughed.

The growing influence of the Catholic Church in Hungary

A few days ago I wrote about Ágoston Sámuel Mráz’s Nézőpont Intézet which, among other things,  tries to refute foreign newspapers’ descriptions of Hungary under Viktor Orbán. I mentioned that Nézőpont really takes offense if someone accuses the Hungarian government of trying to rehabilitate the Horthy regime. Well, I wonder what will happen if one of these antagonistic foreign journalists finds out what Sándor Lezsák, one of the deputy speakers of the House, had to say in Kenderes on the twentieth anniversary of the reburial of Miklós Horthy. Lezsák expressed his wish that a new research institute be established in Kenderes in which all the documentation relating to the Horthy family would be gathered and where young historians could become acquainted with the true history of the Horthy regime.

The rehabilitation of the Horthy regime goes on in practically all facets of life. For example, what’s going on in the field of education is also reminiscent of the pre-1945-46 period when the overwhelming majority of schools, especially gymnasiums, were in the hands of the churches. There were some Hungarian Reformed and Lutheran schools but not too many for the simple reason that these churches were not as rich as the Hungarian Catholic Church. It could easily happen that even in a larger provincial city children wanting to attend gymnasium had to enroll in the Catholic school because there was no public school in town. It seems that, if it depended on Rózsa Hoffmann, very soon a similar situation will occur in “Christian” Hungary.

Rózsa Hoffmann wasn’t always that devoted to the service of God and the Catholic Church, but sometime after the regime change she saw the light. Nowadays she acts as the instrument of the Hungarian Catholic Church, her goal being “to educate more and  more children in the Christian faith.” Therefore we shouldn’t be surprised that the pious undersecretary for public education gave one of her many speeches marking the beginning of the new school year in the Basilica of Eger. I wouldn’t be surprised if soon enough all public school children were herded into one of the nearby Catholic churches for Veni Sancte as I was in grade one. Quite an experience for someone who hadn’t seen the inside of a church, any church, until then.

medieval school

Hoffmann is working assiduously to achieve this goal. She was rapturous over the growing number of parochial schools and expressed her hope that soon enough Christian education will begin in kindergarten. It’s never too early to start, and since all children from here on must attend kindergarten from the age of three we can be sure that if the government decides on universal Christian education it will be done. After all, the school system is totally centralized. In fact, terribly overcentralized. While she was at it, Hoffmann proudly announced that 52% of first graders opted for religion over ethics. It is now compulsory to take one or the other.

Many Hungarians are a great deal less enthusiastic about this transformation of secular public education, especially since Hoffmann’s missionary work is being paid for by the Hungarian taxpayers who are not necessarily Christians, or even believers. Because one cannot emphasize enough that this expansion of the parochial school system is financed exclusively by the central budget. At least in the Horthy regime the Catholic Church and parents footed the bill.  A somewhat radical critique of the Orbán government’s support of the Catholic Church can be found on one of the well known Hungarian blogs, Gépnarancs, whose name is a take-off on Fidesz’s official color, orange, and Lajos Simicska’s Közgép, considered to be the financial lynch pin of the Orbán system.

It is not only the Catholic Church that has been acquiring schools. Just lately I read about three schools that had been taken over by Kolping International, a lay organization whose members allegedly “participate in a socially just transformation of society.” The organization is named after a nineteenth-century German Catholic priest Adolph Kolping. Kolping International has over 400,000 members. One these new Kolping schools is an elementary school in Pócspetri. Another is opening in Szászberek where even the school’s new name gives it away. It is called Szászbereki Kolping Katolikus Általános Iskola.  And naturally Rózsa Hoffmann was on hand in Csurgó where the Kolping Foundation will run a high school for 600 students. I guess it was time to open a Catholic school in Csurgó because there is already a Hungarian Reformed high school in town. Here Hoffmann lectured about the “morality” that had been cast aside. She promised that the new Hungarian school system will make sure that Hungarian children will return to the world of morality because “one must not live without values.” I agree in principle, but what kinds of values is Hoffmann talking about?

After Hoffmann visited several Catholic parochial schools it was time to go to a Hungarian Reformed school, the famous Debreceni Református Kollégium established in 1538. After all, Hoffmann’s boss, Zoltán Balog, is a Hungarian Reformed minister whose son happens to be a student there. Given the government’s political grip on education, it was not amusing to hear Balog ask the teachers not to allow politics to infiltrate the schools. It was also somewhat ironic to hear within the walls of a parochial school that “the government believes in public education.” But I guess if parochial schools are being funded by the public, they by default become public schools.

Rózsa Hoffmann spent most of her time defending the complete reorganization of the Hungarian school system. I was astonished to hear that this school year is the 1018th in the history of the nation. It seems that Ms. Hoffmann believes that the first “school” in Hungary was established in 995. A brave assumption. What I know is that it was in this year that Saint Adalbert of Prague arrived in Hungary to begin his missionary work. Otherwise, Hoffmann praised her own accomplishments, including personally appointing all new school principals. Such an arrangement “symbolizes greater respect for the principals than before.” Hoffmann also announced that it is “wise love (okos szeretet) [that] distinguishes [the Orbán government’s] pedagogical philosophy from others in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.” “Wise love” will be taught in religion and ethics classes.

Of course, I have no idea what “wise love” is. I trust it is not “tough love.” What these kids will learn in religion or ethics classes I have no idea. I just hope more than we learned during compulsory religion classes before the communist takeover. Then it was tough love all right. The minister who taught us didn’t spare the rod; boys who misbehaved were caned.