Rózsa Hoffmann

Public patience is coming to an end: What can Viktor Orbán do? Not much

Some of you want me to outline a scenario that could follow the unheard-of loss of popularity of the government, Fidesz, and Viktor Orbán personally. I am no fortune teller but, contrary to those readers who believe that the events of the last two months will have no adverse effect on the Orbán government in the long run, I see some signs that may lead to the eventual collapse of the system.

I base this admittedly hedged forecast (note the “some” and “may” in it) on data suggesting that Viktor Orbán has lost the trust of millions of his followers. I understand from news reports that Orbán and the Fidesz leadership by now have come to recognize the seriousness of the situation. Apparently they are preparing the ground to rebuild the prime minister’s tarnished reputation. The word is that he is planning to be more “active,” which in this context means that he will show his compassionate side. Today he visited an orphanage and held one of the little girls in his lap. The picture was shown all over, of course.

But I think the situation in which the prime minister finds himself won’t be fixed by a few smiles and friendly gestures toward his constituency. He has lost the people’s trust. And for that development he alone is to blame.

ATV showed a short video today on which a journalist confronts people on the street and tells some of Orbán’s latest fairy tales about the decrease in poverty, the increase in job opportunities, the excellent GDP figures, and the reduced utility prices. First of all, a few months ago when journalists tried to engage people on the street in conversation about political issues most people either refused to answer or the few who did usually praised the government and Orbán. Today’s video shows that people are no longer afraid to speak, and when they speak they don’t hide their opinions. The most frequently recurring answer was: Orbán is lying! What he says is not true. If that belief takes hold among the electorate, Orbán’s political future is in doubt.

There is another problem that, in my opinion, will prevent Orbán’s political comeback–and we know that without him there is no Fidesz either. The coffers are empty. No longer can the government appease the populace by throwing a few thousand forints their way, as they did when they lowered utility prices, an admittedly brilliant political stroke. Today they cannot give anything. On the contrary, they have to extract more and more money from the people in the form of taxes because otherwise they cannot keep the deficit under 3%. And if they overstep this magic figure, the excessive deficit procedure may be imposed, and this may mean the loss of subsidies from Brussels. It is obvious that they are desperate. They know that they should not irritate the already antagonistic voters with more and more taxes, but they seem to have no choice because they already spent the money on all sorts of superfluous projects, like stadiums, MOL shares, bank purchases, and so on. And then there is the corruption that has resulted in the loss to the public purse of billions in taxpayer money. Their past irresponsible (and worse) financial maneuvers may well be their undoing.

Another consideration is what I see as an erosion within Fidesz-KDNP. I already mentioned the revolt of KDNP’s chief Zsolt Semjén on the issue of a new law on the status of churches. He was joined a few hours later by Rózsa Hoffmann, who in the past was a faithful executor of Viktor Orbán’s ideas on education. Suddenly Hoffmann discovered that diverting children from gymnasiums is a very bad idea and that making employees of the Prime Minister’s Office work ten hours a day is not even legal. Or, there is the case of János Bencsik, a Fidesz member of parliament since 1998, who expressed his strong opposition to compulsory drug testing of children. As he put it, not even László Trócsányi, minister of justice, or Gergely Gulyás, the legal wizard of Fidesz, could make such a law constitutional. Even Gulyás thought that Máté Kocsis’s suggestion was “unorthodox” while “the world of the law is generally orthodox.”

The latest attempt at acquiring another 20 billion forints by making M0, a six-lane highway that more or less encircles Budapest, a toll road enraged not only commuters from nearby towns but also the Fidesz mayors whose districts would be affected by the decision. Again it was a last-minute ad hoc decision without any consultation. The mayors are not the only ones up in arms. Attila Chickán, minister of the economy in the first Orbán government, said that the decision will have a negative impact on the lifestyle of the people of Budapest.

The M0 will be a toll road Are these people tired of governing?

Highway M0 will also be a toll road.
Are these people tired of governing?

And finally, young until now pro-Fidesz journalists have become disillusioned. Perhaps the best example I can cite is Ákos Balogh, editor-in-chief of Mandiner. I highly recommend his opinion piece that appeared today. The title is telling: “When ‘The Anything is Possible’ Ends.” Everything that worked in the past no longer works or, even worse, is counterproductive. In fact, Balogh goes so far as to state that the Orbán government, instead of remedying the “mistakes” of the last twenty years, itself became part of it. It did not finish the regime change as it promised but “it completed its failure.” Fidesz is good at campaigning but “sparkles less when it comes to governing.” Fidesz does not want to recognize that “something has changed,” and not only in foreign affairs as a result of the Ukrainian developments but also at home. Although “in theory” there will be no elections until 2018, “a government can be demobilized by broken public trust.” The lesson: “There is never such a thing as ‘Anything is Possible’ because there is always a fault line after which everything falls apart.” “The borders of  ‘Anything is Possible’ are not sharp, one can only conjecture about them. One can know only after the fact when someone has overstepped them. Perhaps he already has overstepped them.” Harsh words from a former true believer.

The Orbán government’s vision of academe: A huge engineering school

Before I embark on the Orbán government’s latest strategy for Hungarian higher education, let me briefly introduce the past and present cast of characters tasked with overseeing universities. The first major change in Hungarian education under the Orbán regime was to nationalize all the public schools that hitherto had been the responsibility of local communities. This task fell to Rózsa Hoffmann (KDNP), whose idea of a good school hearkened back to the second half of the nineteenth century: rote learning, discipline, uniformity. The government created a mammoth organization to administer these schools. It was the new employer of teachers nationwide, who thereby became state employees. Hoffmann was also responsible for higher education, but here she was even more obviously found wanting. Viktor Orbán, I think, would have been happy to relieve Hoffmann of all her duties, but it wasn’t that simple. She was one of the few Christian Democrats in the government. So a compromise was reached. Hoffmann remained undersecretary for pre-university education, and a new position was created for István Klinghammer, former president of ELTE, who took care of higher education.

Klinghammer was entrusted with a complete overhaul of the system, and within a year and a half he had apparently drafted a respectable proposal. The strategy was accepted by all those concerned, including all the college presidents. It sounded rather promising until László Parragh, president of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, vetoed the plan in November 2013.  And Parragh’s opinion is of great importance because he has Orbán’s ear when it comes to “practical education.” The government should invest money only in fields of study that will create something material that adds to economic growth. Apparently, the other “expert on education”–Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources and a Calvinist minister–also disliked Klinghammer’s plan. I guess it was still too liberal and not practical enough. Klinghammer’s proposal was not even submitted to the cabinet. He was unceremoniously dropped.

In 2014 came the new Orbán government and with it a new undersecretary in charge of higher education, László Palkovics. I have the feeling that in Palkovics Orbán found his man. He is an engineer with a distinguished academic career who in 1995 left academe to hold important positions in Hungary and Germany at Knorr-Bremse, a manufacturer of braking systems. At the same time he is a loyal Fidesz man who is always ready to answer a call from Viktor Orbán. Since for Orbán only the practical aspects of higher education are important, a man who in his career often combined academe with business was a perfect person for the job.

Palkovics gave a long interview to Index from which it became evident that the man can think only in terms of his own field. All his examples came from engineering. Moreover, he vowed that “the state will not finance useless diplomas.”

If I understand Palkovics correctly, universities should be centers of research and development financed by private companies. Currently, private companies and universities apply together for certain state and EU funds, “but the question is how useful these projects are for the university or the economy. … Because this kind of cooperation is only beneficial if they produce actual products that can have market value.” At the moment the faculties don’t quite understand what their role will be in this new reality. He explained that they should produce not just a “study” but a “mechanical drawing.” Palkovics expects the universities to “fill the holes in their budgets” after there are no more EU projects.

tubes

Apparently the bulk of Palkovics’s 77-page proposal on the future of Hungarian higher education is about such schemes. So, it’s no wonder that the reporter asked what will happen to universities teaching the arts and social sciences. “They will not be able to develop marketable products.” Palkovics sees no problem here whatsoever. It seems that “this strategy can be applied to all fields,” but we get no answer about how this will be implemented in the real world. In Palkovics’s simple utilitarian view, teachers or social workers are useful only because of their indirect impact on economic growth. So, we can ask, are philosophy professors useful? Do they have any impact on economic growth? If not, perhaps philosophy departments can simply be phased out. Philosophers tend to be political troublemakers anyway, so their disappearance would only be a boon to the Orbán government.

On Palkovics’s watch entering college or university will be tougher than it is now. Perhaps the greatest hurdle will be the command of a foreign language on a fairly high level. Palkovics downplays this obstacle. In his opinion, “anyone who cannot pass an intermediate language exam after eight years of elementary school and four years of high school is just lazy.” But a few seconds later he indirectly admitted that he himself did not manage to learn a language in high school. As he said, he “learned three languages completely on [his] own as an adult without teacher or school.”

No free education, he said, should be provided for anyone who after graduation must be satisfied with a job that is beneath the level of his educational attainment. And he comes up with a telling joke: “What does an unemployed guy with a B.A. ask another fellow with a B.A.? –May I serve it with a bigger coke and a bigger potato?” Here he is targeting not allegedly unqualified students but fields of study. I take his statement to mean that no free education should be provided for anyone who wants to major in a field for which there are no readily available jobs. I assume he would argue that engineers can always be employed, art historians may end up flipping burgers. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is in, the arts and social sciences are by and large out.

While it seems that fewer Hungarian students will be admitted to university in the future, Palkovics is looking forward to an even bigger influx of foreign students which is, by the way, quite high right now: 7.5%. He wants to increase their number twofold “to fill the capacities” from which the Hungarian “inferior” students are barred.

I don’t know how you feel reading all this but I shudder. While according to a high school teacher in Pécs “the government wants to create talking robots” out of children between the ages of 14 and 18, Palkovics is designing a higher education system that will, I fear, produce what Hungarians call “professional barbarians” who have no background in the arts and social sciences and whose job will be to provide industry with mechanical drawings. And since Hungary doesn’t need an abundance of these barbarians, paying foreigner students will fill “the capacity.” A horrid world is opening up in front of our eyes. And yes, Palkovics is the perfect man to help further Viktor Orbán’s state where people produce things and think mighty few “unproductive” thoughts.

“European God” and other atrocities in a Hungarian textbook

While the MSZP bigwigs are trying to figure out what they did wrong in the past instead of attempting to come up with a strategy that might be useful in the future, let us turn to another topic: a new “experimental” literature textbook for grade 9 students. A sample page from this book was made available on Facebook, compliments of the Association of Hungarian Teachers. Hungarian teachers flocked to the site and were horrified. An outcry followed. The text disappeared from the Internet in no time.

Rózsa Hoffmann’s tenure in the Ministry of Human Resources is coming to an end. One newspaper announced, I suspect with a certain glee, “The Hoffmann Period Is Over.”  Unfortunately, by the very nature of her job, her influence on Hungarian education, especially now that the Orbán regime will have another four years, will cast a long shadow. It will take years, if not decades, before Hungarian public education will recover from Rózsa Hoffmann’s messianic zeal.

Zsolt Semjén, chairman of the Christian Democrats, described the departing education secretary as someone who fought like a “Berber lion.” Well, the Berber lion wrote a farewell letter in which she inflicted her final wound, making sure that the choice of textbooks will be seriously restricted from here on. Many popular textbooks will no longer be available and will be replaced by textbooks issued by two newly nationalized publishers. I read about one Budapest teacher who broke into tears when she heard that they are taking away her favorite textbook for third graders.

Let’s see what kinds of textbooks these Fidesz-Christian Democratic experts have in mind for Hungarian kids, in particular the experimental literature textbook for grade 9 students. (I would like to think that the Facebook post was just a belated April Fools joke, but I guess from the response that it wasn’t.) Thanks to social media it seems this experimental book will  never be published, but perhaps without Facebook it would have been. The page the Association of Hungarian Teachers picked dealt with Greek gods and mythology.

Before I begin to translate selected passages, let me point out that it is hard to believe that this book was written for fifteen-year-old students. It is so simple-minded, save for all the sexual references, that I think a ten-year-old would be offended by it. I should add that I find it difficult to write in such a primitive style as the original Hungarian, but I will try. As for the run-on sentences, they are like this in the original.

A 19th-century Hungarian writer once said that he would like to live in a country where people tell tales. Well, ancient Greece was such a country. The Greeks recognized that it is sexual desire that moves everything in life; so they called it Eros (Amor or Cupid in Rome); they realized that love is always young and that love rejuvenates the soul and therefore they showed Eros as a young child; they knew that no one can force anyone to love; they knew that love is illusive and came to the conclusion that a man in love is happy, his soul soars, therefore they told tales about Eros’s wings by which he can fly; they felt that love can be painful and that’s why they said that Eros had a bow and with it he wounds his victims.

They saw that there are many wars in the world, and they began telling tales about a god who is the god of war and they named him Ares, the Romans called him Mars, but they also saw that often there is war between lovers, they fight a lot, and they thought that love is a kind of war, therefore they told tales about Ares who fell in love with the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite (Venus). They saw that at dawn the sun arrives and at night it disappears and that’s why they told tales about a god that is the sun and named him Helios who drives his carriage across the sky every day. They saw that the moon comes up and they saw that the moon keeps changing; they saw that every 28 days something happens like what happens to girls and that’s why they thought that the moon is a woman and they called her Artemis (Diana).

They were surprised how clever a human being can be and told tales about the goddess of wisdom, Palas Athene (Minerva), and they felt that while man is clever, his body sometimes is not at all clever, as if on top man was clever, but lower down he is a stupid animal, so they spoke of beings existing in the forests who are goats lower down but men above and they called them satyrs who are running around in the forest at night chasing women (nőkre fáj a foguk); they thought that everything in the world comes from these gods and therefore they told tales about the chief god, Zeus, who falls in love with every beautiful woman and that the world is full of Zeus’s children…. The Greek men also had jealous wives and that is why they told tales that Zeus’s wife, Hera (Juno), was not taken with her husband’s debauchery and watched over the unity of the family with watchful eyes (árgus szemekkel); they thought that Hera was the goddess of familial unity.

gorog istenek

But that is not all. On another page we can read:

What is polytheism? Our European God is alone, unknowable, almighty Lord above us and above nature. The gods of the Greeks were entirely different: there were more of them because they were born from myths of  natural phenomena and became anthropomorphic creatures similar to men.

One cannot be terribly surprised that a blogger, László Szily, gave the following title to his post: “The moon menstruates every 28th day in Hoffmann’s textbook.” Or that 444.hu addressed the departing secretary as “Rózsa Hoffman, you European God.”

PISA 2012: No gold star for Hungarian education

For those of you who have heard only of the Pisa with its leaning tower, this PISA stands for Programme for International Student Assessment. It operates under the aegis of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Every three years tests are given to fifteen-year-old students across the globe in reading, mathematics, and science. The news is not good for Hungary and consequently for Rózsa Hoffmann, who is responsible for public education. Népszabadság couldn’t resist the temptation and ran the headline: “‘Here is Rózsa Hoffmann’s report card: Hungarian students’ results declined.”

Three years ago there was some excitement when the PISA results came out since Hungarian students improved considerably in reading. While in 2006 they scored 482, in 2009 they got 494. In math and science, however, there was no appreciable difference between 2006 and 2009.

Of course, when the PISA results came out in 2010 Rózsa Hoffmann deplored the dreadful damage that was done to Hungarian education under the ultra-liberal educational policies of Bálint Magyar and his socialist successor, István Hiller. At that time Hoffmann explained the improvement in reading scores by noting Hungarian teachers’ recognition that understanding written texts must continue through all twelve grades. She also noted that the quality differences between schools were still much greater than in most OECD countries and added that “it is very important to improve the material well being of families, without which the educational results will not get better.” I don’t think I have to remind readers of Hungarian Spectrum that living standards, especially for the poorer strata of society, have in fact dropped markedly since. Most of the families of those children who are having problems in school are poorer and more miserable than ever before.

Zoltán Pokorni, minister of education in the first Orbán government, decided to go further and claim that the 2009 results were due solely to his educational policies. After all, those fifteen-year-old teenagers who took the test began first grade in 2000!  Total nonsense, of course but I guess it was difficult to swallow that, after years of stagnation, the newly introduced educational reforms were slowly showing some results.

PISA2

The 2012 results are really bad. Hungarian children did worse in all three categories than three years earlier. In reading they dropped by 6 points, in math 13 points, and in science 9 points. By contrast, most of Hungary’s neighbors, with the notable exception of Slovakia, improved in all categories. Austria led the way (up 20 points in reading), and Czech students also showed great progress.

I have no idea what happened in the Slovak school system that may have caused such a steep decline, and I’m not sure how much the present Hungarian administration is responsible for the drop in the Hungarian performance. But the havoc that was wreaked in the field of education–the administrative chaos and constant changes in the curriculum–most likely had a negative effect on the quality of education in general. Also, studies I read on the subject claim that certain programs that were designed with a view to “competence development” were discontinued since Rózsa Hoffmann doesn’t believe in such newfangled ideas.

So, how did Hoffmann handle this situation? Her office placed an announcement on the  website of the Ministry of Human Resources stating that the 2012 PISA results “support the urgent necessity of the renewal of public education.” She naturally tried to minimize the positive changes in 2009, saying that reading skills “improved somewhat” then but in math and science there was no change. (Of course, one could say that at least there was no drop as is the situation now.)

And what is the reason for this bad performance according to Hoffmann? “The majority of the students who took the test began attending school in 2003: the worsening results are the critical consequences of the beginnings of their schooling.” Didn’t we hear that earlier? Of course, we did. Zoltán Pokorni proudly claimed in December 2010 that the good 2009 results were due to the beneficial educational policies of the Orbán government. After all, the students who took the test started grade one in 2000. As if the amount of knowledge at age of fifteen was solely determined by the first two years of school attendance. After the Orbán government lost the elections, in May 2002 Bálint Magyar (SZDSZ) took over the ministry of education. So, in fact, little Pisti or Marika spent only one school year under the watchful eye of Orbán’s ministry of education by then led by József Pálinkás, today president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Politicians can say the darndest things. Otherwise, in the rest of the announcement she dwells not so much on the 2012 results as on the 2009 ones, which she considers very poor. I might add that 2009 was the only year that Hungary was not under the OECD average.

Scores in reading, math, and science are important indicators of a country’s educational well being, but the percentage of functional illiterates is also a crucial consideration, especially since the European Union’s goal is to reduce their numbers significantly by 2020.  Functional illiteracy in this case means a score below a certain number. The desired percentage would be 15 in all three categories. Right now only four countries in Europe have reached this goal: Finland, Poland, the Netherlands, and Estonia. In Hungary functional illiterates grew by 2.1% in reading, 5.8% in math, and 3.9% in science between 2009 and 2012. Currently Hungary has a functional illiteracy rate of 19.7% in reading, 27.1% in math, and 18% in science. Among the Visegrád countries Poland is doing the best in this respect: in reading 10.6%, in math 14.4%, and in science 13.8%. The whole report can be read here.

Anyone who’s interested in comparisons between individual countries should visit OECD’s website. Countries that scored very poorly in Eastern Europe are Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia, but even those that did better, like Hungary, still underperformed globally. Hungarians who have such a low opinion of the educational attainment of American students may find it disturbing that American students actually did a little better in all categories than their Hungarian counterparts. Naturally, American commentators are unhappy. They consider the results disappointing and bemoan the fact that “the U.S. scores were below the average of other countries in all three subject areas.” Yes, and that’s where Hungary is as well. It is useless to deny the fact that Hungarian kids are undereducated and that undereducated kids become undereducated adults. The kind who can easily be duped by unscrupulous populist politicians like Viktor Orbán and his coterie.

New Hungarian “language strategies”

It’s time to talk again about one of my hobby horses, foreign language teaching in Hungary. Faithful readers of this blog will undoubtedly recall how often we talked about the shortcomings of the system. Everybody has horror stories about learning a foreign language in Hungary. Although there are some schools that excel in teaching foreign languages, most students leave grade 12 without a working knowledge of a foreign language.

The Ministry of Human Resources is planning to introduce new “language strategies.” These strategies, hatched by the two undersecretaries in charge of education, Rózsa Hoffmann and István Klinghammer, are not designed to improve language teaching. Instead, they are designed to make Hungary’s dismal statistics look better.

Let’s start with Rózsa Hoffmann. It was about two years ago that the former high school teacher of Russian and French kept insisting that not one but two foreign languages should be taught in the schools and that graduating seniors should take their official state examinations prior to entering college. If they didn’t get that piece of paper they wouldn’t be able to continue their education. At that point critics of Hoffmann, who were numerous, argued that foreign language teaching in the public schools is not up to the task of preparing students to pass the Hungarian statewide exams.

Hoffmann had other fanciful ideas as well. Perhaps inspired by Viktor Orbán, who regretted learning English first because it was “too easy,” she wanted to shift the current emphasis on English to German or French.

Now, in a seeming about-face, this woman is supporting a system under which trade schools will offer a foreign language two 45-minute periods a week, down from three hours a week. With 90 minutes of classes a week there’s no way the student will be able to pass even the lowest level of the statewide foreign language examination called B1. And let’s assume that this student is actually learning a trade connected to tourism where knowing foreign languages is a must. For these students Hoffmann came up with a new, lower-level A1 examination which, according to most experts, might be enough to ask where the train station is but not enough to understand the answer.

It seems that it would be relatively easy to pass this A1-type of exam which, I understand, is no longer offered in other countries of the European Union. Its introduction would certainly not help foreign language fluency in Hungary. But, as commentators point out, the introduction of such a low-level exam would give a boost to the current dismal statistics. A site that gives a sense of the situation in Europe can be found here. Hungarian statistics are bad even in comparison to other countries in the region. If Hoffmann managed to introduce a new lower-level exam, perhaps the statistics would improve somewhat.

It's a;; greek to me

The other problem occurs at the university level. As things stand now, one needs to pass a B2-type exam in order to receive a diploma. Between 20 and 22 percent of students who completed all other requirements for a degree cannot receive their diploma because they are unable to pass their foreign language exam. István Klinghammer, who is in charge of higher education, came up with a solution “to rationalize the irrational requirements.” His solution would increase the number of graduates by 15 to 18 percent. In his opinion there are certain fields that simply don’t require the knowledge of a foreign language. Well, that’s an easy fix.

Indeed, one way or another Hungary needs more university graduates. According to the educational strategy of the European Union, by 2020 the percentage of university graduates in the 30- to 34-year-old group should reach 40%. Currently, the EU average is 34.6%; Hungary’s is far behind at 21.1%. Considering that the number of students entering university has dropped considerably since the introduction of very high tuition fees, achieving the desired number of university graduates by 2020 is most unlikely. But getting rid of language requirements in certain fields would improve the statistics in one fell swoop.

Here again ideas on foreign language requirements have changed radically since 2011 when the ministry wanted to demand that university students pass not B2 but C1 (advanced) language examinations from 2016 on. The usual chaos.

The inability of college graduating classes to pass their language exams is acute in all but the best universities. Top Budapest universities fare well: at the Budapest Technological Institute only 4.5% of the students leave without a diploma; at the Corvinus University of Economics it’s 11%. But elsewhere in the capital the numbers are grim. At the University of Óbuda 35% of the students don’t pass their language exams. At the National Közszolgálati Egyetem, the brainchild of the Orbán government where army and police officers as well as future civil servants are supposed to be trained, 35.5% of the students cannot get their diplomas. In the provinces the situation is even worse. In Kaposvár 50% of the students end up without a diploma; in Nyíregyháza 45% don’t graduate.

The reaction to the lowering of standards was immediate. Both the Association of Schools Teaching Foreign Languages and the Association for Language Knowledge protested. The problem is, according to the spokesman of the Association for Language Knowledge, that students are not required to use foreign-language materials during the course of their studies. Moreover, how can the quality of Hungarian higher education improve if students are unable to read the latest academic publications that appear mostly in English and German? It is a vicious circle. The quality of universities is low in part because the teaching is based only on Hungarian-language material, and the language skills of the students are low because they are not required to keep practicing and improving.

And finally, a few words about the B1, B2 and C1 exams. I tried a couple of sample tests and found that a few of the answers I gave were wrong. I asked an American friend of mine to take a look at a “fill in the blank” exam. This highly educated native speaker said that the test was “a mess.” I do hope that we just happened on an exception, not the rule.

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.

Joint effort of the Hungarian state and the churches to keep some schools segregated

It was about a week ago that I wrote a post about “the growing influence of the Catholic Church in Hungary.” In that post I mentioned that both the Church itself and Catholic lay organizations had acquired schools in Hungary. For example, the Kolping International has taken over at least three schools.

No one knew at that time that a school acquired several months ago by Kolping International in Szászberek (pop. 987) would soon be the focus of a huge controversy as it expanded its “campus” to take over part of the segregated public school of nearby Jászladány.

Jászladány has been in the news off and on since 2000 when the “independent” mayor of the town (pop. 6,000) decided that the single eight-grade elementary school was not big enough for both Gypsy and non-Gypsy children. I might add that according to the official statistics 11% of Jászladány’s population is Roma. So came the ingenious plan of establishing a private school, to be housed in part of the enlarged school building, where students had to pay tuition. The bulk of the expenses, however, were covered by the municipality.  For example, the newer half of the school building was given free of charge to the private foundation that ran the school. The town also allowed the new school to use all of the equipment that had earlier belonged to the public school. There was a door between the two wings of the school building, but it was locked for six solid years.

Those children whose parents could afford the tuition fees went to the good school; the rest, like the Roma, went to the inferior school. The “private school” children received all sorts of privileges. For example, a free lunch regardless of need. They were the first ones to receive free textbooks; the children in the “Gypsy” school got them only once everybody was served in the “private school.” At one point the Open Society Institute offered to pay the fees for those children who wanted to attend the private school. The Institute was told that it had missed the deadline.

Erzsébet Mohácsi, director of CFCF and lawyer for CFCF, Lilla Farkas after the Supreme Court's favorable decision

Erzsébet Mohácsi, director of CFCF, and lawyer for CFCF, Lilla Farkas, after the Supreme Court’s favorable decision

The head of the local Roma organization is an energetic man who soon enough called the attention of Esélyt a Hátrányos Helyzetű Gyermekekért Alapítvány (Foundation for Equal Opportunity of Underprivileged Children), popularly known as CFCF, to the situation in Jászladány. For ten years CFCF fought against the barely disguised segregation in Jászladány, losing one case after the other, until June 2011 when at last the Supreme Court (today the Kúria) ruled in favor of CFCF and Jászsági Roma Polgárjogi Szervezet (JRPSZ), a Roma organization in the area. The court ordered the town to work out a plan to integrate the two schools.

The new mayor, Katalin Drávucz (Fidesz), whose own child attends the “private school,” ostensibly complied with the court order. She began negotiations with the plaintiffs’ representatives to work out the details of the integration of the two schools. But behind their back she also began negotiations with the county’s “government office,” a newfangled institution that is supposed to be the arm of the central government in every county. Her real goal was to avoid the integration of the school in Jászladány.

They came up with a splendid solution: they decided to pass the private school over to Kolping International, which functions under the authority of the Archbishopric of Eger. The idea was to automatically transfer the pupils of the “private school” to the new Kolping Katolikus Általános Iskola. Although negotiations between the town and the “government office” began more than a year ago, the deal materialized only on August 30. Since Szászberek is only 10 km from Jászladány, the deal stipulated that the Szászberek Kolping school will simply “expand” and take over the former “private school” of Jászladány.

This new-old school will not charge tuition, but the Roma parents were not notified of this rather important change. By the time, practically on the day that school opened, the CFCF learned about it, it was far too late. They managed to get in touch with about twenty families, and a handful of children enrolled. The new Catholic school has no more places. As the spokesman for Kolping International said, their first obligation is to the children of the “private school.” Segregation remains intact in Jászladány. With the active participation of the Catholic Church.

And now let’s move back in time to the first months of the Orbán administration. Zoltán Balog, a Protestant minister and now the head of the mega-Ministry of Human Resources, was in charge of Roma integration in the Ministry of Administration and Justice. He often expounded on the plight of the Gypsies and promised all sorts of remedies. These remedies did not, however, include school integration. In his opinion, segregation works to the advantage of the underprivileged, most of whom are Roma. They need special attention to catch up with the other students. Of course, we know that this is a myth. Just as the U.S. Supreme Court declared when rendering its historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education, “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” And, indeed, the special classes into which Roma children were herded in the past almost guaranteed failure. Balog, however, remains unrepentant. Only recently he repeated this mistaken notion when he sided with the Greek Catholic Church in a suit brought against it by the same CFCF that handled the Jászladány case.

What happened in this instance? In Nyíregyháza there was a school in a largely Roma inhabited section of town that was closed in 2007 because of its blatant segregation. In 2011, however, the new Fidesz administration in town reopened the school and it was given to the Greek Catholic Church. CFCF pointed out that only a couple of bus stops from this segregated school there was another school that is also run by the same Greek Catholic Church. It is a newly refurbished modern school. The Roma children could certainly attend that school. Balog offered himself as a witness on behalf of the Greek Catholic Church which refused to close the segregated school and refused to integrate the Roma children into their modern facilities.

There is more and more criticism of the churches lately because they seem singularly insensitive to social issues. Criticism of the Hungarian Catholic Church has grown especially harsh since the installation of Pope Francis, who has been a spokesperson for the downtrodden. Critics complain about the extreme conservatism of the Catholic hierarchy and point out that their involvement with charity work is minimal. It is quite clear from these two cases that the churches are reluctant to deal with disadvantaged children, Roma or not. And the good minister, Zoltán Balog, advocates keeping the disadvantaged separate from “mainstream” Hungarian children. The state and the churches are working hand in hand to keep segregation alive in the Hungarian public school system.