Social Education 57(6), 1993, pp. 280-281
1993 National Council for the Social Studies

Hungary: A Nation in Transition

Jack Susskind
GODOLLO, HUNGARY-June 1, 1992-Since the late 1980s, Eastern and Central European countries have been undergoing significant transformations apparent in every sphere of society. The transition period has been difficult for many, and it is still too early to predict the directions in which it might lead. In Czechoslovakia, events have brought division; in Yugoslavia, smoldering rivalries and animosities have resulted in the virtual destruction of a nation born only after World War I. Hungary's transformations hold some promise of healing among squabbling factions and a strengthened nation.
Hungary is a relatively small and homogeneous country. With a land area and population about the size of Pennsylvania, Hungary prides itself on the industriousness of its people. Outside of Budapest, the country's capital and main city, most people have gardens and raise their own food. Most people also hold two or three jobs. Many teachers offer lessons after school hours. Hungary is a relatively poor country, with incomes about one-tenth of those in the United States. Still, the transition in Hungary has had many powerful effects on society.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Hungary lost its largest trading partner, which caused a dislocation in industrial production and an increase in unemployment while inflation has eroded the value of the forint (Hungary's currency). During 1991 and 1992, for example, the price of public transport increased by 35 percent. The uncertainty raised by these economic concerns has propelled Hungary to look toward the European Community, the United States, and Japan for economic ties.

Connections with Western nations have been forthcoming, although not always with mutually beneficial results- and certainly not without difficulties. Investments and joint ventures have been arranged with the United States as well as Japan and EC member states. For example, General Electric bought the Hungarian light bulb manufacturer Tungsram and Budapest now has its first Pizza Hut opened by an American.

Suzuki Motors plans to open a $200 million plant to produce vehicles in Hungary. Restraints on getting small loans, however, make it difficult to start a small business. Despite these drawbacks, the climate for economic change is improving rapidly.

Changes in the development of the economy are parallel to the political transformation. With the ouster of the Communist party in 1989, the people elected a multiparty government-the prime minister comes from one party and the president comes from another. With the Communists in eclipse, the legislature is made up of represenatives from several parties. The coalition government treads warily through a thicket of sticky problems: Should former Communists be punished? How should the large industries be privatized? How will the country dispose of properties confiscated by the Communists? The present government has handled these questions in a responsible and democratic fashion. As Friedrich Kuebart (1992, 271), a senior research associate at Ruhr University, notes, "national values and traditions play a major role in overcoming the heritage of several decades of Soviet political hegemony."

Some social changes have sparked little controversy. Street names honoring Soviet heroes have reverted to traditional Hungarian names. Monuments to the Soviet liberators have been obliterated. The government has reinstituted national holidays honoring the heroes of the 1848 Revolution such as Sandor Petofi. People now practice their religions openly. Couples may now hold wedding ceremonies in churches.

These social and political changes have also affected education and schooling. The government has taken initial steps toward removing centralized ideological control (Belousov 1992). As a case in point, the curriculum guide for geography (Ministry of Culture and Education 1986, 3-4), states that "geography teaching at secondary level is to offer various forms of assistance in forming the Marxist-Leninist world view of the students. Through its nature [geography] is to play a leading role in educating students for socialist patriotism, proletarian internationalism and thus serving military training as well." Teachers no longer follow this curriculum guide.

Although some administrators and teachers have been members of the Communist party, I have observed little of this ideology in Hungarian schools today. In fact, religious groups are reclaiming their church properties and beginning to open schools.

The growth of new types of schools, private and nonpublic, portends the demise of the state monopoly. Additional schools with different characteristics will promote flexibility in curriculum and teaching approaches. Other school plans are under discussion. One is for an eight-year gymnasium (an upper level academic school) that will parallel the reformed comprehensive school. Students will be selected at the end of the 4th grade. Another alternative under consideration is a system consisting of six years of primary education followed by a six-year gymnasium (Kuebart 1992, 270).

In addition to an increasingly diverse and pliable system attuned to localities, other avenues to the decentralization of curricular decision making have been proposed. Schools may be granted a larger voice in curricular matters. For now, however, the Ministry of Culture and Education has taken a "go-slow" attitude. A national core curriculum and "a system of standardized national examinations to be taken at the completion of 6 and 8 years of schooling, in every type of school, along with a final examination to be administered following the end of the upper secondary level, is aimed at guaranteeing national standards" (Kuebart 1992, 271). Hungarians are keen to emphasize their relationship to the West, especially to Europe.

Hungarians want to gain admission to the European Community. The study of Russian, once a compulsory language for students, is now optional. In its place have come English, German, and French. Currently, eight bilingual (English-Hungarian) schools exist in Hungary. At these secondary schools, students may choose to take all their subjects in English, giving them an advantage in seeking careers with international business firms. Generally, school curricula have reduced or eliminated vocational elements such as polytechnical or labor education (Kuebart 1992, 271). These curricular changes have been accompanied by a growth of teachers' freedom in the classroom.

As a Fulbright exchange teacher at a bilingual secondary school, I had ample opportunity to visit my colleagues' classrooms and to discuss teaching with them. They were a helpful, friendly, and congenial lot. Students at my school were, generally speaking, courteous, bright, disciplined, and hard working. The well-equipped school was built in 1986; the library, however, did not offer many English-language materials. I was able to supplement the collection with the one thousand U.S. dollars I received to buy materials under the Books for Democracy program.

My weekly teaching assignment consisted of four hours of geography and twelve hours of English. Prior to embarking for Hungary, I read the two-volume geography text approved and printed by the Hungarian government. When I arrived in Hungary, I discovered that the geography course was to consist of physical geography in favor of the previously taught economic, political, and social geography. This change was obviously necessary because the texts reflected the Communist ideology. So, I taught a physical geography course and tried to eliminate the ideologically biased cultural aspects. Course content included material on maps, lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and geographical zones. To teach this content, I used the text provided by the government, globes, maps, models of the earth, and satellite photographs. Methods of classroom presentation encompassed lecture, student presentations, worksheets, field trips, videos, map work using compasses, and debates. I used both oral and written evaluation of student performance. I required students to recite at least once per week. All instruction was in English (Bonstingl 1991). My year abroad as a Fulbright exchange teacher stimulated me to think about how a nation responds to the broad changes taking place in the world.

As Hungary struggles with the basic problems of government, economy, and society, individuals are searching for new directions in a time of transition.

Belousov, Boris. "The Status of Geography and the Social Sciences in Schools of the USSR." Social Education 56 (February 1992): 112-17.Bonstingl, John Jay. "Hungary's Young People Consider America's Bill of Rights." Social Studies 82 (November/ December 1991): 214.Kuebart, Friedrich. "Eastern Europe." Comparative Education Review 36 (May 1992): 270-71.Ministry of Culture and Education. Curricula for Academic Secondary Schools: Geography. Budapest, Hungary: Ministry of Culture and Education, 1986.Jack Susskind teaches social studies education at Pennsylvania State University in Middletown, Pennsylvania 17057-4898.