Transforming Education in Hungary

Cathy Kaufman

James Barth's parting comment in the lobby of the Nairobi
Intercontinental, as our group left the 1994 NCSS International Conference to head for Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge, was: "Remember the guide, be sure to get that guide. Without interpretation, it's just a pile of rocks." This advocacy for informed interpretation struck me as more than simple advice to tourists.
As we jarred and jolted our way along Tanzanian roads, my mind replayed a message recurrent throughout the seminars in Nairobi. It was the toll being paid by nations whose educational infrastructure had depended for years on funding from Moscow. My conversations with African teachers merged with still vivid memories of conversations I had two years earlier with Hungarian parents and educators while researching post-Soviet educational changes.

Without interpretation, information about emerging or revitalized democracies would-like the Olduvai gorge-hold only limited significance. East Central Europe, historically and politically, would remain a cipher, and complex understandings about representative government and repressive domination would be as inaccessible for this generation of American students as they were for their teachers educated during the Cold War.

Historians contend that there were many potential "turning points" in modern East European history where circumstances actually failed to turn. The autumn of 1989 was not one of them. The Hungarian action in breaking ties with Moscow and opening Hungary's borders to Austria was the spark that ignited real and significant political change in this entire region. Few inside or outside of this controlled system, however, would have predicted the magnitude of change that, in less than two years, led to the disintegration of the former Soviet Union.

The simultaneous political, economic, and educational transformation being experienced by nations formerly under Soviet domination presents important issues for social studies educators. Sustaining democracy has always depended upon people's attitudes and commitment to an ideal. A crucial determinant in democracy's success is the quality of the educational system.

This article offers some observations about the current transformation of education in Hungary. It uses firsthand accounts by parents and educators to probe the relationship between older and newer civic identities of Hungary's citizens. The difficulties inherent in sorting through old power relationships and sustaining new democratic freedoms are evident in the comments of participants involved in the actual process of social change.

Some Perspectives on Education
The overriding concern of Hungarian parents in this period of post-Soviet domination is for their children to find employment in a time of difficult economic conditions. Parents in Hungary, as elsewhere, see the schools as crucial in preparing students for work in the new economy. But many Hungarian parents express concern about the ability of teachers to provide this training. They say that the qualifications, personality, and emotional outlook of many teachers reflect the authoritative Soviet model-which they believe intentionally produced educators of poor quality. Comments by parents included:
The old system reproduced itself to the point of ruination. It is terrible to think that our young people full of energy and hope for the future will be disillusioned by improper training or lack of enough jobs.
When my son was in school, it was a terrible, terrible place. The people who were teachers had no ability to teach others. They were the poorest students themselves. To become a teacher is a low job. You do not need to be knowledgeable.
At the same time, parents do express faith in the possibility of change. Many see teachers as the pivotal force for change, and contend that raising the pay of high caliber teachers will increase the quality of education for all students.

If the teacher does not enjoy the task, there is no hope, no hope. Our children need teachers who teach to solve problems. They (the students) know only memorized text. They cannot decide anything for themselves. We must have teachers who can bring change.
As in America, dissatisfaction about school frequently arises over issues of equity. Private educational programs, which claim to give students an edge in the new competitive market and are the most successful, are also the most costly. Some parents accuse others of using their new voting power to change education in "negative and hurtful ways," saying, for example, "We know the past system was miserable, but at least we were equal in our misery." Others suggest that poorer citizens now express resentment and vote against further reform because they are "bitter and envious that not all can get advanced equally."

For some Hungarian parents, the greatest benefit of educational change is choice in schooling. Wealthier parents already have hired private teachers who promise new instructional methodologies for students. Somewhat less affluent citizens have taken it upon themselves to pool their resources and hire a private neighborhood tutor for a group of students.

Teachers at all levels claim that educational reforms under socialism never
resulted in improved schooling. They describe changes during their own teaching careers as always designed to lower costs, and never to improve the quality of teaching, school buildings, or curricular materials. Change was never the goal under the Soviet system. Reforms were tactics designed to effect stability. Seeing the process of reform as a force intended to effect change, therefore, initially involves a new way of thinking.
Teachers have traditionally viewed school reform as manipulation, and consequently developed and perfected their own strategies to "beat the system" over the past four decades. Some teachers describe day-to-day decision making as still heavily based on personal relationships stemming from the Soviet concept of blat, which means trusting only those who have proven themselves on the basis of personal favors.

Typically, teachers dealt with educational reforms by covert rejection. Their well-practiced strategies for "getting through the little cracks" were grounded in their experience that-with so much cumbersome bureaucratic control and in spite of a multitude of rules and regulations-it was relatively easy to do as one pleased so long as surface appearances were maintained. "At the top they never know what really happens," was one view expressed.

Some teachers describe their current freedom to make changes as frustrating as well as liberating. While escaping the strict regulation of the Communist party, they seem to experience their new professional identity as an unsettling combination of inhibition and opportunity.

How can we help students find their way? We need to find our own way first. Reform has taken away all that gives direction. We do not even know all the new names of streets in our town. [They were formerly named for Soviet military and political leaders.] Every part of life is so confusing. How can we help students find their way?
In their current relationship with the schools, Hungarian teachers often feel trapped between national policies and local community actions. Teachers contend that policy makers and parents are sending contradictory messages. They hear their own roles described as central or instrumental, yet they feel left out of planning for change.

While they [parents] say that the schools must serve as a training ground for democracy, they want to dictate what our job will be. How can we lead? We are being smothered. There is no path open. We are encouraged to expand our teaching methods. How? How? New possibilities? No. Empty possibilities.
A recurring challenge is minority education. Teachers I spoke with described a daily worsening "immigrant problem," with some teachers expressing bitterness concerning Rumanian gypsies. Romani (gypsy) children frequently do not go to school beyond the primary grades, so that teachers at higher levels have little contact with these students.

Hungarian teachers at the secondary (gymnasium) level demonstrate more positive reactions to school and societal changes. Some say they use current news as their best resource. Although they typically describe their teaching as lecture oriented, many see an important new role in acting as economic and political interpreters for their students.

We must use what we know, what we read. It is better to lecture this way. There is now a possibility to influence the inside and the outside. Before, we could have no say in the classroom or outside. Now we can bring them together in our teaching. This is to me the greatest educational reform not only of the last two years but of my life.
University teachers express two major concerns in restructuring efforts: the retraining of teachers, and the necessity for training a new generation prepared to make decisions. Some Hungarian professors see their nation as an agent of change for the entire former Soviet Eastern bloc. They emphasize the links between redefining the educational system and economic modernization. As one stated:

Traditional reform is not the answer. The only reform that stands a chance is one that will aid in overcoming economic crisis. Any new educational policy must help reform the economy. Students may need both more education and a different education.
In educational decisions, one must distinguish how we feel politically and how we feel economically. Sixty-five new political parties formed last year. We need only one hundred signatures to form a new party. Therefore, there is a great shortage of knowledge about what distinguishes these parties from each other. It is hard for teachers to keep informed. It is hard to discuss in an informed manner these issues with our students, although we feel great freedom now to do so.

The political problem at present is one of too many voices. But this is just a necessary aftermath of repression. Soon we will consolidate. We have no severe political problems. It is not so for the economy. This is what makes for trouble. This is what accounts for so many political approaches. Once we deal with the economy, politics will be less confusing.

A similar view was expressed by a teacher in what we could call an early childhood setting:

You cannot even have someone paint your flat without having to listen to their political bombardments constantly. Hungary has too many opinions right now. There is such anger, such terrible anger people direct at each other if they sense their view is not being accepted.
Civic attitudes in Hungary today are clearly marked by lack of democratic experience, surfacing resentments, and residual fears. But Hungarians also exhibit a stubborn pride in their new freedom, and a consciousness of their historic role in the transformation to democracy. In the words of the same early childhood teacher:

...we must be allowed to practice. The anger, the stomping, the fighting is all psychologically understandable. We must work a way through our new freedoms much like a child.

This narrative analysis has aimed at providing one lens through which American social studies educators-and their students-can examine how citizens of an emerging democracy are attempting to restructure the boundaries of both their own identities and the governing structures of which they are a part. Knowledge of the hopes and fears, pride and frustration, expressed by Hungarian parents and educators today will hopefully serve to strengthen the understanding and sense of empathy that sustain our own democratic traditions.

Cathy Kaufman teaches in the Administration and Leadership Program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her work in international development education seeks to help educators and policymakers delineate the impediments to change as schools in emerging democracies move toward more democratic schooling practices.