There is growing opposition in Hungary to the government’s modified national curriculum, which aims to instil a spirit of national pride in school pupils.
Critics – including many schools and teachers’ organisations – draw parallels with the Communist period, when the governing party imposed its own ideology.
Szilard Demeter is a key figure in Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s “culture war” on liberalism.
He is studying a big, dark cloth-bound volume when I enter his office at the Petöfi Literary Museum in Budapest – a book of essays celebrating the 80th birthday of the national conservative playwright, Ferenc Herczeg, in 1943.
The handwritten dedication at the front is from Hungary’s nationalist wartime leader, Miklos Horthy, who led Hungary into an alliance with Nazi Germany.
Admiral Horthy wrote: “I give thanks to the Almighty that he gave Ferenc Herczeg to our nation, and preserved him in all his creative power.”
Herczeg, alongside other nationalist-minded authors from the 1930s, has just been made compulsory reading in the new national curriculum, to be taught from September.
Mr Demeter says he was not consulted on the curriculum, but broadly approves of it.
“We must be able to hand our heritage on to future generations. If we have a clear idea of what we mean by family, work, respect, love of the homeland, then we’re duty-bound to transmit that. That’s what public education is about.”
The same point is made, less poetically, by government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs.
“There’s no such thing as a neutral education. Educational systems are about values… about teaching what we think are the values of Hungarian society. And among the values we very much adore are those heroes who helped us survive the centuries behind us.”
We are the Hungarians: with one thousand years of Christian statehood, monumental cultural achievements
The teaching of history and literature are at the epicentre of the dispute.
Rival online petitions have been launched, for and against the new curriculum. Currently opponents are narrowly ahead, with 24,011 signatures against, while 23,010 are in favour.
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At the Politechnikum Alternative Secondary School, in Budapest’s 9th district, I visited a history class for 17-year-olds. It began with a quiz about the early Middle Ages in Hungary. Twenty students competed enthusiastically to answer rapid-fire questions on their mobile phones.
“What I’m missing most in the new curriculum is critical thinking,” teacher Erika Erdei told me, in a break. “The students are told ‘believe the teacher’, instead of encouraging them to question and think for themselves.”
One of her colleagues, Kata Szasz, pointed to another problem.
“Only Hungarian history will be taught in a continuous form – global history only in a fragmentary way, insofar as it affected Hungary.”
In his office near the National Museum, the President of the Association of Hungarian History Teachers, Laszlo Miklosi, is one of those organising resistance to the new curriculum.
“Those who wrote this curriculum, and no doubt also those who commissioned it from them, set out to praise the glorious past… they want us to re-touch the past, to make it better than it was. That is a distortion of history.”
He is particularly offended by the suggestion that victorious battles should be emphasised, while defeats are downplayed.
“Is it not possible to learn just as much from defeat?” he asks, wistfully.
Opponents argue that the modifications should be withdrawn immediately, because they “damage national unity and culture, students and teachers, and poison public thinking”.
Supporters are asked to back the new curriculum simply because “children must be brought up to love their country”.
In a state-of-the-nation speech on 16 February, Prime Minister Orban put national pride centre-stage.
“The key to upward progress is the restoration of national self-esteem. So, in 2010 we set ourselves the goal of proving to ourselves – and, of course, to the world – that we are still somebody, and not the people we seemed to be, anxiously cowering as we pleaded for IMF loans and EU money.
“The programme was simple. It was to reveal who we really are, to show that we are the Hungarians: with one thousand years of Christian statehood, monumental cultural achievements, a dozen Nobel prizes, 177 Olympic gold medals, a sublimely beautiful capital city, superb technical and IT professionals, and a rural Hungary blessed with agrarian genius.”