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New Hungarian National Curriculum causes controversy

Budapest, Hungary – A decrease in the number of compulsory lessons a week from 35 to 34 in years 9-12, the merger of formerly separate science subjects into one, and the introduction of new authors to the literary canon are included in the plans for the new National Curriculum, published by the Hungarian government last week.

The new plans were received with widespread criticism. Due to the government’s intent to give the curriculum a more “national character,” it is no surprise that the treatment of Hungarian Language and Literature, and History proved the most controversial. History teacher Balázs Bárány even labelled the curriculum “the nuclear bomb of the right-wing kulturkampf” in an opinion piece for online paper, Azonnali.

The issue that produced the loudest backlash was the introduction of an Albert Wass novel to the literary canon for high schoolers. Wass is known for having published a number of anti-semitic works and was accused of being responsible for the killing of Romanian peasants and 11 Jews during the Second World War.

Defenders of his inclusion, including Zoltán Pokorni, mayor of Budapest’s twelfth district, argued that studying the works of controversial writers, such as Albert Wass or József Nyírő will allow students to discuss and debate whether the deeds of an artist can be separated from the quality of the literary works they created.

Naturally, the “culture wars” did not go past the field of History either. For instance, when students will be taught about the Trianon treaty, the pact that resulted in Hungary losing ⅔ of its territory, they will have to refer to it as a “dictate” instead of a treaty. The battles that Hungarians lost in the Árpád-era, before the Hungarian kingdom was formed, disappeared from the curriculum alongside the 13th-century Tatar-attacks when Hungary saw destruction and plunder on an unprecedented scale. The rise of Islam will also be taken out of primary and secondary school classrooms in the new curriculum.

The issue that produced the loudest backlash was the introduction of an Albert Wass novel to the literary canon for high schoolers.

But there are other criticisms raised, unrelated to the culture wars. “The introduction of the right-wing canon is not the main issue”- a retired teacher, who used to teach Literature in one of Hungary’s top schools told Kafkadesk.  “The big problem is that whereas the number of Literature and Language classes decreased from 4 to 3, the material students need to learn, actually grew. The curriculum now will require the detailed teaching of ten high-profile literary careers, leaving less time for critical thinking and debate. In terms of teaching and learning methods, this takes us back around 50 years.”

Even The National Circle of Educators, a group set up by the government, share this criticism. Péter Horváth, the president of the institution told that “with a few exceptions, the new curriculum fails to introduce the much-needed reduction of workload that would have allowed for active learning-based teaching.”

One of the changes that are considered positive universally, is the introduction of local history in each school. There will be history lessons focusing exclusively on local history and all schools will be able to develop their local history curriculum. However, critics say that despite the attempt to give more power to schools in the creation of their local curriculum, the National Curriculum still predominantly favours elite high schools in Budapest as only they have the resources to introduce the new reforms as quickly as they are currently required.

How significantly these changes will be felt in classrooms is unknown. It is a widely held belief that teachers can and do differ from the official curriculum in the classroom as long as they claim to follow it in their official registries and lesson-plans. However, many of these changes, especially the newly canonised works of literature will likely be featured on the students’ centralised final examination (called Érettségi in Hungary) at the end of their final year. If students want to do well in those exams to get into further education, the materials introduced in the new National Curriculum will be impossible to avoid.

By Ábel Bede

Ábel Bede was born in Budapest and is currently studying History at Durham University. He wrote his dissertation on early 20th century Hungarian politics and culture and published several pieces in prominent Hungarian newspapers. Feel free to check out more of his articles right here!

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