While the new Hungarian curriculum was widely criticised nationally and internationally, its approach is nothing new in a region of heterogenous societies with post-communist education legacies.
Following the introduction of the new national curriculum (also called NAT) in Hungary, the uproar from multiple segments of society followed. Non-governmental and professional organisations, as well as opposition parties, criticised certain aspects of the new curriculum.
The curriculum’s explicit goal concerning the “transmission of national culture” via history as well as literature came under heavy fire. The government was accused of “revisionism”, introducing “pro-Nazi writers” into the canon, as well as distorting history in order to present Hungarians in a positive light.
Additionally, the structure, the quantity, and the style of the introduction were conceived as being “backwards”. Pro-government voices responded by claiming that the curriculum is “child-centred and patriotic”, while it decreases the burden on students and providing them with the knowledge that makes them competitive in the job market.
The wider education policy of the government also drew criticism from a number of analysts, who talked about the “militarisation” of the Hungarian education system, while another commentator, Péter Radó, said that he felt like schools are “already more like military barracks than institutions for teaching and learning.”
With the debate about the national curriculum unlikely to be settled soon, a regional and historical perspective offers some useful context to understand the new NAT.
Poland, another country that is frequently mentioned in tandem with Hungary, received shockingly similar criticisms regarding its own reform of the education system, put forward by the Law and Justice (PiS) government.
In 2017, Poland introduced drastic changes in the structure of education, replacing the former multi-level system with a rather monolithic version of eight years of elementary school followed by four years of secondary school.
Not unlike education reforms under the Orbán government, the reforms were partly criticised for their content and partly for their seemingly rash implementation. The 2017 reforms also displayed centralising tendencies, introducing a uniform structure as well as a centrally constructed curriculum, even though the new regulations did not introduce limitations on the number of available textbooks, as it happened in Hungary.
Additionally, the Polish education system was condemned for advocating for a revival of “patriotism by means of a more position re-reading of historical events.” Criticism of the reform touched on similar points to that of the Hungarian changes: ideological, centralised, and backwards. A study based on qualitative research by experts from the SWPS University of Social Sciences and the University of Warsaw also shows that teachers in Poland predominantly appear to understand the role of teaching history through “the prism of nationalist”, and history education as a “nationalising tool”.
The two most important shared characteristics of these reforms can be summarised in two words: patriotism and centralisation.
While (mostly) drawing criticism from educated, liberal, international elites, both of these characteristics can appeal to those on whose votes Fidesz and PiS mostly rely on: rural, lower-income families, who perceive to be ‘left behind’ by the regime change and the neoliberalism pursued under left-wing governments.
Right-wing governments successfully appeal to this portion of the electorate through highlighting the ‘equality’ that these new structures supposedly provide as well as offering ‘patriotic’ education as an antidote for the four-decades-long repetition of Marxist-Leninist dogma. Therefore, these reforms are neither surprising nor out-of-character for the current governments of Poland and Hungary.
Utilising education in order to induce a sense of patriotism, or national belonging is also not unique to these two countries. In 2010, Slovak lawmakers passed a law which would’ve required schools to play the Slovak national anthem every Monday. The law was eventually vetoed by President Ivan Gašparovič.
More recently, in 2018, Ukraine announced to launch a National Patriotic Education Programme, which, true to its name, is aimed at implementing a “national-patriotic education programme in Ukrainian universities.”
Similarly, the Romanian history curriculum is also favouring a ‘patriotic’ narrative, and while making progress towards a more inclusive approach, a recent study argued that these issues make one question “whether Romania is prepared to enter the EU education-wise.”
These states all have large (autochthonous) minorities and consecutive governments were not afraid to utilise education to foster a stronger sense of belonging to the majority nation, displaying a sort of paranoia about the potential autonomy or even secession of these minorities.
While Poland and Hungary are not responding to the same issues with their own ‘patriotic’ education, these examples reveal how these post-socialist states perceive education as a tool for a sort of national renaissance.
The spirit of these educational reforms indicates that escaping the mindset of communist-era education policy takes longer than just changing the political regime, therefore these changes are better understood in the regional context.
However, it might be important to keep in mind that the Communist education system was second to none in centralisation and ideologisation, and yet, it could not prevent the regime’s collapse.