Deplore Hungary’s leader, but spare its students and scholars

The country’s learners and academics are more thoughtful, engaged and generous than their UK counterparts, says Sam Gilchrist Hall

September 22, 2016
Mitch Blunt illustration (22 September 2016)
Source: Mitch Blunt

Last week, Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, called for Hungary to be suspended from the European Union, primarily over its treatment of refugees.

This reminded me of a comment made this time last year by a senior British academic in response to an invitation to co-organise some events in Hungary marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. “I – or any one from our research group – would have to think very hard about coming to Hungary,” he wrote.

His view was not unique: other members of the group opined that Hungary’s reaction to the migrant crisis marked it out as “quasi-fascist”, a “police state” and even “genocidal”. While I have no interest in defending Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s bizarre acts of isolationism, I do question whether perceived prejudice should be answered by more prejudice. It is no less absurd to treat all Hungarians as if they were bigots than it is to suggest that all Muslims are zealots or scroungers.

My experience of teaching English in Hungary for the past two years has given me much to admire. Top of the list are the students, whose respect for teachers’ expertise and humanity is a breath of fresh air. In the UK, I have had students demand essay feedback two weeks early because they were going on a skiing holiday – and then lodge an official complaint when I refused (my explanation that I was on a zero-hours contract and lived 150 miles away fell on deaf ears). In Hungary, every member of my classes has thanked me personally at the end of every lesson. More gratifying still has been their habit of challenging my arguments.

Of course, obnoxious students are part of the job. But it is harder to tolerate downright incurious and lazy ones. The work ethic of the majority I have taught in the UK was abysmal. I used to have to give feedback about basic punctuation to BA English students at a major university. Yet still, at the end of a 12-week course, many remained functionally illiterate. In Hungary, high school students I have taught at Budapest’s Central Library have managed to conceive of research questions independently, write essays of 2,000 words and pen spirited reinterpretations and polemics inspired by King Lear – all in their second or third language.

One student, Hanna Sárdi, wrote a poem vividly evoking what the blinded Gloucester feels in King Lear before he attempts suicide:

O you mighty gods, this world I do renounce.

Call me weary, not a coward, if I must be announced.

And like pinching your nose makes the sneeze go away,

I shrug off the worry for the embrace of the bay.

Only an illusion of power can cast

A spell so wicked, a falling so fast.

This is not bad for an 18-year-old writing in her second language, and its high quality was not unusual.

Another thing that has impressed me about Hungarian education is the level of political engagement. Teachers and lecturers are appallingly paid, and have to cope both with unbelievable bureaucracy (such as recording how many board markers they use annually) and governmental interference in curricula that prioritise rote learning over critical thinking and creativity.

It was in this climate of professional frustration that schoolteachers’ so-called Checked Shirt Revolution began earlier this year: a series of mass demonstrations sparked by the former education sectary István Klinghammer’s comment that teachers were “dishevelled and unshaven types in checked shirts”. Contributing to a training programme for Hungarian teachers of Shakespeare, I was astonished both by the fact that everyone I spoke to was involved with the revolution and by the bitterly satirical humour of the skits they produced at the end of the training session. An especially memorable one cast Klinghammer as Kling Lear, distributing resources for schools on the grounds of how much his reactionary reforms were praised.

While I have no experience of industrial action in UK schools, I have attended a demonstration organised by the University and College Union against the appointment by a college principal of an unelected steering committee. It was a rather pitiful sight: five or six scholars politely handing out shabby pamphlets. And all the talk I heard about strikes and marking boycotts over pay never seemed to result in much action.

But perhaps the most significant contrast between Hungary and the UK is the attitude of senior academics towards early career researchers. Owing in part to the Shakespeare celebrations, I have given paid lectures and seminars across Hungary this year. Invariably, I am introduced to the head of department and other senior academics, all of whom attend and contribute to my presentation. This would never happen in the UK.

When I was part of a British Shakespeare research group, I was expected to travel from my home in Exeter to deliver a conference paper in London and remain until late evening. But while senior academics were regularly flown in from abroad, there were no funds to even pay for my lunch, let alone travel or accommodation, despite the fact that I had just finished my PhD and was unemployed.

So let’s learn to criticise the faults and hypocrisies of our own system before we assume moral superiority over other countries we know little about. Even before the EU referendum, if a Hungarian student had asked me whether I would recommend humanities study in the UK, I would have suggested they think long and hard.

Sam Gilchrist Hall is a lektor at the University of Pannonia in Veszprém, Hungary. His first monograph, Shakespeare’s Folly: Philosophy, Humanism, Critical Theory, was published in July.

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Print headline: See what thou dost not

Reader's comments (1)

I have always known that apparently some British academics are ready to bandy about terms like quasi-fascist. But genocidal? Humpty Dumptian semantics: words mean what I want them to mean?

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