Written by Ksenia Northmore-Ball.
Whoever, in a given society, controls the content of school textbooks is in the highly privileged position of shaping how the next generation of citizens views the world. As the American Pulitzer-winning journalist and historian, Frances FitzGerald has said, school textbooks “tell children what their elders want them to know.” School textbooks take a special position in that they command unquestioning authority. The younger the school children reading the books, the less equipped they are to question the content – in other words, school children are the ideal captive and impressionable audience. Any ambitious political leader, movement, or regime with a strong guiding world view will ultimately desire to influence and control the education system, particularly the content of school textbooks. In a liberal democracy, one hopes that a plurality of social and political actors can influence this content.
It would seem Hungary’s Orbán and his Fidesz government is no exception to these ambitions. Over the past few years, the Fidesz government has seized the opportunity offered by the country’s struggling education system to centralize control of education and to re-write school textbooks to reflect the government’s nationalist and illiberal conservative views. While Orbán’s government may not quite fit (at least not yet) in the category of full-blown authoritarian regime, the steps that his government is taking is a highly illustrative ‘textbook’ case of gradual regime takeover of the education system.
Firstly, any political movement or regime that wants to control the views taught by the education system, needs exclusive control. This can only be achieved through the centralization of the education system. Until recently the Hungarian school system had been run by highly indebted local authorities. The education system has also been plagued by a teacher shortage as fewer people are interested in the teaching profession. Orbán’s government has not wasted this opportunity for centralization, blaming austerity and cost-cutting measures. In 2014, Orbán’s government handed over the responsibility of hiring teachers to a centralized body called Klebelsberg Institution Maintenance Centre that is under direct control of the Ministry of Education. Supposedly, higher level education administrators are chosen based on their links to Fidesz governing party (Magyar and Vásárhelyi 2017). Secondly, the government has nationalized and centralized the production of school textbooks. Since the fall of communism in 1989 until relatively recently, several private publishers dominated the production of school textbooks and school teachers were free to select which ones to use. Orbán’s government has nationalized the publication of textbooks and has issued new rules restricting the schools to only use the government issued textbooks. In itself, the centralization of an education system is not necessarily negative – many countries have centralized national education systems – however, centralization provides the means for a ruling group to teach, and indoctrinate, the young with its ideology.
Indeed the content of the new textbooks reveals a shift towards the ultra-conservative and anti-immigrant, or nativist and populist as some say, views of Orbán’s government. While the following examples do not show a complete full-scale re-writing of textbooks as done for example by totalitarian governments such as in Nazi Germany or the USSR, they are illustrative of the more limited methods of shifting the ideological flavour of the texts.
For kindergarten children, a series of fairy-tale type stories illustrate the perils of taking in too many immigrants and being unable to house them. As a part of their reading and comprehension learning, children are asked to describe the different ‘social groups’including Romany people in the illustrations. This example reflects that Fidesz government’s nativist ideology that does not support a Hungarian civic national identity that fully merges the different ethnic and social groups, but rather an ethnic identity.
Older children, are given Orbán’s speeches to read in their history and current events textbook. These speeches emphasize the issues of immigration and Hungary’s homogeneity, focusing the students attention of the issue of building an ethnic rather civic national identity in Hungary, as a means of defending its “Europeanness.”
Orbán’s government is also pushing for teaching of conservative moral values in schools. Textbooks on sex education do not waste the opportunity to point out that homosexuality and abortions are considered sinful. Conservative attitudes towards women are also becoming more apparent with textbooks containing anecdotes about a mother not being able to understand her son’s homework, a science textbook detailing differences between men and women, or adding the last phrase of an old national rhyme that mentions wife-beating.
The increasing centralization of education accompanied by the clear intent to introduce social values held by Fidesz government into the teaching materials is particularly worrying given the Fidesz government’s overall illiberal turn. In terms of the new cutting edge data of Varieties of Democracy, Hungary’ appears to be slipping quite markedly on various dimensions of democracy since its landslide victory in 2010.
As Cas Mudde, a long-time commentator on the European far-right, has observed, the Orbán/Fidesz government has far more potential to have serious consequences than normal far-right parties as it is a mainstream national government rather than a fringe party that is unlikely to ever rule. The Fidesz government’s tendency towards limiting pluralism suggests that it can get much further in implementing its radical right agenda than generally assumed. The education reforms support this assessment.
However, whether the Fidesz government manages to have much of an impact on shaping the current generation of school children still depends on the ability of the Fidesz government to effectively implement and fund its reforms. Most importantly, the Fidesz/ Orbán government must overcome considerable dissatisfaction from teachers not the least because of the poor quality of government-issued textbooks. Ultimately, even a well-planned program of indoctrination can fail on the ground if its “agents,” that is average school teachers, refuse to implement it.
Ksenia Northmore-Ball is a British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellow at the School of Politics of International Relations. This article was first published on the blog Global Citizen Politics and can be found here. Image credit:CC by European People’s Party (EPP)/Flickr