Flick through a Hungarian history book for high school students, and you’re left in no doubt about the government’s view on migrants.
The section on “Multiculturalism” opens with a photo of refugees camped under a Budapest railway station. Flanking the image is a speech given by strongman Prime Minister Viktor Orban on the perils of migration: “We consider it a value that Hungary is a homogenous country,” he says.
The state-sanctioned textbooks are part of a government shakeup of Hungary’s education system that is causing deep unease among some teachers and publishers.
Critics say the textbooks are just one front in a government crusade to remake the education system – and the country – in its Christian, nationalist image. Orban has also scrapped academic programs that don’t fit with his conservative values, effectively forcing one of Hungary’s leading universities to move its courses abroad.
Education ‘straight from the state’
The shake-up comes amid weeks of street protests against Orban’s hardline policies, signaling cracks in his grip on the central eastern European nation.
Since Orban’s populist Fidesz Party swept into power in 2010, and most recently won a landslide victory again in April last year, it has been at the helm of a “major educational reform,” government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs told CNN when it visited Hungary late last year.
Previously, local municipalities oversaw the country’s public schools. But in recent years the state has taken over responsibility – and that includes supplying textbooks, said Kovacs of the measure to tackle funding “insufficiencies.” He said that “finally, after almost 20 years of struggle of how to finance and run the education system, we have taken responsibility.” The government hoped to introduce a new curriculum by fall this year, Kovacs added.
School books are created in the state-run Education Research and Development Center (OFI) by various contributing experts, explained Ildiko Repárszky, a history teacher and author of some of the earlier versions.
These days, the books don’t bear the name of a single author on the cover. Instead, a board of editors reportedly handles the texts from contributors “completely freely, as raw material, reshaping them at will,” said Repárszky.
The reforms come as the country’s Central European University – founded by billionaire philanthropist and well-known Orban foe George Soros – announced last month it had been “forced out” of Hungary by a hostile government and was moving its US-accredited courses to the Austrian capital Vienna.
The internationally renowned university called it a “dark day” for Hungary and Europe – something the government dismissed as “nothing more than a Soros-style political bluff.”
But some educators in Hungary told CNN that Orban’s hardline policies were already having a deep impact on the nation’s children, long before they entered university.
‘This is just everyday politics’
In his small office in central Budapest, chairman of Hungary’s Association of History Teachers, Laszlo Miklosi, opens a history book for 14 and 15-year-olds covered in Post-it notes.
He turns to the page on multiculturalism and points to a speech Orban gave to the European Parliament in Strasbourg in May 2015 that laid out Hungary’s position on migrants.
In the speech, the Prime Minister said Hungarians considered it a value that their country was homogenous in terms of its “culture,” “traits” and “way of thinking.” “This is just everyday politics,” said Miklosi, adding “It doesn’t say anything about the actual reasons for existing problems of migration – instead it’s what the current prime minister thinks about it.”
Orban’s defiant relationship with the European Union also plays out in a cartoon showing Germany as a giant sow feeding piglets representing Greece, Spain, Belgium and Portugal. Standing apart from the rest and happily munching its own grass, is the Hungary piglet.
In the same geography book under the chapter on “Population Decline and Migration,” another cartoon shows a Hungarian boy and girl with the caption: “The number of those who think Hungary is the best place to live has significantly increased.”
The illustration includes statistics like “67% of young people can only imagine their future in this country.” And “every 4th young person lives in a marriage or a permanent relationship and 68% of those who don’t, would like to,” with no clear source for the findings.