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.
The image “enlarges the patriotic feelings of young people in Hungary, their contentedness with their country, their willingness to get married and start a family – while also downplaying their willingness to move abroad,” said Repárszky, who is also part of the Association of History Teachers, which has around 400 members.
Government spokesman Kovacs dismissed the teachers’ concerns as a “political opinion,” adding that the government always welcomed “criticism, contribution, observations and comments” from “professional organizations.”
‘Migrant’ and ‘Soros’ are schoolyard taunts
Miklosi, who has reviewed school textbooks for more than 30 years, believes Orban’s anti-migrant rhetoric has filtered down to classrooms and playgrounds.
“‘Migrant’ has become a swear word for many people, including many children,” he said.
Should a teacher say the words “Jewish” or “gypsy” or “Slovak” they are often met with students “giggling and nudging each other” and the teacher has to “actively fight for space to discuss these categories in a neutral way,” Miklosi added.
It’s a view shared by English teacher Juli Karolyi, who said for some students the words “migrant” and “Soros” had become “swear words used in schoolyards and playground conflicts.”
But she added that children’s views were “mostly decided in the home” rather than in the pages of textbooks. “If the parents fall for the government propaganda, the kids will follow suit – especially the younger ones,” she said.
A few blocks from Miklosi’s inner-city office, 18-year-old student Akos Blaskovics has just finished a morning history class at his high school, Fazekas Mihály Gimnázium. The quietly-spoken teenager told CNN that he “hasn’t really seen a difference in the messages of textbooks in recent years.”
But he did think the government has tried to “make people focus on the question of migrants,” rather than “more important things like education, healthcare and social problems.”
Five textbook publishers, 123 trials
In a small village 30 minutes’ drive east of Budapest, publisher András Romankovics’ home office is packed with bookshelf after bookshelf of rainbow-colored spines arranged by decade.
The former teacher and his wife started publishing school textbooks in 1978, and he estimates around 10 million copies have been printed over the years.
Hungarian school textbook licenses must be renewed every five years. Romankovics is one of five independent textbook publishers who are suing the government after it rejected their requests to extend their licenses, which were due to expire at the end of 2018.
The court case relates to 123 books in total – meaning 123 separate trials for each book. Needless to say it’s a lengthy process, and since the trials began in September, around 20 books have been granted permission to extend their licenses, said Romankovics.
Meanwhile the licenses of state-sponsored textbooks were extended, he said.
Kovacs, the government spokesman, would not comment on why the government had rejected the independent textbook publishers’ license requests, saying only that it was an “ongoing case” and “going through a higher level of decision-making.”
But Romankovics, who is also chair of the National Textbook Association, which represents 20 publishers, warned that without a true diversity of books, children’s education would suffer.
‘There is a deeper problem here’
While independent publishers battle to keep their textbooks in schools, university professors are battling to keep their programs in Hungary.
Inside the grand, high-ceilinged offices of Budapest’s CEU, gender studies associate professor Eva Fodor is dismayed that the government has scrapped her program which has been running for over 20 years.
The university offers US- and Hungarian-accredited gender studies degrees – or at least it did, until the government struck gender studies from its list of accredited programs in October.
While the US-accredited program will continue in Vienna, the Hungarian-accredited degree no longer exists, affecting around 45 MA students enrolling each year, said Fodor. The only other Hungarian university to offer gender studies – Eötvös Loránd (ELTE) – was also forced to scrap its program.
“It’s a clear and unprecedented violation of academic freedom,” said Fodor, adding that it wasn’t just gender studies that didn’t fit with Orban’s world view.
“It indicates that there is a deeper problem here,” she said. Orban wants to create a strong ideology that people can hold on to, based on “national pride and his idea of very simple Christian values,” Fodor said. “And (he’s) eliminating everyone else who is not willing to subscribe to this ideology,” she added.
According to Kovacs, gender studies degrees were scrapped because of low enrollment, scarce job opportunities, and the government’s “philosophical approach.”
“We believe there are only two sexes – men and women,” he said. Kovacs added that students were still free to research gender issues from the perspective of other disciplines, such as philosophy or sociology. “But we don’t believe that gender is an independent discipline in itself.”
Students who see it otherwise had better look for classrooms outside Hungary.