Commentary: On Schooling in Hungary and America

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Barely noted amid the countless developments of the current reform movement has been the flowering of an international exchange of views on education among researchers, policymakers, teachers, and students. Some of these contacts have been informal; others have been sponsored by governments, private groups, and institutions.

One such meeting-the first formal exchange between the United States and Hungary in educational-policy research-was held in Esztergom, Hungary, last May.

'Lessons' on National Identity, Welfare State, and Child Rearing

For an Eastern European--especially a Hungarian--education is always strongly connected with national identity. The first lesson I have learned about education in America is that this connection is precisely a European feature.

The difference is not so much that parents, children, and teachers in the United States have no national feelings, or that they do not seek their national or ethnic identities. Just the contrary: Group identities constitute one of the most important ties among the American people.

But the cultural traditions of Americans remain largely private concerns, rather than policy issues.

The United States developed its image and identity according to a paradigm strange to most Europeans. While in Hungary--as in several other Eastern European countries--the state has been formed around historical traditions and cultural heritages, the United States has unified itself with economic bonds.

While in my country the mother tongue is taken for granted as a unifying force, mass communication and highly developed systems of transportation link people in the huge homeland of America.

And while in Hungary and other Eastern European countries the state, the nation, and the people are seen as identical, the essence of the United States is that it is a unification of states, nations, and peoples: The national identity is assumed among Hungarian children and their teachers, but the "American" identity has to be developed.

One of the most important social agencies for this development is the schools. For Europeans, schooling must convey historical traditions and cultural heritages. But in America, schools must initiate children into a huge society comprising many different traditions and heritages.

The role of the school and the teacher, then, seems to be essentially different, although teaching methods and content might appear similar.

This lesson is closely connected with my second reflection on American education: That, like the social demands placed on education, the political roles schools play in the states and the nation as a whole differ from those in Hungary.

For me, as a Hungarian and a European, schooling is closely tied to government--and to the European idea of the welfare state. This relationship--and especially the notion of the welfare state--is foreign to Americans.

A welfare state replaces your family; it supports you if you are in trouble; it takes care of you even if you do not need so much care.

A welfare state arranges free health care and pensions, provides nearly free public transportation, promises to solve housing problems and meet employment needs.

All the state requires in return is your tax and your loyalty.

It is precisely such an arrangement that has emerged almost everywhere in Europe--no questions about East and West in this respect. And I think it is precisely this welfare state that is in trouble in several respects.

Yet we like it, because we have become accustomed to it--and because it is comfortable.

In terms of schooling, the welfare state promises an equalized chance and a centralized curriculum.

I cannot imagine any idea being stranger than this for an American teacher or student. Americans look for new solutions in teaching and learning processes; Europeans seek well-adjusted patterns.

You stress creativity in your classrooms; we favor adaptation.

You sometimes do not care about memory; we sometimes do not worry about problem-solving.

You do business with education; we fulfill our civil servants' duties in the schools.

A welfare state does not afford its citizens the possibility of being in the margin for a long time--either of school life or of society at large. The notion of equalities infiltrates a welfare-state education--whether or not it improves the quality of teaching or of work within and outside the school.

But an education uninfluenced by the welfare-state concept can concentrate on quality, on the elite--and might therefore be extremely strong, on the one hand, or very poor, on the other. There is no equalizer, no state interference.

The third lesson I learned concerns the attitude of Americans toward their children--and indeed toward childhood generally. I would call the American outlook soft and permissive. Others would call it undisciplined and careless.

An American child--within and outside the school--has far more independence than a child from Europe, especially one from Eastern Europe.

Part of the explanation for this might be that American teachers stress individual achievements, while Eastern Europeans prefer group behaviors.

It might be, too, that the American way of life requires more freedom and autonomy, while Eastern Europeans experience mainly the collective.

No doubt there are also many other reasons for this difference.

The permissive attitude toward children penetrates the pedagogy of American parents and teachers. Perhaps the young people sometimes even suffer because of that freedom and autonomy.

The end result, however, seems to be the same in both cultures: The young person, even if burdened with problems, can adapt himself to the society.

And, if that is so, why should Eastern Europeans continue to discipline children so heavily?

Cosponsored by the University of Georgia's Vinson Institute of Government, the Hungarian Institute for Educational Research, and the Hungarian National Institute for Education, the five-day conference brought together 12 Hungarians and 8 Americans for the presentation of papers, visits to schools, and group discussions.

Three participants--Tamas Kozma of the Hungarian. Institute for Educational Research and Mary and Lawrence Hepburn of the Vinson Institute—here reflect on issues in American and Hungarian. Schooling.

Hungarian Education Begins Process of Decentralization

Education is more integrated into the social fabric in Hungary. By comparison, American schools appear to function nearly in isolation from other social institutions.

The integration has several dimensions, the first springing from the changes wrought during the period following the Communist takeover, when the Hungarian education system was subjected to central planning in the name of noneducational objectives. The schools then were seen as a means to help realize a new political order, a modernized economy, and a restructured society.

While Stalin-era planning was abandoned years ago, education policy remains more integrated with politics than is the case in the United States. Current reforms are being carried forward in the context of a wider process of democratization and decentralization of political authority.

No such reworking of basic political and economic institutions frames efforts to reform American education.

In Hungary, social issues are also education issues: Hungarian schools are "socially conscious." Educational policies and practices are explicitly linked to concerns about families, jobs, minorities, and the environment.

Social problems are addressed, for example, in the curriculum. This situation is reminiscent of the late 1960's and early 1970's in the United States, when schools responded in a variety of ways to promote equality of opportunity and ensure the relevance of education to social issues.

In Hungary, socialization takes priority over education. Traditional values of family, religion, and nationality remain strong in spite of--or perhaps in reaction to--the forced changes of the post-World War II era.

We sensed a relationship between those values and the caring behavior of the teachers and principals we observed, the remarkably democratic school climate espoused by the teacher-training schools, and the incorporation of social concerns into educational policy.

Although organizationally education is a state monopoly in Hungary, as a commodity it appears to be in ample supply. Some Hungarian educators suggest, in fact, that there is even an overconsumption.

Getting as much education as one can seems to be a more widely accepted goal there than it is in the United States. Perhaps a small nation not so rich in natural resources must live by its wits--at least to a greater extent than does a large and resource-rich nation like the United States.

The existence of mighty neighbors to the east and west doubtless reinforces popular appreciation of the importance of education. And in a nation with limited opportunities for private enterprise, educational attainment rather than entrepreneurial skill becomes the key to upward mobility.

Yet many Hungarians remain dissatisfied with the quality of education. Even though their system offers differentiated secondary tracks of two, three, and four years, educators characterize the secondary-school dropout rate as a problem. And because of mismatches between training programs and available jobs, those who do finish school often find their studies irrelevant to the careers they might pursue.

Hungary's economic enterprises, too, regularly criticize the educational system. Indeed, concern about the economy was the major impetus to the enactment in 1985 of an education-reform law covering education from kindergarten to university.

Given the importance of education to Hungary's well-being, it is not surprising to find educational research and development a priority. Sophisticated, theory-based research is conducted on all facets of education.

Especially surprising to American conferees--who likely harbored some skepticism about the applicability of foreign developments to the American situation--was the extent to which Hungarian educators look to Western European and, more recently, American theory and prac8tice in addition to Soviet works. For example, the library of the Hungarian Institute for Educational Research has one of the most extensive and up-to-date collections in Eastern Europe of research literature from the United States, Great Britain, West Germany, and other Western nations.

Are there lessons in the Hungarian experience for American policymakers? Centralization versus decentralization of schooling--a 100-year-old issue and still a focus of debate in the United States--is a major concern in Hungarian policymaking.

We expected to find a highly centralized system in Hungary. But we discovered instead that Hungarian policy in the 1980's has sought to decentralize the supervision of school administration--to provide a measure of flexibility to meet local needs and stabilize the education system.

More than 30 years of intermittent de-stabilization, brought about by top-level policy shifts, revealed an inherent weakness of the rigidly centralized Stalin-era system.

The education-reform law of 1985 permits local councils of teachers, parents, and other citizens to oversee community schools. This innovation is not unlike a feature of American education developed in the 19th century and currently undergoing some devaluation in the drive for accountability: the local school board.

Hungarian communities have not, however, rushed to set up the councils to which they are entitled. Fewer than 20 percent of the schools had councils by 1988.

The 1985 law also aimed to strengthen professionalism by involving teachers in decisionmaking and providing for professional promotion--career ladders--within schools. But teachers have reacted with suspicion to these provisions.

Such responses to shifts in policy point up the problems inherent in the paradox of trying to generate grassroots power from the top down.

This conference was an example of "private-sector initiative"--a meeting organized by private individuals, not by the two governments. Its roots lay in our conviction that we had something to tell each other that would contribute to the mutual quest for deeper understanding of the educational-policy process.

To span the political divide between East and West, we encourage other American educators to take the initiative in building such bridges of international communication in education.

Vol. 08, Issue 05

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