Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Hungarian Rhapsody



December 21, 1998

Around the world, politics reflects the struggle to develop proper respect for culture, tradition, and ethnicity. How does a people demonstrate public respect for its tradition or ethnicity, or for diverse traditions and ethnicities, without idolatry?

This is an exceedingly important question for a country's education policy, as demonstrated by the dilemmas facing Hungarians these days.

A major part of the Hungarian story is told in its heritage that was developed and defended by the Calvinist reformation, particularly in resistance to the Counter-Reformation. The Hungarian Reformed Church is also the historical custodian of the Hungarian language. This century, much of it spent under Communist oppression, has not been kind to Hungary's Reformed heritage. But now, after the collapse of Soviet control, the country is free to revive its heritage, or, better said, to struggle openly with its conflicting traditions.

In 1990, the first post-Communist election had been hailed as the end of political treachery. But the government of Joszef Antal could not retain its hold on power and by 1994 the Socialists, under Gyula Horn, were back. These were the same leaders who had managed the nation's adjustment to Moscow after the Russians crushed the October, 1956 rebellion. But then, earlier this year, the Socialists were soundly defeated by a coalition of Free Democrats (FIDESZ) and Christian Democrats, led by Viktor Orban. Orban is the one who as a Young Democrat in 1989 stood up and shouted to the Russians, "Go Home."

This is the contemporary context in which the question of state funding for non-state schools has come back on the budgetary agenda of Parliament. The situation is full of opportunity, yet it is also filled with ambiguity. In 1920, the schools run by churches were nationalized and then in 1946 were secularized. Soon thereafter, until the fall of Communism, they were under government control. In 1990, they were returned to church control. Yet Hungary is no longer what it was before 1920 or before 1946. Only a minority of students and teachers in the regions of the church-run schools is Christian. By this time, moreover, there are new liberal secularists who argue that all state-funded education should be "neutral." What they mean is that their ideology should be given a privileged position from now on in Hungarian public education, while religious schools should be sidelined and given second-class status. This, however, would not begin to come to grips with the real Hungary.

Even though Hungarians of a Reformed persuasion may not constitute a majority in their country, many in Parliament want the Hungarian tradition of publicly supported church schools to be revived. Those schools were never fully "private" in the parochial sense of that term. Nor were they elitist. They are long-standing and undeniably national institutions, which for centuries both developed and defended Hungarian science and culture in many fields.

Leaders of the Christian schools must now ask themselves how the schools should function as Christian public schools, helping to pass on Hungary's linguistic, cultural, and religious traditions? And what contribution should they be making to the building of a new Hungary? What kind of public place should they have today?

This is the political challenge for Hungary and also for most other countries: How to do public justice to different religious and ideological perspectives in education within a single country? How to do justice to cultural diversity within the bounds of public solidarity.

—Bruce C. Wearne, Professor
   Monash University, Melbourne, Australia

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”