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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 25:161–169.


Culture, Education, and Accession to the EU


During the past centuries the situation of Hungarian culture was determined by two factors, deriving from the geographic, political and economic conditions of the country. On the one hand, a high culture on European and world levels emerged that was equal to the achievement of other countries, ahead of us in economic and social development as far as its standard, values and message are concerned. On the other hand, the creative, carrying and receiving community of domestic culture remains narrower than that of the core of European development. Here the proportion of those strata is much higher that are not reached by the real values of modern culture.


High culture

The basis of Hungarian culture is the autonomous culture of high quality evolved by the nation during centuries, and it organically belongs to the frontline of European culture. For some branches and genres (music, literature, physics) it is acknowledged by the world, whereas perhaps it is less the case for others, but the reason is not to be found in the value of the culture that has emerged, rather it should be sought in the limitations of the possibility of becoming known.

Music is a classic example, for it is a branch of culture not restricted by the limitations of language. It was eminent already in the 19th century, due to some creative and performing musicians, and to Franz Liszt first and foremost. It further unfolded in the 20th century, primarily by the works of Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály. Their significance should be particularly stressed. They did not merely follow the West, more over, they did not only renew the language and style of music simultaneously to the modern Western composers, but they added new features that had become possible just because of the specific path of our destiny. It was actually due to our semi-peripheral position that a far larger part of our population lived under traditional peasant conditions and in a millennium-old peasant culture than those of the West even in the early 20th century. A specific contribution of Bartók and his circle to the universal history of culture was that they linked the most modern to the most ancient, hence showing the way towards and setting an example of emancipation to the cultures (and peoples) of the world squeezed to the periphery.

Besides the big countries and empires, leading industrial development, suddenly the semi-periphery became the midwife of the new art, of avant-garde from Sweden to Russia and from Spain to Hungary in the early 20th century (and at that time the United States could also be classified under his heading). Bartók’s music revolution was one of the significant waves of this flood.

Defeat in World War I, the Trianon Peace Treaty and the functioning of authority during the inter-war period (uniting the traditions of the Hungarian conservatism of the estates with some features of the most recent right-wing efforts) did not create suitable conditions to the undisturbed flourishing of culture. The most eminent representatives of intellectual life, however, did not serve the authority, but were in quest towards the future. The same happened after World War II as well, when the unfolding of organic development was hindered by the power system emulating the Soviet one. Representatives of Hungarian culture were able to utilise the opportunity offered by the leadership looking for reforms on the basis of the experience of the revolution of 1956 (and fearing it). After the 60s this is how a new flourishing period of culture could emerge and it corresponded to the objectives of European as well as world culture in its problematic, style as well as behaviour.

The existence and quality of this creative and sensitive cultural medium has always decisively influenced the life of the entire society in certain historical moments. As it had a decisive role in launching the revolution of 1956, so it essentially influenced the democratic transformation of 1990. It was due to its influence among others that transformation was accomplished not only without blood but essentially it was dignified and fair. For a good number of years several representatives of cultural life played an active role in politics, too.

The achievement of Hungarian culture, art and science was equal to the results of the great nations of Europe and the world in the 20th century. At the same time, as the country as a whole still possessed the élan of catching up, it had the specificity of recognising and wording new problems, giving way to new movements, styles, and solutions, thus not only joining the economically more developed countries but coming forward with a message of its own to be assessed among the universal trends of the development of world culture.

One of the impressive features of our Central European, hitherto semi-peripheral region is that the highest level of culture and civilisation of the given age finds a fertile soil here, where it conceives and grows. It is not only art and science in the literal sense of the term, but the universality of culture and civilisation covering a broader sphere, surrounding high culture and necessary to its emergence. By the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries the capital city of Budapest had grown to be a city of European style with industry, commerce, and the related civic stratum and intellectuals of European calibre, and workers who made their voice heard. It was they who constituted the absorbing audience of culture as well, and the proportion of a narrower, ‘understanding’ audience was not smaller than anywhere else in the world. This fact is the most important basis and pledge of our future adjustment to Europe.


Public culture and the situation of culture in the society

The social situation of culture may be characterised most pregnantly by the survey that was conducted mostly with identical methods, at the same time (in the 80s) and based on a (representative) sample of identical size in the United States of America as well as in Hungary. It was done by Richard A. Peterson over there, and by our working team here. Both teams studied how the society was distributed by cultural behaviour, by its active and passive relationship to culture.

There is no significant difference in how big part of the society belongs to the demanding and committed audience of high culture. (The Petersons called this group ‘highbrow’ in American parlance.) They as well as we have found an approximately identical proportion: about 15% of the population. These people read literature and academic works, attend classical music concerts, art movies and exhibitions of fine arts, they do not only want to find entertainment in mass communications and in theatres but participate deliberately in social life, and their entire lifestyle is determined by their intimate relationship to culture.

Naturally, a significant part of this stratum itself consists of intellectuals, though not exclusively. There are businessmen, white-collar workers, and even blue-collar ones among them. Their existence and free activities are not only important to culture, but also for the mode of existence of the society, for this stratum has always been and is still playing the role of initiators in the movement of the society as a whole. In the present case they do it in the realisation of European integration.

The real difference between the economically highly and medially developed countries (core and the periphery) is manifest in the habit and proportion of the strata having medium and lower status.

In addition to the American (and Western European) upper cultural strata (highbrow) (and in more or less close contact with them) there is a rather broad middle class living its own life. This is called ‘middlebrow’. Several kinds of behaviour belong to this group, Peterson and others differentiate among “upward striving”, “accumulating”, or “acquisitive” and “all-consuming” groups besides another one that is exclusively in quest of rest, entertainment and recreation in its leisure. What is common in them is that both major groups have reached the middle-class standard, their lifestyle is a stable one, they have adequate qualifications, they have a job, a properly equipped home, and usually a car, they eat well, pay attention to their dressing, occasionally they travel and educate their children. In addition to them, however, there is one (or several kinds) “lowbrow” stratum, consisting of people who have not reached stability, who should not be classified as lower class but as “underclass”, they are poor, often unemployed, they have lost their traditions and have not acquired new ones, their culture is uncertain, their way of life and destiny are endangered.

The difference is in the proportions. In North America and in Western Europe the middle strata constitute the larger part of the society, about two-thirds of it; hence the lowbrow underclass cannot be more than one-fifth. In Hungary the proportion is the reverse. Only one-third of the population can emerge to the stable world of the middle class, more than half of it is endangered, and one-third of that part is in the situation of the underclass.

This proportion has not emerged after the ‘change of the system’, but it is the consequence of a centuries-old ‘blind alley’ development. We set out along the road of modern industrial and bourgeois development, and the problem was not merely delay in time, but it was accompanied by structural consequences, as well. It equally characterises our industry and agriculture, the infrastructure and the condition of buildings, machinery and roads, or the situation of institutions, the state of our natural environment, the opportunity for the emergence of a civil society, the preparedness of the society for work, and, naturally culture, too. All this together means culture in a broader (and more precise) sense of the modern interpretation of the term.

This structure of the society is the major obstacle in the way of the healthy and organic development of Hungarian people and of the nation. It is an obstacle to economic development, because as its consequence only a narrower circle (one-third) of the population may join the blood circulation of modern economy, the rest is part of an outdated and even dying circulation, or it drops out of everything. This is a hindrance for the organic modernisation of social life, because it hampers the growth of civic society, and consolidates the remnants of the estates and semi-feudal conditions. Democracy cannot unfold because it would require the active, knowledge-based participation of many more people.

This is why the cause of public culture has been playing a constantly distinguished role in the reform movements serving the catching up of the Hungarian society and its organic integration into Europe since the first part of the 19th century.

‘Public culture’ is a characteristically Hungarian expression, difficult to translate. The Hungarian equivalent of ‘public’ = ‘köz’ is a word of Finno-Ugric origin, meaning a link to another human being, as well as the community itself, intertwined with those relationships. At the same time this word does not regard culture as an object but as an activity, simultaneously meaning the creation and absorption of culture by which man does not only cultivate culture but himself as well.

A full adjustment to Europe does not only require the act of admission to the Union and the introduction of the necessary legal and institutional framework, but a meaningful transformation when we adopt the social achievements of European development as well, without fail. In other words: the quality of life (culture, civilisation, security) is to be ensured for the majority of the society too, that has been acquired by the core countries.

 One should set out from Ralph Dahrendorf’s noted theory, wording the phases of transition from the dictatorial-totalitarian systems to democracy. He distinguishes three phases. The first one is dedicated to political transformation, to the creation of the basic institutions (parties, free elections, self-governments, president of republic, constitutional court, etc.) of a pluralist democracy. Six months are sufficient to it. The second phase is the establishment of the set of institutions of modern economy (from private ownership to the banking system). Its ‘duration’ is six years. The third one is the social and cultural transformation necessary to modern pluralist democracy and economy. Dahrendorf considers this as the most important one and says that not less than sixty years are required to it.

The events so far have proved him right. In the Hungarian process of the regime change the set of the institutions of democracy could be established within six months. Perhaps the transformation of the economic system required a little more than six years but not much more. The transformation of the society, however, is still awaited. Though it is true that much happened as a result of political and economic changes, industrial branches have been transformed, jobs disappeared, new ones were created, the population of the different strata changed, the structure of agriculture underwent radical changes. All in all, something has not changed and it is the structure of the society outlined above, the proportion of the upper, middle, and lower strata and the one below all has not changed. Today not fewer but more people are in an endangered state than 15 years earlier, the distance between the topmost and the lowest 10% did not decrease but it increased. The per capita income could grow (slowly) to surpass the one before 1990 only after the turn of the millennium.

What comprehensive trends assert themselves in this cultural transformation? Based on data of the national surveys of 1995 and 2003, when the operation of the institutional network and the activity of the audience are compared it may be stated that the offer has significantly grown but the demand has declined. Today actually more books are published than before 1990, and the offer is richer in all respects (extending from the great works of modern literature to cheaper readings), but the number of copies is less and the prices are higher. The result is that fewer people read. Today there are many more concert agencies in operation, more concerts of classical music are held than 15 years ago, the offer is broader but the proportion of concert-going audiences is smaller and narrower. There are many more exhibition halls, galleries and art dealers, but more people do not visit them. The number of people who go to theatres has not dropped but the proportion of those who would only go to amusing performances has become larger than before.

The situation of television apparently contradicts the law of demand and supply outlined above. In this field it is not only supply that has grown (in 1990 there were only 3 channels, today more than 30 are in operation!), but the demand as well. We are among those countries the population of which spends most of its leisure in front of the television sets. This is, however, only a quantitative growth: the many more television channels do not offer equally more quality.

It is a welcome fact that the appreciating audience of demanding culture has been preserved and could even renew itself, it has accepted the achievements of Hungarian and international contemporary culture, adjusting it to its habit and lifestyle. In addition the cultural middle strata, particularly the young have been also renewed in many respects. The broadening and differentiation of the cultural interests of the upper middle stratum may also be regarded as a positive feature. The proportion of those, however, who are left out of these processes, has not changed.


Future perspectives

We are of the view that the future depends on the changes of three processes.

1. We have to preserve and renew the real values of our culture. Precisely this has been linking us to the development of Europe and the world. The active culture-carrier stratum, capable of forwarding it is still present; it can extend and express the current problems by it and can offer points of reference to their solution. Therefore the set of institutions of high-quality culture has to be maintained and its security has to be corroborated against the daily fluctuations of the market.

2. Modern means have also appeared here besides the traditional forms of the creation and absorption of culture. This process represents a major opportunity as well as challenge. The means are not supposed to replace and squeeze out traditional culture, but to offer a new opportunity to forwarding culture to all and to democratising it. If they push traditional culture into the background a new ‘digitocracy’ may emerge that would build yet another new closed circle within the realm of culture. Therefore it is an important task to create harmony between the old and new culture and to spread them jointly.

3. It is important to strengthen those processes that promote the education of the society as a whole that democratise culture, public culture and education in the broadest sense of the term. Naturally it is an indispensable part of the emergence of the new middle classes that is the social precondition of our adjustment to Europe.



The history of school education was based on the same system of conditions in Hungary. Partly it offered a high, exactly European level of education to the top strata of the society, to the upper class of the estates and of the nobility, to the industrial and economic bourgeoisie, to the middle class of officers and to the intellectuals. Partly the vast majority of the society had to be involved in school education offering the type and extent of knowledge to enable them to acquire the necessary skills while staying in their ‘place’.

Hungary prior to 1945 met these requirements rather one-sidedly. It was a system that was not only the reflection of social inequalities but was also one of its major maintainers and preservers. The system of education consisted of three parts. Compulsory popular education consisted of six forms of which only the first four (age 6 to 10) was of a uniform system. It was called ‘elementary school’. There were about 7000 such schools and the number of pupils was between 900 thousand and one million. Next education was bifurcated. There was supplementary education for two more years under different headings, but not everyone could go that far even. Else various forms of secondary education were available. There was a so-called civic school for 4 years, offering further education to those who did not want to, or were unable to study beyond that grade. The other alternative was the secondary school in the current sense of the term, with a tuition period of 8 years, up to the age of 18. Grammar schools, special grammar schools offering training in the so-called ‘realities’, upper commercial schools and teacher training colleges belonged to this group. There were 285 secondary schools, of which 226 were grammar schools with a student population of 149 thousand. Only a fragment of the age group could attend these schools. The secondary school (in a broader sense of the term) was the institution of elite education.

On top there were the 16 universities with 13 thousand students. It was the fragment of the fragment.

The governments of Hungary after World War II made efforts to broaden the operation of the educational system as well as its influence. In 1946 the completion of the 8-year ‘primary schools’, replacing the 4-year elementary ones was made compulsory. Practically the entire age group between 6 and 14 attended those schools and the number of pupils was between 1.2 to 1.3 million. Their standard, however, remained rather uneven all the time. The concept of secondary education also changed. Since 1946 it is a 4-year education that is called secondary, following the completion of compulsory primary education. The number of secondary schools increased from 285 to more than 500, and the number of students approached 400 thousand. Nevertheless, distinction within the type of secondary education remained rather great. The pupils of the grammar schools constituted the upper ‘caste’; their number was between 270 to 280 thousand, representing only 20% of secondary school students, but 70% of the university students came from those institutions.

University education was also broadened. In the late 80s there were almost 60 institutions of higher education, including 18 universities. The number of students increased from 13 thousand to more than 100 thousand, yet it covered only about 10% of the respective age group. Thus, despite all efforts, the system of teaching and education was unable to break out of the inherited system which excluded by its very existence a significant part of the new generations from the opportunities of catching up. Naturally it lagged far behind the Western European educational system. The methodology of school education also did not change in a direction that would have enabled it to face the new challenges set by economic and social progress. The educational system should have moved in a direction where not only some standard set of knowledge was to be imparted but the young would be taught creativity, prepared for “life-long learning”, for a demand to acquire new skills and to learn the use of new tools all the time. Attempts aiming at it multiplied but they failed to reshape the entire system of education.

After 1990 the governments of Hungary were facing a dual task.

1. The transformation of public education is particularly important because it is here that processes of social and economic modernisation affecting the entire population have to be taken into account. Those processes include the problems of agriculture, the different features of regions, the effects of unemployment, demographic processes, the consequences of urbanisation, etc.

The hitherto rigid system of lower and secondary education had to be broken. Today there are the systems of 4+8, 6+6, and 8+4, existing side by side. The state monopoly of schools was eliminated, and today there are schools maintained by the state and local governments, by the Churches, by foundations and private individuals at every level. This is naturally accompanied by a free choice of school by the parents. An important element of the reform is the autonomy of schools, and the abolition of the one-scheme, centralised education. Today there is no compulsory curriculum, and the National Basic Curriculum (NAT) may be freely applied.

Yet the distance between the ‘higher’ and the ‘lower’ levels is still too big. Surveys also support this statement. The best of Hungarian students participate in various international competitions with great success, and in this respect we are on the international level. At the same time we lag behind the European average as far as the general level of education is concerned.

2. There has been a major change in higher education as well: more than 40% of the respective age group participates in university or college education, and it corresponds to European norms. In order to achieve it the university system itself had to be transformed. In keeping with the so-called Bologna requirements education is being developed into a three-tier one, the first three years would be the college level, the fourth and fifth years would be the university level, to be followed by postgraduate training. A smooth implementation of all this, however, requires a significant reorganisation of the university and college organisations, and that process has not yet been completed. New universities and colleges were established, including ecclesiastic, private and foundation ones. Mergers and splits have taken place in the interest of establishing a healthy network of the state institutions of higher education. The teaching materials and methods have been modernised. The necessary steps have been taken in the interest of creating a modern university system.

In view of all that has been achieved, the attention of the coming years may be hopefully focused on the issues of content and methodology of education.