Not long ago, I attended a choral concert given in the Terézvárosi templom (church) by the conductor Richard Solyom and his excellent Gabrieli choir. I have been a regular concert-goer since my first days in Budapest, and can attest to the fact that although this performance was free, I have paid money for greatly inferior offerings in more impressive surroundings. I felt I could not leave the venue without expressing my appreciation and enjoyment of the evening, and so joined the queue of well-wishers at the end of the concert. When my turn arrived, I asked if the choir would be performing in the Spring Festival – a prestigious annual arts festival which has been running a number of years. His answer was astounding: “No. I can’t perform there because I don’t have a diploma in conducting,” he explained.
Last week, I went to a performance of Liszt’s Christus in MŨPA, where I bumped into an old acquaintance who is a senior member of staff at the Liszt Academy. She informed me that the young conductor at that evening’s performance was, in fact, undergoing an examination. This was a surprising piece of information: I have never been aware that a performing artist is examined at a public performance. Moreover, would the award (or not) of the piece of paper make any difference to his musical career? Well, he would certainly be permitted, henceforth, to perform at the Spring Festival, if nothing else! But would the award of a degree or certificate mean he was a better conductor – or the lack of such, that he was any worse?
This way of thinking is endemic in Hungary, where the country is currently struggling with reforming its education system. Where twenty or so years ago, The Economist carried an article praising the thoroughness and rigour of Hungarian schools, more recent international comparisons find them lagging ever further behind in tests increasingly based on the application of knowledge rather than the knowledge itself. Tinkering with reform, both those in charge of policy making and the teachers themselves, find they are straddling a growing precipice.
When we arrived in Hungary I was startled to find just how many people had quite how many degrees, never mind how many preceded their names with the title of Dr. But soon I found that gathering up certificates, diplomas and other sundry qualifications amounted to a national pastime. The chasm that so often existed between paper qualifications and the ability to do something in practice existed in most spheres of life. Half the population had (has) driving licences but cannot actually drive! Half the working population has papers attesting to the fact that they are disabled, but is hard at work renovating flats or moving furniture.
When I went to teach at ELTE’s Teacher Training College, I soon learnt that I was, in reality, the only person in the English Department who had ever stood up in front of a class of school children and taught them! My colleagues had studied the art of teaching from every book available on the subject, and passed every conceivable examination on the subject (and got their dr. titles for good measure) but had never actually taught! There was even a subject entitled Methodology, again, instructed by those who had never faced a class in their lives! I shudder to think how many people there are with degrees in English – some of whom I myself taught – whose degree certificates are, in reality, meaningless.
Needless to say, I would balk at the notion of consulting a medical doctor who did not possess the requisite degree and examination passes, but quite what relevance a scroll of paper has to conducting, even thirty years here have failed to prove to me. It is in this area that a diametric alteration in attitude is vital if reform – educational or other – is to have any real effect. As a male Hungarian friend and colleague told a group of students we were jointly teaching: Don’t anyone bring me a medical certificate for absence – I could produce one for you tomorrow stating I have an ectopic pregnancy. It’s not worth the paper it’s written on.