The Paper it’s Written on

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.


A Multitude of ‘Sins’

Interestingly, the words for sin and crime in Hungarian are the same; but while the Church has managed over the centuries to confine itself to a mere seven sins and ten commandments, the Hungarian state is attempting to rack up as many laws as possible while it enjoys an unrivalled opportunity to do so. Or at least, so it would seem. Having recently commented (see below) on the absurdity – to me, at least – of making smoking at public transport stops fineable by up to 50,000 forints, I have just been made aware that actually lighting up on the transport itself, is punishable only to the tune of 6,000 forints. Thus, to smoke in an unventilated bar, restaurant or café is entirely legal; to smoke on a tram or bus will cost six thousand, while doing so out in the fresh air will cost more than eight times as much!

I say, ‘will cost’, but in practice the press reports that only one such fine has been officially levied for smoking within the stipulated seven by three metre area of a bus stop. A veritable army of police would be required to patrol the city to even attempt to enforce such a ruling. And for what possible result – to improve the overall air quality of the capital? Or is it to fill the coffers of the government? If so, it is totally superfluous: there already exists a battery of other fineable offences which – were the police sufficiently motivated to uphold them – could achieve that particular goal. For example, the simple wearing of seat belts in cars, and more importantly, the use of hand-held mobile phones while driving. Though outlawed, anyone standing long enough on a street corner to wait for the lights to change can hardly remain unaware of the high percentage of drivers using their phones. This includes bus drivers, weaving their way through rush-hour traffic, packed with passengers; taxi drivers dodging pedestrians and jumping the lights. As a friend of mine who lives on the colourful Almássy tér laughingly told me, “If they want to make money, they should just spend a day on my square – every law in existence is broken here on a daily basis and no-one does anything about it. They could make a fortune.”

The attitude in times past was not dissimilar from a certain point of view – many things were nem szabad (not allowed) – in fact, it was one of the first expressions I learnt, hearing it on the lips of everyone from mothers scolding their children, to over-zealous museum curators who would utter these words as soon as you got within sneezing distance of an exhibit; and bookshop keepers, when you attempted to creep over to the shelves and touch a volume. Fines, though, there were none. If you failed to pay your telephone bill on time the solution was simple – it was disconnected, and it would take months before you would be able to arrange its reconnection. When I ran across the (much less busy) road at Margit hid and was stopped by two policemen, they simply demanded my ID card and, reading I was a teacher, tutted at me like a cross aunty. In fact, the only effective method of curtailing the population’s indifference to the rules and regulations of the time was the tacitly accepted habit of the police to extract their own fines from motorists in order to supplement their incomes. Their alacrity then for standing long hours, flagging down motorists come rain, come shine, was indisputable. A dodgy rear light, a failure to observe a Stop sign obscured by a tree, or simply exciting the interest of a bored officer, would almost inevitably result in a ‘fine’ – the amount of which was determined by careful negotiation. Today’s ineffectual attempts (where written receipts must be issued) to enforce regulations would seem to indicate that this older method was, all in all, more efficient.

The most recent addition to the list of unenforceable laws is the one making it illegal for people to go through dustbins – in the eighth district only! – fine: 50,000 forints.