February 10, 2014

Victor Orbán’s just about to get his creepy hands all over the Hungarian textbook industry


Viktor Orban demonstrates his  "mourning dove at the grave of the Hungarian textbook publishing industry" shadow hands.

Viktor Orban demonstrates his “mourning dove at the grave of the Hungarian textbook publishing industry” shadow hands.

It is relatively rare that one feels sympathy for textbook publishers. But Hungarian textbook publishers—now there’s a group of people who one’s heart might be going out to these days.

Because a law was passed in Hungary in December nationalizing the textbook industry, which will put hundreds of publishers out of business.

From September 2014 onwards, teachers will have a choice between two textbooks for all primary school classes. Those textbooks will be written, manufactured, and distributed by a new state-run institution, and they’ll be provided free to schoolchildren.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s decision to take over the textbook industry is part of much broader recent nationalization projects in Hungary. Orbán’s government has swept through the country’s businesses since his second term began in 2010, passing, as the Economist describes it, “some 600 new laws to reform—and take control of—the media, health care, education, pensions, agriculture and the judiciary.”

So, yeah, there are a lot of problems with this.

To think about the change in pragmatic terms alone, to begin with: there has been no information about what’s to be done with all the textbooks already printed for the fall classes — some hundreds of millions of Hungarian forints (HUFS) invested by Hungarian publishers, which the government will either have to reimburse or simply stick on the already stuck-with-an-awful-lot-like-their-jobs-and-everything Hungarian textbook publishing business.

Pragmatic problem #2: the Orbán government has already tried nationalizing part of the textbook industry and it was a resounding flop. Last year, the state declared a monopoly on the distribution of textbooks; all ordering and delivery was to go through KELLO, a state-backed company.

And it just didn’t go very well—reports are sparse and conflicting in English-language sources, but it appears that the online ordering system crashed repeatedly, schools were invoiced for books that didn’t arrive, invoices lacked price information, and, in the end, many students didn’t receive their textbooks for weeks or even months into the term. “Never has the distribution of textbooks been as chaotic as the current school year,” wrote Eva Nagy in the Budapest Beacon.

Turns out it’s hard to take over an industry with numerous players and hundreds of thousands of  customers. As past textbook nationalization schemes in other countries have shown. Two members of the International Publishers’ Association commented on this history for an article in the Bookseller:

Graham Taylor, chairman of the IPA’s education committee, said. “This used to happen all the time in Africa in the 1980s, invariably leaving a wasteland of under provision when the state scheme collapsed under its own weight. I never thought I would see anything like this in Europe.”

Jens Bammel, secretary general of the IPA, said: “This measure will destroy educational publishing in Hungary. These policies have failed so often that we did not seriously expect any government to even consider them.”

But of course, of equal concern is what state control over textbooks might mean for their content. This is most certainly not just an issue for countries with a communist past (though you might expect them to be particularly wary about going down that route): we here in the States have some rather disturbing examples of what happens when politicians get to write history.

In Hungary’s case, the controls on the media that Orbán’s government has introduced and the rise of  the right-wing, anti-Semitic, homophobic, and xenophobic Jobbik party don’t indicate that the climate’s going to be a good one for balance and objectivity in school textbooks.

Proof of this is an ethics textbook that was recently made mandatory for fifth graders. Written by Ferenc Bánhegyi, it bends over backwards to praise religious communities for their virtue (the only religious communities mentioned are Catholics and Hungarian Reformed), encourages civic obedience, decries modernity and the influence of the U.S., and upholds nationalism.

So, while Orbán has argued that nationalization is necessary to curb profiteering publishers and reduce chaos in the market, the alternative doesn’t sound any better—certainly not for publishers, and probably not for students either. Even the chairman of parliamentary committee on education, Zoltan Pokorni, from Orbán’s own Fidesz party, agrees: “I believe there are many kinds of children, and many ways of teaching,” Pokorni said.  ”A two-textbook approach is insufficient to provide children with instruction suited to their needs.”


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.