The Media’s Role in Hungary’s Education Integration

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Compared to other education policies it is not an exaggeration to say that both the integration of Severely Socially Disadvantaged Students and Roma integration Public Action have triggered a broad and evolving public debate. This public action has resulted to be one of the most contested and media influenced education policies of the last decade in Hungary. In written media and telecommunications the main lines of debate has been structured along ideological-political borders; namely along the segregation vs. integration polemic which has constructed the hardly transgressible and fixed debate positions of ‘segregationist’ and ‘integrationist’ speakers.

The conservative media had been preoccupied with pronouncing rival messages about the malfeasance of integration; contesting the success of the integration programs by constructing a concept of ‘rigid integration’ to describe the situation at hand and stressing that the professional and infrastructural conditions are insufficient for successful integration.

The information and ‘first-hand knowledge’ articulated in the public sphere primarily stems from contextually bound pragmatic experiences and anecdotal accounts of street-level bureaucrats, while the policy’s constructors and public sociologists and other social scientists tend to pronounce rational truth claims evoking research results and international comparisons (i.e. PISA) in their responses. The authors of the intermediary evaluation of a core policy project (the EU-funded ‘Integration and Equal opportunity’ priority project, TAMOP 3.3.1. 2007-2009) criticised the governmental communication method for its weakness in transmitting clear messages and the evaluators characterized the overall communication of the project as “rather reactive than proactive” (Reszkető et al., 2010: 34). Németh and Papp Z. also argued in their evaluative report (Németh, 2004) that a communication gap divides central project management and schools. The history of the PA is marked by critical public events loaded with symbolic meanings and marked by publicity. The public debate intensified due to the presentation of particular events as scandalous, and the by the attention given to seminal cases. These events and cases became in the national imaginary the symbols of the anti-segregation policy.

(a) Public events were often linked to local incidents when local schooling practices were challenged by non-local actors as being discriminatory, or violating equal treatment principles. While media attention occasionally turned to such civil rights cases in the nineties (The Tiszavasvári civil lawsuit case for the separate graduation ceremony of the Roma students was perhaps the most covered by the media), the public appearance of the PA evidently intertwined with the Jászladány case. The new education minister appointed in 2002 considered it his personal mission to end the segregation of the Roma in the small rural towns where non-Roma parents established a private school with the active contribution of the local government. The battle which involved the local government, the mayor, the Minorities’ Parliamentary Commissioner, the Ministry of Education, the regional administrative office and Roma activists ended with the retreat of the minister and eventually illustrated the incapability of the central government to prevent segregation legally in the decentralized system. In 2007, during the scandalous case of Csörög (see Bajomi et al., 2007: 10-11) the media attention again focused on the impotence of central actors to encroach local issues, and also signaled gaps in the legal guarantees of equal access and school provision for all.

The public debates revolved around the dichotomy of local public good and contextual rationalities vs. generic truth claims with reference to universal human rights principles codified in the national legislation. The latter were pronounced by some civil organisations (the Roma Civil Rights Movement and specifically in education segregation cases, the Chance for Children Foundation) who launched public litigation cases to prove that schools maintained segregation and discriminatory practices. The discrimination cases were initiated with an explicitly deterrent objective which was to shape public discussion. The presence of civic actors was usually perceived as increasing conflict in local settings as they are often seen as strangers coming to make trouble. Lately, the Chance for Children Foundation also sued the education minister (in office between 2006 and 2010) for not exploiting all the possible governmental instruments to ensure the letter of the law.

(b) Moral panic: While the segregation/integration debate was ever present in the media, the PA process is also marked by specific scandals that triggered moral panic. From 2008, media events featuring school violence (the so-called “teacher-beatings”) often illustrated by videos recorded on mobile phones. These acts were focused on by the media and gave a heavily ethnicized character to the debate about conflicts in school and social integration in general (Pál, 2010). While experts argued that school violence is a rather complex phenomenon, and that teachers are not always the victims of violent acts, and also that the perpetrators are not always the Roma students, public discourse was dominated by the image of antagonism between “violent Roma students vs. the defenseless teachers”.

The public problematization of political correctness: While policy-makers (and official documents) argued for a colour-blind (SDS) approach from the very beginning, and the diffusion of politically correct speech regarding Roma issues, the media debates often translated SDS integration as a policy where the integration of the Roma was at stake.

…the positive side of the integration discourse was that among teachers, principals and school officials a certain verbal PC discourse developed that I hadn’t experienced before. You could not say such things to the recorder any more that could have been said let’s say in 2002” (SDS3).

In local education spaces many teachers, local decision makers and Roma activists also interpreted the PA as a program primarily targeting the Roma. From late 2006, however this interpretation was radically reframed by the emergence, and strengthening of, the “truth-discourse” constructed by the far-right movement. One of the core elements of this discourse argues that colour-blind policies tend to hide social conflicts related to the Roma, and that the dominant liberal “PC discourse” in fact lied and it suppressed the truth about the antisocial character of the Roma group. The discourse of the extremists focuses on the “true experiences” of the everyday laymen and documents it with narrative accounts and videos shared on the Internet.

Exoteric-rationalistic vs. esoteric-pragmatic reasoning: Objective and subjective interpretations of reality commonly clashed in the media. However, this dichotomous dramaturgic setting destabilized when expert evaluation results on the integration policy were contrasted in the conservative media. Recently, the authority of the experts’ position (and that of scientific truth claims) more and more often are challenged, and rising research fatigue and scepticism is also palpable in the public discourse. In the last two years, social scientists have often been accused of being politically biased and speaking a counter-effective politically correct language. A powerful sign of the translation failure between social scientists’ reality-perception and the claims evoking lay experiences was evident in the welcome speech of the Hungarian president held in late 2009 at an EU High Level Meeting on Roma Integration. Here, the Hungarian president stated that Gypsies are:

…over-researched. I was in Gypsy settlements invaded by sociologists for decades. Numberless conferences discuss and refine the knowledge on the causes, features and consequences of the deprivation of the Gypsies. The therapies offered according to the experts’ diagnoses are too general, stating that education, jobs, elimination of Roma settlements, and Gypsy intellectuals are a must. These general statements are for sure politically correct … But on the other hand, integration needs two sides” (The speech of László Sólyom, President of Hungary 2005-2010).

Lay knowledge: Here, lay and professional experiences are increasingly present and expressed in the blogosphere, where personal accounts showcase reflections on policy.

NEUMANN Eszter with BERÉNIY Eszter & BAJOMI Iván (2010), The Politics of Seating Plans, KNOWandPOL report, 93-96. BAJOMI Iván, BERÉNIY Eszter & NEUMANN Eszter (2008), The social and cognitive mapping of policy, The education sector in Hungary, NÉMETH Sz. (ed.) (2004), Esély az együttnevelésre [Chance for Integration], Budapest: Institute of Public Education. RESZKETŐ P., SCHARLE Á. & VÁRADI B. (2010), A TÁMOP 3.3.1 közoktatási esélyegyenlőségi projekt értékelése [The External Evaluation of the Equal Opportunities - Integration Priority Project], Budapest: Budapest Institute.

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