A Double Honor

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At today’s opening ceremony for the school year at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, I had one of the greatest honors of my life. I received two prizes: the “pedagógus emlékplakett” (pedagogical memorial plaque) and the Teacher’s Oscar in the language category. The recipients of both awards are determined annually by votes: the first by the faculty, the second by the students. What a great affirmation and encouragement this is. I treasure these awards and everything that they mean. Thank you!

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Many others received awards today (teachers, two students who graduated last year, and the president of the parent association)–but if I try to list them, I will probably leave someone out inadvertently. Once the names are published, I will include the link here–and if I can’t find it, I will ask for the full list at school. Congratulations to all.

There is so much to look forward to this year. I think of the projects underway–two drama projects, Folyosó, an Orwell project–and the collaboration with different colleagues. I don’t know how things will play out with the coronavirus this year–we have a protocol in place, but things can change–but no matter what happens, we will find ways to do interesting things and help students accomplish their goals. Even though wearing a mask in the classroom will be uncomfortable, I am glad that we can have classes in person. We can use the masks on our faces the way Demosthenes, according to legend, used stones in his mouth: as a challenge to speak more clearly. Or as a challenge to stay silent–who knows? We will see. At least we don’t have to wear masks over our eyes.

 

Pedagogical Time Travel

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Yesterday I attended two professional development sessions (one online, one in person) hosted by the school district here in Szolnok. The presentations were clear, eloquent, and heartfelt. The content, to my surprise, brought old back memories of professional development sessions in New York City in the years 2005-2009 or so. In particular, there was extensive mention of learning styles, 21st century skills, cooperative learning, and positive feedback. (I did not hear a word about the Danielson Framework, growth mindset, or grit, which came into prominence a little later.)

I have long questioned and criticized the extremes to which the above concepts have been taken in the U.S. (Some of them are questionable from the start.) I don’t see Hungary taking them to extremes any time soon, nor do I see any intention to do so later.  So I am not particularly worried at the moment. But I found the situation interesting and thought-provoking.

Many Hungarian educators and others believe that the current system here is too rigid, stressful, and punitive, and that Hungary needs to prepare students–at many levels and with many different needs–for the demands of the current world and workplace, as well as for democratic participation. I recognize all of this. But it is possible to transform the system without knocking it down entirely. One of the strengths of Hungarian education is the substance of the curriculum. Granted, there’s too much cramming and too little choice–but high school students learn history and literature, physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, foreign languages, geography, art, music, drama, ethics, civilization, physical education, and more. In class discussions, I have found that they are able to draw on their knowledge from other subjects when making arguments or analyzing a text. It would be a shame to lose most or all of that. As I have argued many times, you can’t think critically if you don’t have something to think about. You also need patience with challenges–including the discipline of reading carefully, working on a problem until a solution comes through, or listening to an extended presentation.

My own teaching is a combination of the traditional and the “progressive” (for lack of a better word). I believe strongly in subject matter but also believe in taking time with texts and ideas, hearing different perspectives, pursuing a greater understanding. I bring literature, music, and drama into my language teaching–because language is nothing without them. I am also continually criticizing my own work, adjusting it, thinking about ways to do it better, and learning from colleagues.

This is possible at Varga because students do have a basis (and ample focus and patience), and the school is supportive. When the basis or support is lacking, the cohesion breaks down. You might have a class of 25-35 students, 10 of whom are eager to take on any challenge, another 10 of whom are happy to do what is required to pass, and another 5-15 of whom are so far behind, or so unused to sustained concentration, that they disrupt class unless given something basic to do. So you are told to differentiate. But differentiate what? In the U.S., the curriculum writing is often left to the teachers themselves–so that there is no unified understanding of what students are supposed to be learning. Only those schools and districts that set out to develop a curriculum, or that adopt one from elsewhere, actually have one. This is especially true in English; while many schools have book lists in common, there is not one literary work that you can assume students will have read by the end of high school. I have managed in such situations–for years–but much of my energy went into preparing materials, managing the classroom, calling parents, and getting through the day. And even with that, I taught students language, literature, drama, and philosophy, directed plays, and more. (Columbia Secondary School was and is different–it does have curricula, and the students have a foundation.)

It is interesting to see education from several sides and through time. You can do all sorts of interesting things in class–and with homework assignments and projects–when you have a foundation and good working material, and when you put thought into your approach and respond to what is happening. So I see good in what Hungarian schools are trying to do right now. I also see good in what they already have. Is there a way to bring together the best of both–to make the curriculum and pedagogical approaches more flexible, without losing the substance or falling for a fad? Yes, it is possible; good schools over the centuries have done this. Yet it cannot be taken for granted, nor does it ever reach stable perfection. It will go sharp and flat, we will flub a note or two, and we must retune, practice, and play it, again and again.

 

Image courtesy of NBC News.

 

The Synagogue Concert in Mátészalka

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Yesterday I was right up against the line. To get to Mátészalka in time for the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s synagogue concert, I would have to catch the 1:38 train, transfer in Debrecen, and arrive there at 5. The concert started at 6 and was supposed to last about an hour. So if it ended at 7, I might be able to make it back to the train station by 7:15 and catch the last train that would get me back to Szolnok before midnight (the following train, in fact, would get me back at 4 a.m.). The whole thing was so unlikely that I thought, close to the last minute, “Maybe I should just stay home.” But then I headed out the door (on the late side), pedaled with all my might to the train station, locked up my bike, and caught the train. (I caught the return train too.)

Sometimes you know that something is important and that you need to be there. Sometimes you don’t. In this case I knew. But I didn’t know why, except that I hadn’t been able to attend a synagogue concert in a year. Last fall, they were all too far away; by “too far” I mean that I would have had no way of getting out there or of returning to work on time the following day. Last spring, they were cancelled because of the pandemic. But there was more to it than the long wait. I love this synagogue concert series, which the Budapest Festival Orchestra started in 2014 with the goal of playing in every synagogue in Hungary–for free, for the local communities. Shortly before moving to Hungary, in September 2017, I attended the concerts in Albertirsa and Baja. After moving here, I attended the ones in Szeged, Békés, and Gyula. This was to be my sixth.

As you ride from Debrecen to Mátészalka (the farthest east I have ever traveled in Hungary), you start to enter a different Hungary. Thick forests, sequestered towns, a large Roma population. Once I arrived in Mátészalka, the walk to the synagogue was easy: one road for a stretch, than another. And then I saw the synagogue itself and gasped.

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The sun was hitting the building in dapples, through the trees. People stood outside, waiting for the concert. Kids zipped up and down the quiet street on their bicycles and scooters. And nearby was the Szatmári Museum, two churches, and other elegant buildings. You can imagine a time when Jews and Christians lived, worked, and worshipped side by side; the street preserves the feeling. That in turn reveals a Hungarian wound. Even before going inside, I was close to tears.

The audience members wore masks. (The hall filled up much more than the early picture at the top suggests.) The concert, in terms of program, followed a familiar format: an introduction, a piece, a short presentation by a rabbi, the rest of the official part of the program, and the encores. A local community leader would also speak about the town.

All of this took place. The official program consisted of Jean Françaix‘s Wind Quartet and the second movement of Max Bruch’s string octet in B. Then there were two klezmer pieces at the end–a slower piece that evokes a familiar “Nishmat” melody, and a livelier piece with clarinet at the center.

But this concert was different from all the others that I have attended so far, maybe because so much was familiar that I could notice other things. The light was like threads of gold. The sound rested in the air. I saw that the musicians were playing out of love and out of the knowledge that this had to be done. Like my traveling out there, in a way.

Most of the musicians I have heard before, in previous synagogue concerts and other concerts. Rita Sovány’s cello, Ákos Ács’s clarinet had a joy to them. You don’t even touch a thing like that. What do you say about it? My words fall this way and that.

The music ended at 7. There was another short speech, but I slipped out and ran as fast as I could for the station. I stopped for a split second to take a picture of the town hall.

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I made it to the train station just in time, got on the train, and took a picture through the window somewhere along the way, as the sun folded past the ground.

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Here are some beautiful pictures of the three most recent synagogue concerts.

With Fondness and Respect

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Yesterday we had an outdoor faculty meeting in preparation for the school year, which begins on September 1. The principal began by welcoming us back “with fondness and respect” (“szeretettel és tisztelettel”). This common Hungarian phrase has no equivalent in English; it set a nice tone for the morning. The head of the school district said a few words, a number of teachers were recognized for excellent work in the previous year, we discussed some aspects of the school year (more meetings are ahead), and we went over fire and other emergency procedures.

Today I went in for a meeting with the arts faculty. Since I include drama and music in my teaching and have two big drama projects lined up for this year, I was welcomed into the “munkaközösség,” a faculty working group. It was great to be part of the discussion and hear about plans, concerns, needs, and so on. The arts at Varga are rich, and now the school’s second building, Building B, will be devoted to the arts. The drama room will have a stage; it will become a little auditorium!

IMG_3123I am essentially entering my fourth year at Varga (and my fourteenth full year of teaching), hard as that is to believe. I say “essentially” because I started at the beginning of November 2017–so it has been three years minus two months. But still, given that I jumped right in, it’s fair to say that this is my fourth year. So my students who were in ninth grade when I arrived will be graduating this year.

We will have classes in person but will take certain precautions and prepare to adjust plans if necessary. The country will respond locally to the situation–so if one part of the country is harder hit, it will have stricter regulations than areas with few coronavirus cases. It will be a while before life in Budapest returns to normal, it seems, though small events are happening again, and university students are returning for hybrid instruction. Here in Szolnok, in contrast, the situation seems stable and safe right now.

I have missed Varga, classes, students, and colleagues. It is a wonderful place to teach–a dream school, as far as I am concerned–and I have been thinking about why. I will say more about that another time. This afternoon I am about to take the train out to Mátészalka for one of the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s synagogue concerts. I wasn’t able to attend any last fall, because they were all too far away; the last of their synagogue concerts that I attended was in Gyula, in September 2018. This one’s a bit far too, but feasible, if I head out in the next few minutes.

The Phrase “Growth Mindset” and Its Problems

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I have brought up growth mindset, skeptically, many times on this blog; in addition, I dedicated a chapter to it in my second book, Mind over Memes. My basic argument is that we both have and need a mixture of mindsets; while it can be damaging to believe that your abilities are absolutely fixed, there is no evidence that an unfettered belief in growth would benefit anyone. Beyond this, something bothers me about “growth mindset” as a term. Conceptual problems aside, the phrase itself rings false.

My criticisms take nothing away from Carol Dweck’s and others’ research; they aren’t about the research. Nor do they disparage those who have been helped by the concept of growth mindset. Rather, they take up the matter from a linguistic and philosophical standpoint. Today I will focus on the linguistic.

I have already brought up the problem with each of the two words. Limitless growth is not always desirable; moreover, our attitudes about improvement may not constitute a “mindset.” Together, the two words ring with an importance that has not been earned. “Growth mindset” sounds like a life solution, an attitude that, once adopted, will open you up to happiness and success. As a result, anyone who questions “growth mindset” gets accused of negativity, even unhappiness. Unless you are a terrible, mean, frustrated person, how could you possibly criticize something that liberates people, that allows them to reach their true potential? If you oppose growth mindset in any way, aren’t you wishing stultification upon the world?

Dostoevsky’s Underground Man would have had a field day with this. But even a happy person, a person who does believe in certain kinds of improvement, can have serious qualms about “growth mindset” as a concept, without being mean or wishing anyone ill. Unfortunately, the very phrase “growth mindset” is constructed to imply otherwise. It’s like “cooperative learning” in that way. If you question or criticize anything about “cooperative learning,” you get written off as uncooperative.

A week ago, in a New York Times article, Alina Tugend wrote about making a mistake, long ago, in a New York Times column. After that mistake, she found herself wondering why people berate themselves so much for mistakes; later she wrote a book on the subject. One of her major sources of insight and inspiration was Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and the accompanying research, which she summarized in the present article. The next part of the article described an interview with Dweck during the pandemic. Could growth mindset help people through the Covid crisis? Dweck replied with laudable caution, but Tugend offered reasons for optimism. She concluded the article by reflecting on the process of writing it. It had not been easy:

This article, the one you are reading, proved to be a mini-Mount Everest for me. Somehow I couldn’t get it right. My editor offered some helpful comments, but a second try also fell flat. My first thought was “Oh forget it — this just won’t work.” The second thought was an internal wry smile and an acknowledgment that I wasn’t demonstrating much of a growth mind-set. Back to the computer.

Now, scrapping a piece isn’t necessarily a sign of “fixed mindset,” but I’ll leave that aside for now. The point is that this article was more of a personal reflection than anything else. The comments varied widely–some enthusiastic, some critical or skeptical, but I didn’t see anything nasty. No putdowns, no ad hominem remarks. All in all, they were remarkably civil and thoughtful. Then I saw this:

Alina,
Thank you for the article and persevering through the challenges of putting it together. No quick and easy answers in psychology, and mindset only gives us a small part of the big picture, but a useful part. Try not to give these comments too much time, lots of stone throwing unhappy people reading the Times these days. Stay in the light.

I see the commenter’s point about not giving the comments too much time. But what was with those “stone throwing unhappy people”? If people had been hurling insults at her, or even at the article, that remark would have made sense. But if objecting to some aspect of “growth mindset” is tantamount to “stone throwing” or “unhappiness,” then there’s something manipulative about the phrase itself. It automatically casts aspersions on those who sidestep its temple.

Many fads and cults depend on phrases like this, phrases that sound so good on the surface that only a cruel, miserable person could question them. This does not mean that the researchers themselves have sought to create any kind of cult or fad–in fact, they have resisted this, from what I can tell–but the phrase lends itself to that kind of thinking. There are the Good and Enlightened who believe in Growth Mindset, even if their own growth mindset isn’t perfect. Then there are the Bad and Deluded who have reservations of one kind or another. The one group walks in the light, the other in confusion and brambles.

The Underground Man’s words (I decided to quote him after all) hit the mark. This is from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Part I, Chapter 10:

You believe in a palace of crystal that can never be destroyed—a palace at which one will not be able to put out one’s tongue or make a long nose on the sly. And perhaps that is just why I am afraid of this edifice, that it is of crystal and can never be destroyed and that one cannot put one’s tongue out at it even on the sly.

You see, if it were not a palace, but a hen-house, I might creep into it to avoid getting wet, and yet I would not call the hen-house a palace out of gratitude to it for keeping me dry. You laugh and say that in such circumstances a hen-house is as good as a mansion. Yes, I answer, if one had to live simply to keep out of the rain.

Exactly! The problem with “growth mindset” as a phrase is that “one will not be able to put out one’s tongue or make a long nose on the sly.” That, and it is more of a hen-house than a palace. It can help with certain things, up to a point, but it is not the answer to all of life, nor is anyone obligated to pursue its perfect, complete manifestation. In fact, there’s reason to think that that would be hell.

The organization MindsetWorks continues to promote the notion that everyone should be on a “journey” to more growth mindset.

Our mindsets exist on a continuum from fixed to growth, and although we’d like to always have a growth mindset, the reality is that we can only be on a journey to a growth mindset. The goal is to recognize fixed mindset elements in ourselves and then reflect on feedback and strategies for how to improve.

This is the “crystal palace” through and through; MindsetWorks not only puts it forth as an ideal but also leaves no room for the possibility that someone might “be on a journey” to a different destination. No, we are all supposed to examine ourselves for any remaining elements of “fixed mindset” and remove them, one by one, until we all radiate perfect growth and eat each other up.

What would I offer instead of “growth mindset”? Well, I see no need for a catchy phrase at all. Instead, adopt a working principle that humans are capable of improvement and learning. Bring that principle into teaching, employment, and other areas of life–show it through your own attitudes and practices–and remember that it does not encompass the truth about a person, a subject, or the world.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

This and That

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A beautiful, long vacation is coming to a close. I don’t remember when I last had such a stretch of time. It was a long time ago.

Yesterday I finished reading Sándor Márai’s novel Kassai őrjárat (Košice Patrol) in Hungarian. It’s the second novel I have read in Hungarian; the first was Krisztián Grecsó’s Vera, which took much longer. Kassai őrjárat, Márai’s meditation on his return to Košice a few weeks after the German invasion of Paris in 1940 (and a few months before Hungary joined the Axis powers), is both beautiful and perplexing, both prophetic and off the mark. It is clear that at this time he did not know what Germany was doing; he believed, or his narrator believed, that if writers and other artists lived up to their responsibility, and if European nations could both work together and retain their individual identity, Europe might enter a new and glorious phase. He saw the writers of his generation shrinking away from their importance; he saw pseudo-writers, concerned mostly with fame and career, filling the gap. He saw the decline of the book from a sacred object to a saleable item. But he did not see what was coming–or, probably, much of what was going on right then and there–in the war.

But even with the blind spots, it is an absorbing, moving book. Maybe the blind spots made it even more so. None of us sees everything that is going on at a particular time. At best, one of us might offer new information, perspectives, or synthesis. But anything any of us observes or reports is incomplete. The imagination fills in the rest, for better, for worse, or for a mixture.

Besides reading, writing, and translating, I have gone on many bike rides and evening runs. When I moved to Hungary in October 2017 (almost three years ago), I looked forward to getting on the bike and going wherever I wanted–on a long or short trip, on bike paths, regular roads, or other routes. In this I have not been disappointed. Today I biked out to Millér and then followed a dirt road for a long time. It was my first time on that particular dirt road.

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Another beautiful part of this summer has had to do with Shabbat. My own synagogue, Szim Salom, has been online throughout the pandemic; members have been taking turns leading services, and only twice a month have the rabbi and I led. But these occasions have been sweet and strong, even with all the technical difficulties. And I have attended B’nai Jeshurun and Shearith Israel online services as well. The time difference makes that a bit strange but no less lovely; on Friday I tuned in to B’nai Jeshurun at midnight (6 p.m. in NYC).

My Hungarian is still far from fluent (in the true sense of the word), but it made some leaps this summer. I think back to a year ago; the progress has been substantial. At that time, I understood a lot but could express myself only slowly and haltingly, with limited vocabulary. Now, in more and more situations, I can express myself and respond to others without hesitation.

The summer has also been filled with music; I listen to a lot at home and went to two concerts: one by two members of Platon Karataev, and the other, last Friday, by Marcell Bajnai. This Saturday evening I intend to go hear Marcell’s band Idea (formerly 1LIFE) in Budapest.

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There is much more to say about the summer and other things, more than I can bring up right now, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Dominó and Sziszi, who have brought so much to these days. See them below. And now the season is turning, and I look forward to returning to school and picking up the tempo a bit.

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A Premise of Generosity

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It has taken me most of my life to understand that it’s not only reasonable but necessary to expect a basic generosity in everyday relationships. That is, I now expect that people will not condemn each other for a simple mistake, or look for fault in each other, or reject those with whom they disagree. This does not mean that everyone has to be friends or that people must surround themselves with “positivity.” You can have people around you who offer criticism at times, who go through their ups and downs, and who are not always there for you in a literal sense. But just as they have their own limits and imperfections, they will allow for limits and imperfections in others. Most important of all, they will let the relationship–be it a work relationship, friendship, family relationship, or romantic relationship–continue over the long term, unless it comes to a true impasse.

In my early adulthood, and here and there later on, I lived with intense fear that people would reject or leave me, especially people within my general age range. (I was much more confident, say, in my rapport with professors and teachers.) There were various sources of this fear, but there was a blind spot too. What I didn’t understand was that I could set a standard of basic generosity, both for others’ treatment of me and for my treatment of others. That is, if someone were to reject me out of hand, for a small mistake or for something in my personality, then that relationship would not meet the standard and did not deserve my focus anyway. This doesn’t mean that the other person was unworthy. Rather, the relationship was.

Rejections and fallouts will still happen, even with a premise of generosity. Some people do not click. Some are so persistent with their destructive habits that they drive others past their patience. But a basic generosity allows you to get to know a person, to tolerate a range of personalities and quirks, and to be tolerated as well. There is a mutuality to it.

How strange that, now that I understand this fully, I see us moving into a culture of condemnation: where a teenager’s college admission can be revoked because of an obnoxious tweet, where someone can lose a top editorial position for publishing a poem deemed offensive, where people dig up dirt from others’ pasts just to ruin their reputations, or, short of all of this, where people just assume and post the worst about each other. Why are people so eager to hurt each other and so sure of their justification for doing so?

Part of this has to do with a rejection of contradictions. People are not allowed to have internal conflicts; if their words and actions don’t all line up, they get blasted as hypocrites. But contradictions make people interesting. At times (not always), they go deeper than consistencies, since there are questions, uncertainties, and discrepancies that we wrestle with–or neglect to wrestle with–our entire lives. Sometimes there’s even a larger consistency holding the seeming inconsistency together.

This morning I finished a new translation of a poem by Gyula Jenei. It’s the sixteenth of his poems that I have translated so far. It tells the story of one afternoon in elementary school when the principal visits the class–the one and only time she does so. She’s a rather grotesque figure–short, pudgy, old, with lipstick smearing onto her front teeth–and she begins by asking the children a question and turning it into a silly pun with a consonant change. But even as the children smile, and then laugh, they sense, with slight anxiety, that the principal has the freedom to do whatever she pleases: she can joke, smile, yell, anything. Poem-time passes by; the narrator tells us that he later teases his children with the same joke, and the thoughts about this lead into a surprising ending. I don’t want to say more about it, because it is better as a poem, and I don’t want to quote it just yet. But I thought about the narrator’s perception in this poem: how he sees his changing roles in time, how the poem’s mild villain, the principal (not really a villain, but a little bit scary all the same), could be any of us.

That is the contradiction that people don’t want to accept: that each of us is capable of being–or perhaps already is–many of the things we fear and reject. Not across the board, but enough to give a person pause. And if I am those things, I can allow them in others too.

I took the photo in Budapest on Thursday evening. Also, I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.

 

On Political Correctness

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Many Hungarians across the political spectrum dislike political correctness. For one thing, they had enough of it during the Soviet era; for another, they perceive it as a largely Western (mainly U.S.) creation. Most of all, they do not want to be forced to accept a set of political views or to speak in a certain way. While many stay out of politics altogether, they still want the flexibility to assess issues separately. Those who do believe in political correctness still take an independent approach to it.

Thus, for instance, there are Hungarians who support gay rights and transgender rights but are skeptical of gender fluidity and the new pronouns (Hungarian pronouns do not indicate gender, but Hungarians are aware of new pronouns in English); who support a generous immigration policy but also believe that immigrants should integrate into mainstream society; who oppose racism but hold a negative view of Roma people; or who criticize the current government but consider it an improvement over the Gyurcsány regime. There are many other variations and combinations–but what brings them together is a rejection of political correctness, of packages of views and beliefs.

As for politically correct language, many find it too constraining; they don’t want to be watching their words all the time or hesitating to tell jokes. Many have told me that Hungarians don’t generally take jokes and light insults all that personally, and that it would be a shame if they did. The ease of rough banter and teasing would be gone.

On the other hand, this ease is not always so easy. Bullying exists in Hungary, and many want to pay more attention to it. Along these lines, there are some who see justification for certain kinds of political correctness: for instance, those who recognize that certain words and phrases can hurt people and who do not want to participate in that injury. Or who see issues–and attitudes toward them–as interconnected and interdependent. But from what I have seen so far, many Hungarians do not want political correctness to take over their lives and speech (whether from the left or from the right).

Viktor Orbán is well aware of this; when he decries liberal political correctness, he knows that he is echoing a popular view. Some see his anti-PC rhetoric as a way of evading larger problems in the country. But he still portrays himself as a defender of the country against EU/liberal/Soros encroachments and impositions, including political correctness.

I find the general Hungarian resistance to political correctness refreshing. At the same time, I don’t think it’s fair of Orbán to treat it as a foreign imposition, given that he and his party, Fidesz, have their own version of it. Political correctness can occur anywhere; its terms and wielders change, but it reappears in different guises. Nor is every aspect of it bad; in some cases, it reflects a desire for consistency and unity. Its danger is that it shuts off expression, discussion, and questions and makes language terribly grim.

In the U.S., political correctness has reached an unhealthy extreme. For instance, in antiracism trainings hosted by the New York City Department of Education (and other school districts around the country), people are taught that “scientific, linear thinking” and “valuing the written word over other forms of communication” are “hallmarks of whiteness” and therefore oppressive. If you question this, you are supposedly “being fragile.” This is not a constructive way to tackle racism. When you divide personal and cultural traits among races, you reinforce racism instead of dismantling it. Racial differences exist, for historical and other reasons, but not in a deterministic way, and not in isolation.

At their most strident, the politically correct not only hold a predictable set of views (predictable at a given point in time–the combinations tend to change), but condemn those who disagree even slightly or who say things in an unacceptable way. Some views really are obnoxious, hateful, or dangerous. But a great many are simply different from what the politically correct have decided to deem acceptable.

The problem has to do with excessive certainty. Here everyone participates, not only the politically correct. All of us have situations where we act on unwarranted conclusions–when we cling to a judgment about a person, situation, or subject. The surety has its place and time, but it also needs to come down. When to be sure, and when to let go of the sureness? There is no final answer; all a person can do is keep on asking.

And we ALL know about Hungary….

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For many liberals in the U.S., Hungary has become a symbol of everything abhorrent. Just mention Hungary, and you get the eyerolls and the nods–yes, we all know about Hungary, we all know about Orbán. Which is understandable, except that often the knowledge isn’t there, or it lacks inquisitiveness. Many reporters, not to mention laypeople, opine freely on Hungary without knowing Hungarian, studying Hungarian history and literature, or spending time in the country. Even some U.S. reporters living here insist on seeing certain things and not others.

There is far more to the country than Viktor Orbán, both inside and outside of politics. Those who care about Hungary could help by shedding light on–or at least taking interest in–what is happening here.

Earlier this month, for instance, the editorial board and more than 70 staff members of Index.hu, Hungary’s largest independent news source, resigned in protest over the firing of editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull. There were large protests in Budapest. The dispute continues, and there is much more to it than may appear. The journalist and fiction writer Sándor Jászberényi–not one to soften or mitigate his words–writes in a Facebook post that the freedom of the press has not died in Hungary–or if it has, it died around thirty years ago, when it became possible to buy out a newspaper in the first place. This is the way capitalism works. Jászberényi blames the protesters themselves to a degree, for not bothering to pay for the news that they want to read. His post has 326 comments at this point–and many more comments can be found in the 327 shares. His point is not that freedom of the press is thriving in Hungary. Rather, if people want it, they have to give something for it. Not everyone agrees with him, but his points demand introspection and are worth considering seriously.

In the U.S., I imagine that some were surprised to learn that Index.hu even existed–that there was an independent press in Hungary at all. Look at news about Hungary from the past four years or so. Only a couple of articles mention Index. The recent mentions all follow the narrative that Orbán is taking over the media (which is largely true but needs more careful analysis–consider, for instance, that many people read foreign news online).

Analyses of Hungarian politics sometimes leave out essential information. An otherwise illuminating article by Sahil Handa, published yesterday on Persuasion, states, “Since the outbreak of COVID-19, things have gone from bad to worse. When the epidemic hit, Orbán quickly moved to expand his powers even further. Imposing an open-ended state of emergency, he granted himself the power to rule by decree and made the spread of “fake news” punishable by up to five years in prison. All elections have been cancelled for an indefinite period.” Mr. Handa didn’t mention that the Hungarian Parliament voted on June 16 to end the emergency powers–which officially expired at midnight on June 17. Granted, a new health emergency law has been enacted; many worry that it essentially gives the government continued emergency powers, or at least a mechanism for reinstating them. But it is not the same thing. The point is not to dismiss criticism of Orbán and his party, but rather to sharpen it by making it more precise.

The situation is much more complex than U.S.-based analysis tends to acknowledge. Just about everyone on the left says that Hungary has swung to the far right–but this is not true across the board. In October 2019, Budapest and a number of other cities elected liberal mayors. In December 2019, Gergely Karácsony, the new mayor of Budapest, joined with the mayors of Bratislava, Prague, and Warsaw to sign a Free Cities Pact, which promised to promote “common values of freedom, human dignity, democracy, equality, rule of law, social justice, tolerance and cultural diversity.” I have seen no articles about this in the U.S. press, except for a piece by the Associated Press. Doesn’t this deserve attention? Or are people committed to equating Orbán with Hungary?

What bothers me is not U.S. liberal criticism of Hungary, but the lack of curiosity about the country, the eagerness to use it as a punching bag. This is giving Orbán part of what he appears to want: first of all, a reason to ridicule liberals for their misrepresentation of the facts, and second, an equation between himself and Hungary. This lack of curiosity is bad for discussion itself; it deflects introspection and touts caricatures.

Moreover, when criticizing politicians or governments, one should be willing to acknowledge things they have done well. No one slamming Hungary bothers to mention that the country takes the coronavirus pandemic seriously, has heeded the recommendations of Cecilia Müller, the chief medical officer, and has managed to limit the outbreak. Restrictions have been lifting gradually. Did Orbán and Fidesz take advantage of the situation for their own political benefit? There are legitimate arguments that they have. Did they also take appropriate measures to protect public health? Evidently so, as did local leaders. To my knowledge, there was no one demonizing the medical experts, no one ranting that the pandemic was a hoax. If such rants exist here, they are rare.

I am not immersed in Hungarian politics. My interests lie elsewhere. But from what I have seen, one of Orbán’s weaknesses lies in his dismissal of all criticism as liberal nonsense and propaganda. Over time, such a stance engenders cynicism; people stop believing what the government says. To gain the trust of the public, a leader must be willing to look at a situation from more than one side and to acknowledge when someone else is right. Journalists can contribute to the public good, in Hungary, in the U.S., and elsewhere, by setting an example.

One can add to all this that there is more to a country than its politics. I have made that point many times, and it’s a large subject in itself. But if you are going to talk politics, look past the surface, be willing not to know everything, be willing to see things that don’t fit your preconceptions, and don’t just repeat what you’ve heard from others.

I made a few minor stylistic edits to this piece after posting it.

The Idea of Vacation

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First of all, welcome to Dominó (also known as Mézes), the new member of the household! I had been realizing for a few weeks that Sziszi needed a feline friend, and I knew that Mézes needed a home. The Mimóza Macskamentő Alapítvány, a cat rescue service, was taking care of him. I had to wait a couple of weeks for him to be medically cleared (he was being treated for giardia), but once the tests came back negative, I went to pick him up. As soon we arrived home and I opened the box, the two of them started playing. They have been playing and resting ever since.

That brings us to the subject of vacation. Without making grand cultural generalizations, I can say that I have seen different views of vacation in the U.S. and here. In the U.S., many people rate their vacations in terms of how productive they were. Even travels are supposed to be productive–you go to many places, see a lot, etc. (“I got a lot done” is what you might hear afterward, and what I have often said, or not.) Here in Hungary, by contrast, the people I know expect vacation to be restful. “Jó pihenést” (Have a good rest) is what we wish each other. Now, this is already oversimplified: many Americans relax during their time off, and many Hungarians use their vacations to get things done or to learn something new. But there’s a different view of what should happen.

It is hard to get rid of the sense that I am not being productive enough. This summer, so far, I have translated three poems (two from Hungarian and one from Lithuanian) and a story, written an essay for an incipient Hungarian-English literary journal, Krajcáros Igazság / The Penny Truth, written six of seven parts of a long poem, settled into–and set up–my new place, adopted two kittens, and gone on runs and bike rides. Also, I have dealt with numerous situations, entirely in Hungarian–an apparent problem with my washing machine (easily fixed), furniture orders and delivery, doctor’s appointments, a condominium association meeting, and much more. All in all, I would say that isn’t too bad. But sometimes I catch myself thinking that I should have done more.

On the other hand, there are Hungarians who would consider this far too work-like for a vacation. Why haven’t I gone to Lake Balaton? (I will, just not in the peak of summer, since I have to be careful in the sun.) Why haven’t I gone on more day trips, socialized more, etc.? I do look forward to a day trip or two, with the bike or maybe a bike/train combination. But it’s hard to explain that I enjoy working on my projects during vacation. Not only that, but it’s important for me; it’s the rare time when I have stretches of time. And it has felt very relaxed; I have done things without rush, and each morning has a leisurely beginning (with the NYT mini crossword puzzle, the Spelling Bee game, the Letter Boxed game, etc.).

So the differences really come down to the “shoulds”: people’s idea of what a vacation is supposed to be. In any culture, there is more than one “should” happening at once. Sometimes they even contradict each other. But you can feel the relative pull of one “should” or another. To some extent, “shoulds” are a nuisance and an impediment. Do what you want, for crying out loud! But they will always be there, even dimly, and sometimes they can do good.

So far, I have considered what people do during vacation. The other big question is “with whom.” In the U.S., at least among the people I know, it is considered normal to spend vacation alone. In fact, many relish the idea of having some time to themselves. In Hungary, it’s largely unheard of (and somewhat frowned upon). Some people understand how it’s possible to enjoy time alone, but overall this is accepted less than in the U.S.

On the other hand, in the U.S. there’s a great fear of having time alone to think. There’s an old belief, going back to Puritan times or farther, that too much thinking will get you in trouble. That in turn justifies productivity: if you keep yourself busy, you have less time for thinking, and that is a Good Thing. I haven’t encountered that fear of thinking in Hungary, at least not to the same extent. This may have something to do with my surroundings–I teach at a school full of thinkers–but I think it goes beyond that.

Vacations say a lot about a culture, but the teachings are complex. How people spend their free time–when it actually exists–is no trivial matter; to have a good vacation, you have to be a bit of a rebel–down with the shoulds!–and a bit of a traditionalist (some shoulds are worth having after all).

In any case, Gertrude Stein said it best in “A Light in the Moon“:

A LIGHT in the moon the only light is on Sunday. What was the sensible decision. The sensible decision was that notwithstanding many declarations and more music, not even withstanding the choice and a torch and a collection, notwithstanding the celebrating hat and a vacation and even more noise than cutting, notwithstanding Europe and Asia and being overbearing, not even notwithstanding an elephant and a strict occasion, not even withstanding more cultivation and some seasoning, not even with drowning and with the ocean being encircling, not even with more likeness and any cloud, not even with terrific sacrifice of pedestrianism and a special resolution, not even more likely to be pleasing. The care with which the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is wrong, the care with which there is a chair and plenty of breathing. The care with which there is incredible justice and likeness, all this makes a magnificent asparagus, and also a fountain.

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