Where are the ’folks’?

The lack of democratic and emancipatory public education in Hungary?

The relations between 20th-century culture, intelligentsia and public education have been the theme of many exhibitions. Recent examples, without aspiring to completeness, include the ‘overture’ titled Enlargements – 1963. Solvere et Ligare and Its Era, organised under József Mélyi’s outstanding curatorship, and Gaudiopolis 2017, organised as part of the OFF-Biennale. The latter, organised in the exhibition venue of the Open Society Archives, placed at its focus the efforts of Lutheran pastor Gábor Sztehlo, who saved hundreds of children during WW II, while proclaiming the importance not only of pedagogy but public education in general. Although the period of 1945-1948 was only a brief one it was nevertheless imbued with hope and the spirit of experimentation. Experimental pedagogical programmes were also launched later, in the 1970s; these were featured by Lődi Virág’s excellent exhibition Pedagogical Partisan Action, organised in Der Punkt Gallery, also in the framework of the 2017 OFF-Biennale. These three examples are linked by one aspect: they pointed out the importance of pedagogy, education and Bildung, drawing attention to the fact that schools provide the foundation of and opportunity for a new society. What had been shown to audiences implicitly or explicitly in Enlargements and Gaudiopolis was approached only as a distant memory in Pedagogical Partisan Action, evoking the 1970s and the 1980s. This memory was no other than the system of the so-called folk or people’s colleges that reached out to children in villages and farmsteads, who could not partake in the benefits of modernisation, by including them in formal education and thus opening up to them the opportunity of social advancement. But what exactly were folk colleges? Why were they ascribed the attribute ’folk’? And why is so little said about them?

Indeed, the National Alliance of Folk Colleges (Nékosz) is in the cross-section of Hungarian social and educational history and deserving of wider recognition than what it receives these days. While Nékosz might have been a contradictory organisation of a contradictory era, the study of its formation, its goals, organisation and methods should nevertheless not be neglected.

The Alliance was formed after WW II to unite all folk colleges, but its veritable history must be dated to before 1945, since the institution of the folk college was inextricably linked to the movement that emerged in the early 1930s with the aim of supporting the advancement of the peasantry and landless farmers, who constituted more than half of Hungary’s population at the time. It was recognised only in this period that starting from the last third of the 19th century a huge divide had existed in the structure of modern Hungarian society between the urban population and the agrarian populations of villages and farmsteads.

Individual and collective field research projects were organised to explore the aforesaid problems with the objective of studying the living conditions of the peasantry and landless farmers, who had found themselves at the bottom of the supply chain of modernisation. These projects formed the basis of works in the area of what we refer to as folk sociography.