Castle ruins in the academic landscape of Europe?

Comments on Péter Sárközy’s article „Vár állott, most kőhalom…” A külföldi egyetemi magyar tanszékek múltja, jelene és…? Gondolatok a Nemzetközi Hungarológiai Társaság alapításának 40. évfordulóján [‘A castle stood, now a heap of stones…’ The chairs of Hungarian studies at foreign universities: their past, present, and ….? Thoughts on the 40th anniversary of the International Society for Hungarian Studies’], Hitel 11/2017: 68–80

In his paper, Péter Sárközy, retired professor of Hungarian literature at the La Sapienza university (Rome), focuses on the endangerment of academic Hungarian studies abroad. At most Western universities, he states, the chairs originally founded for the teaching of Hungarian studies have ceased to exist or are in the process of dying out.

First of all, the concept of Hungarian studies must be defined. For Sárközy, this means an academic institution (chair) which educates talented young people from other nations to become experts of the history, culture, society and economy of Hungary. For this, teachers of Hungarian studies (history, literature, language) must be available, teachers who can give professional assistance in finding answers to relevant questions. Language courses as part of Finno-Ugric or general linguistics are not enough, nor does it suffice for Hungarian studies – in Sárközy’s view – “if at one or two (mainly American) universities, at the institute of political studies some Hungarian visiting professors in the course of one semester explain (according to their own political attitudes) the historical past and present of their, hopefully, beloved homeland.”

As an academic discipline, Hungarian studies was from its very beginning an arena of national and political ambitions. Its history, which Sárközy briefly outlines in the second part of his essay, began after World War I and the deeply traumatizing peace treaty of Trianon, in which Hungary lost two thirds of its area and one third of ethnic Hungarians turned into minorities in their new home states. The development of international cultural institutions and networks was quite obviously seen as a compensation for these losses and as an attempt to reconquer in the field of culture what was (for the time being, as it seemed, irretrievably) lost in the field of state politics. This process led to the founding of Hungarian cultural institutes (Collegium Hungaricum) in various cities of Western Europe, and the state of Hungary also generously supported the teaching of Hungarian language and culture at numerous Western universities.

After World War II, this system, for obvious political reasons, lost its institutional support in Hungary for some time. However, part of these traditions were maintained with the help of those numerous Hungarian academics who had left their country (or chosen to remain in the West) in connection with the war or the revolution of 1956. From the 1960s on, the support from Hungary resumed. To support (or to counter-balance) the work of exile Hungarian scholars, visiting professors and researchers were sent out to Western universities again. In the last quarter of the 20th century, most Western countries had one or two universities in which a chair of Hungarian studies (magyar tanszék) in some form was operating.

This second golden era of Hungarian studies, for which Sárközy especially credits the renowned and influential literature scholar Tibor Klaniczay, is now – Sárközy claims – facing its end. After the end of the Socialist system, neither the state of Hungary nor the Western host states have shown sufficient interest in supporting the institutions of Hungarian studies. With the grand old men and grand old ladies of the golden era retiring, many universities have seized the opportunity to economize by completely cutting the funding of Hungarian studies, while – this is explicitly criticized by Sárközy – the state of Hungary seems to be more interested in maintaining a wide network of Hungarian language teachers than in promoting academic excellence in the research of Hungarian studies.

In face of these threats, Sárközy calls for increased support from the state of Hungary to university chairs of Hungarian studies or to those Hungarian cultural institutions (Collegium Hungaricum) which were originally founded to enable the work of visiting scholars or artists, as in Vienna, Paris, Berlin, or Rome; these institutes should also be involved in the academic education of Hungarian studies. Moreover, Hungary should exert more diplomatic pressure on universities and academic institutions to protect Hungarian studies from cuts in their funding.
So far, it is easy to agree with Sárközy about the importance of promoting Hungarian studies and the dangers of economically motivated “restructuring” in academia. However, from the viewpoint of Finno-Ugric studies and specifically the University of Vienna, there are some central points with which I beg to disagree.

Above all, Sárközy fails to understand the motivation of Hungarian studies for universities outside Hungary. While in Hungary, research into the Hungarian language, literature, or political history belongs to the Nationalwissenschaften, in the sense that each nation bears a special responsibility for the study of its language and culture, at any foreign university these areas of research must be seen and supported from a more general point of view and evaluated by more general criteria instead of Hungarian exceptionalism.

Hungarian studies in Berlin, Vienna, or Helsinki cannot function merely as a cultural arm of Hungarian foreign policy or as a window for the internationalization of Hungarian scholars and science, based on the interests of Hungarian institutions. They must also be integrated into international institutions and networks of research and higher education, and connected with the research traditions of the host country. Even if a “holistic” interest in a certain country and its culture (often arising from personal connections) is often a central motivating factor in the choice of Hungarian studies as a subject, nevertheless for serious students and scholars in other countries, “knowing Hungary” is seldom a goal in itself. Hungarian studies in other countries cannot claim an independent position without connections to related and more general, theoretical and methodological fields of study in the host country, such general or comparative literature studies, Finno-Ugric and/or general linguistics, general or Eastern European history, etc.

Could it be that one of the reasons for the present endangerment of Hungarian studies in many universities has been the failure to develop these connections? Diplomatic pressure and generous support from the “motherland” will not compensate for the (real or imagined) lack of cooperation and openness, or lack of measurable successes by generally applied criteria. Of course, if a university opts for really drastic economic measures, cutting all “minor” or “less important” philological disciplines, no cooperation nor networking will suffice – this seems to be what happened in Groningen, where not only Finno-Ugric but also Scandinavian studies fell victim to the cuts.

I fully agree with Sárközy about the importance of sending outstanding Hungarian scholars to foreign universities. However, this noble enterprise will not function without a strong infrastructure of well-integrated teachers on site. In addition to top-notch scholars, teachers are needed who can convey the necessary basic knowledge, especially the sufficient language skills, to students who may have been socialized in completely different traditions of teaching and learning, and prepare them for working in the complicated environments of Hungarian academia.

As I have myself experienced in Helsinki in the 1980s: even at a university with strong traditions and qualified Hungarian teachers who had done their best to provide the students with good language skills, the visiting professors from Hungary ended up lecturing about the basics in somewhat slowed-down and simplified Hungarian to a very small group of relatively advanced students who were fluent enough in the language. (My own experiences come from the lectures of István Szathmári, also explicitly mentioned by Sárközy.) Again, I agree with Sárközy in that a university must not turn into a “Berlitz language course”, but these lectures were not always on a much higher level of scholarship either. Probably much of these visiting professors’ potential remained unused – or was directed to other tasks, such as working on their writing projects in their relatively ample spare time, freed as they were from most administrative duties. Although not necessarily approving of it, I can well understand why a university in times of economic hardship will rather use its resources for better integrated and more “usable” personnel.

Finally, I must comment on what Sárközy writes about Hungarian studies as part of Finno-Ugristics, especially in connection with what he calls a “chair of Hungarian studies”. According to Sárközy, in Vienna and Helsinki the magyar tanszék traditionally forms a part of the Finno-Ugric department. It is hard to understand what he means by tanszék/chair: there never has been a permanent position for a professor of Hungarian studies in either of these universities, only language lecturers, visiting professors and other visitors, and chair-holding professors of Finno-Ugric languages who have in their work also, to a smaller or greater extent, touched upon issues of Hungarian linguistics.

In Sárközy’s view, the practice of including Hungarian studies into Finno-Ugristics is detrimental and now dangerous, as “after the retirement of professors of Hungarian literature, the easiest solution for the universities may be to downgrade Hungarian studies to a language lecturer’s post within Finno-Ugric language studies. This is what happened in Göttingen and, with the exception of Helsinki, at all Finnish universities” (fn. 13). I am not sufficiently well informed about the history of Hungarian literature in Göttingen, but to my knowledge, no Finnish university (with the exception of Jyväskylä) ever had a chair in Hungarian studies, so there never was anything to downgrade from. In Helsinki, instead of a visiting professor from Hungary now a native Hungarian adjunct professor (in Finnish, “yliopistonlehtori”, literally ‘university lecturer’, with a higher teaching load and a good command of Finnish) is regularly employed by the university. At other Finnish universities, Hungarian is only present as part of Finno-Ugric studies in the form of a language teacher’s position (in Turku), in the form of occasional language courses or not at all. The only exception is Jyväskylä, where a professor’s post in Hungarian studies was created in 2002. This chair and the current MA and PhD programmes have always been part of interdisciplinary cultural studies (Jyväskylä never had a chair or curriculum for Finno-Ugristics). Practically nothing of what Sárközy states about the dangers of being engulfed by Finno-Ugrian studies holds true.

In Vienna, there never was a permanent professor’s post for Hungarian studies either, but in Sárközy’s opinion, this lack was to some extent compensated by the fact that until the mid-1990s “alongside the Finno-Ugricist Hungarian chair-holder some renowned Hungarian literature scholars such as Attila Tamás, István Bitskey, András Görömbei and others received visiting professor’s positions for three years. Now, only now and then (olykor) a visiting professor is invited from Hungary for two semesters. True, despite this the homepage of the Hungarian “chair” of the Viennese Finno-Ugric department states that not only M.A. studies but even a PhD programme is offered.”

Had Sárközy investigated our homepage a little further, he could have seen that the M.A. and PhD programmes for Hungarian studies also function and keep “producing”. Recently, two PhD theses in Hungarian studies were examined on one day! Moreover, Hungarian visiting professors are invited not only now and then but regularly and continuously, although for bureaucratic reasons in managing this position (which is co-funded by Hungary and the University of Vienna), it can only be filled for one academic year at a time.

But not only do we have regular visitors from Hungary. Throughout the last 20-30 years, the main responsibility for the teaching of Hungarian studies has rested on the shoulders of permanent employees of the University of Vienna, the associate professors Pál Deréky (now retired) and Andrea Seidler (currently the president of the International Association for Hungarian Studies!); there is also a part-time lecturer’s post for Hungarian literature. According to the current development plan of the University of Vienna, after Andrea Seidler’s retirement a full professor’s post, that is, a chair for Hungarian studies will be created. The example of Vienna shows how dangerously misleading it can be to reduce the role and infrastructure of Hungarian studies into cooperations and visitors managed from Hungary, however important these might be, and how Hungarian studies are and should be an integral part of the research landscape in each country.

If medieval castles now stand in ruins, it may be because the time of medieval castles has passed. Defending the cultural interests of Hungary and contributing to its positive image (“nation-branding”), supporting Hungarian-speaking minorities and diasporas in maintaining their language and identity, fostering interest in Hungarian culture and due appreciation of its achievements, and providing Hungarian scholars with opportunities of international networking are all beautiful and noble goals. However, Hungarian studies as an academic discipline and Hungarologists as part of the global community of scholars must priorize more general and international goals and criteria: of scholarly ambition in theory and methods, of transparency and accessibility, of objective criticism, of pursuing high quality and maintaining a continuous dialogue with related disciplines. Without this, the secondary, national and instrumental goals of Hungarian studies cannot be reached either.

Johanna Laakso
professor of Finno-Ugric studies at the University of Vienna

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