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Education on prejudice today and during the interwar period

How far along have we really come in tackling discrimination and ‘othering’ since the interwar period?

June 30, 2021 - Sára Bagdi - Stories and ideasTackling Prejudice

Primitive culture. An introduction to the science of prehistoric men, written by Soma Braun in 1924. Source: Közkincs wikimedia.org

Fighting prejudice can happen on many levels in our society. Apart from meaningful inter-ethnic contact, education remains one of the main platforms for developing more tolerant attitudes among young people. However, if we take a look at the Hungarian education system, it is difficult to find traces of any noteworthy attempt to address topics such as tolerance, democratic attitudes or human rights in the classroom.

Discrimination that students encounter during their everyday life cannot be discussed in official classes. This is partly due to the fact that the situation of the Hungarian minorities and migrants are seen as highly politicised issues. At the same time, the curriculum tends to value memorising facts and content over critical thinking. As a result, the last few decades have seen civil society organisations taking over the responsibility for tackling prejudice in schools by providing extracurricular lessons on discrimination.

A century of structured efforts

Since the Hungarian education system has always lacked any systemic effort to deal with ‘othering’, it might seem that such progressive ideas have only recently appeared in our society. Subsequently, some may argue that such ideas have simply not yet been integrated into the official system. However, we tend to forget that education on tolerance and solidarity is really a century old tradition.

The first systemic attempt to develop educational materials that problematised othering dates back to the heydays of the Hungarian workers’ movement during the interwar period. At that time, the movement played a minor role in parliamentary politics. Despite this, its organisational model was characterised by grassroots, self-organised networks of local collectives. These groups were independent from the Stalinist regime and focused on education and labour union administration.

After the First World War, the international left strengthened its image as a supporter of post-colonial nations. The socialist press increasingly acknowledged the achievements and expertise of many non-white collectives. In Hungarian journalism, this resulted in reports on the struggles of black and Asian workers and the regular translation of African-American poetry.

As the idea of international solidarity started to gain ground among workers, much attention was paid to stories of black slavery and Chinese low-wage labour. Songs about these issues even appeared in the repertoire of Hungarian workers’ choirs. These tropes became part of the shared symbols of the international working class. They provided Hungarian workers with tangible, historic examples to discuss basic human rights, potential forms of resistance and even their own social and economic conditions.

Respecting non-white workers and learning from them was seen as an intrinsic part of the movement. However, the ‘general concept of the other’ was still often assigned to the somewhat distant members of the working class. Their representation was often accompanied by romanticised views of their culture and their readiness for political resistance.

Racial or ethnic discrimination was viewed as the result of imperial interests and Western ideology. Racism in colonial and post-colonial territories was subsequently acknowledged more and more, whilst discrimination and othering at the level of the local working unions (targeting Roma or other members) often remained unrecognised.

The two-faced character of the workers’ movement’s effort to practice inter-ethnic solidarity was also clear in the educational materials provided for its members.

In theory

As the education offered by the workers’ unions was less regulated, it provided educators with the opportunity to bring in unconventional materials. Alongside social sciences and economics, prehistoric and tribal cultures became frequently discussed topics in the 1920s. Lecturers introduced their audience to the anthropology of prehistoric man, tribal art, African culture and economy. One of the most prominent figures in this field, Soma Braun, even published a book on prehistory and tribal culture in 1924, which he intended to be a general educational publication for workers. Braun held regular lectures at various institutions of the party. He was also the founder of a complex adult education programme held in the VASAS Workers’ Union.

His book, entitled Primitive culture. An introduction to the science of prehistoric men, was published by Népszava Publishing House (Népszava being the official journal of the Social Democratic Party). The book discusses several aspects of prehistory and tribal cultures over 250 pages, including the natural environment, physical appearance, language, religion, and the social life of prehistoric and tribal people. As a progressive, socialist author, Braun claims that he could find no biological differences between modern and tribal people. He also viewed the oppression of women as a structural problem. Overall, his book was a genuine attempt to bring knowledge of tribal culture closer to Hungarian workers.

In order to ease the understanding of scientific discussions and help readers follow the logic of the book, Braun draws parallels between prehistoric and modern life to make the subject more tangible. He compares the tattooed tribe-members with modern man, who wears the initials of his lover’s name on his arm. When he discusses prehistoric caves and shelters, he refers to the conditions of working-class flats in the city.

Braun examines all aspects of primitive communities in relation to the conditions of production, including social organisation and the development of the institution of the family. He also presupposes that production is not only essential for the collective human existence. Indeed, he believed that collective labour could replace the nationalist myth of shared origins and blood. This utopian vision of an ideal labour society promised a world in which labour collectivism would create a community free from discrimination but it can still uphold an in-group/out-group dynamics since labour society also presupposes a norm to which the members must conform.

Braun did not only create a prehistory where collective consciousness in its highest form would manifest itself in collective labour. Certainly, he uses this ideal to differentiate between developed and underdeveloped communities. He also judges cultures on the basis of their concept of labour and their work ethic. Braun argues that solidarity can overcome ethno-nationalist models by advocating for a theory of social history in which labour becomes the single measure of value in human society.

He also claims that tribal people had no elaborate concepts of labour. They supposedly tended to be lazier than modern workers, who had already acquired the proper work-morale through elaborate practices of cooperation:

“People living at the lowest level of culture are lazy and they work less (…). They are content with the temporary benefits of individual hunting and they concentrate only on the present. As a result, their labour lacks continuity and close, conscious connection with the labour of the previous generations. There is no planned continuation of what was started by their predecessors, thus their social development is more rudimentary”.

This narrative leads to the conclusion that the organised community of the modern working class should take on the role of the dominant culture over ‘primitive’ people considered to be underdeveloped. Hence, in spite of the obvious attempt to imagine labour-collectivism on the basis of inclusive collaboration, labour simply becomes a tool of polarisation and discrimination.

For these reasons, Braun failed to present an unbiased understanding of anthropology. However, its failure did not change the fact that the book’s first priority was to advocate for a society in which race and ethnicity would not disqualify anyone from solidarity and collaboration. Most of the book’s chapters focus rather on cultural similarities than the differences between tribal people and modern workers. Despite this, the very fact that Braun analysed every aspect of tribal life from the perspective of the modern working class resulted in an asymmetric narrative, in which only those tribal customs and practices viewed valuable that were seen similar to the patterns of the modern workers’ culture. When Braun compares distinct sociocultural groups, namely tribal people and modern workers, on the basis of ideas that can appear to be meaningful only for the latter group, like the Western concept of labour and productivity, this unequal comparison inevitably frames tribal people as inferior compared to modern workers.

Consequently, it could be argued that Braun’s anthropology failed to deconstruct the Eurocentric approach to anthropology. Indeed, his argument possesses similar structural rigidity to these ideas. However, such failed attempts still contributed to the development of a more tolerant attitude among workers. Despite his biased narrative, Braun, like many of his contemporaries, acknowledged inter-ethnic solidarity as a shared norm in the community of the workers’ movement. Prejudiced attitudes towards the ‘other’ can emerge through misconceptions as well as through the internalisation of negative social norms, and even though socialist and Marxist authors possessed many misconceptions about other cultures, their activism during the 1920s and 1930s tended to reaffirm positive, collective norms that openly challenged racial discrimination.

Ripple effect of past ideas

Today, we may find these authors’ views outdated. However, the discourse around ‘othering’ in the workers’ movement does not only provide us with the opportunity to critically examine the ideological mechanisms behind the authors’ approach to education. It also helps us in the search for educational policies that might be adequate to address the question of tolerance and discrimination in the classroom.

Education on othering has come a long way from the interwar period. Attention has shifted from lecturing on tribes and distant cultures to raising awareness on othering within Hungarian society. Today, civil society organisations offer programmes that investigate such issues at the local level. These sessions focus on deconstructing students’ own biases and misconceptions through personal inter-ethnic contact and open discussions about prejudice.

These courses provide Hungarian students with opportunities to meet with the representatives of several minority groups. However, it is clear that small, local organisations working outside of the official education system cannot solve underlying systemic problems by themselves. Having limited time with the students, these groups cannot take on the responsibility of establishing collective norms in the classroom.

Whilst some teachers may have opportunities to discuss attitudes towards minorities with their students, they cannot effectively deal with such problems as tackling prejudice is not a part of the curriculum or teacher training. Luca Váradi’s book Youth trapped in prejudice shows that students with ambivalent attitudes towards Roma people often conform to false norms, as they overestimate how many of their schoolmates support prejudiced behaviour:

“By declaring a shared proscriptive norm against prejudice in school classes, a shift in the individual attitudes towards tolerance can be expected. This might not only influence prejudiced students to adjust to the class norm, but might also encourage tolerant adolescents. The notion of sharing the majority view could give them strength to stand up against the negative remarks of their classmates. This way the Spiral of Silence hindering the spread of tolerance may be broken”.

Therefore, in order to create an effective framework for tackling prejudice in schools beyond collaboration with civil society organisations, schools should also seek to find ways to address the problem of discrimination in the classroom. Drawing on the controversial attempts of the workers’ movement, we have learnt that prejudiced attitudes need to be examined on a local level with the involvement of those minorities who are affected the most in our social surroundings. However, since schools provide students with their most definitive sense of community during socialisation, we should not underestimate the teacher’s role in discussing prejudice in the classroom and assisting students in establishing positive, tolerant norms in their class.

This article is part of the Solidarity Academy 2021- Tackling prejudice, an international project supported by a grant from the International Visegrad Fund. 

Sára Bagdi graduated in Art History (2018) and Aesthetics (2019) at the Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. In 2016, she joined the avant-garde research group of the Kassák Museum in Budapest and has been assisting the Museum’s projects since 2019. In her formulating PhD research she plans to focus on how the Hungarian workers’ movement contributed to both the scientific and the everyday discussions about anthropology and ethnology during the 1920s and the 1930s.


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