Since going to Hungary, I've been wondering why exactly the math education in Hungary is so great; there hasn't been a concerted effort to "improve curriculum" or any formal attempt to make the system so great, but Hungarian math education is fantastic, at least from high school on. The Hungarian math circle got started as something of a spontaneous cultural phenomenon, but I think there are some deeper cultural reasons that it sprouted.
Today I was thinking about Hungary. The things I miss, as well as the things I found annoying. One of the annoying things is the Hungarian mentality. In part because of 800 years of sidelining and oppression from almost all of their neighbors, and in part because of the depression which came from Soviet influence, Hungarians are very reserved, and wear a facade of depression. Along with this, the Hungarians picked up from the Habsburgs a German practicality. As a result of culturally enforced depression, and culturally enforced practicality, open display of excitement and passion for something are frowned upon. If you don't believe me, spend a week or two in Budapest, and watch for how easy foreigners are to spot (hint: they're the loud people who laugh in public), and watch how silent and serious children are.
Hungarian mathematicians, as opposed to most other Hungarians I met, are very excited, passionate people. I think a small group of young students who were interested in math, and couldn't have given a damn what other people thought of them were very public about their passion for math, and this became a sort of counter-culture movement in post-war Hungary. Youth who wanted to open up found this community as a natural place to revolt against the sullen Hungarian attitude. As with most "revolutionary" cultural movements, this group pushed the boundaries. A lot of modern methods and ideas in combinatorics and set theory came out of this group when they were still pretty young.
The math culture in Hungary has perpetuated itself quite well. Partly, this is the natural result of passion being imparted to the students by the instructors, but I think it's largely a continuation of the revolt against the Hungarian mentality: math remains culturally acceptable, but at the same time disillusioned youth can express themselves freely in a culture which continues to uphold an image of stoic depression.
(Or maybe I'm being too hard on Hungarians... Bocsanat, Magyar!)
Arbtirary thoughts on nearly everything from a modernist poet, structural mathematician and functional programmer.
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