Monday, October 17, 2005

The Danish Folk High Schools

The concept of folk schools and the folk school movement were initiated by the 19th century Danish democrat, social reformer, Lutheran bishop and poet N. F. S. Grundtvig. To Grundtvig, all people possess knowledge and are teachers. Thus, his folk schools in Denmark created an equal platform for education. All people-the peasants and the elite-sat down together as equals in expertise to discuss the issues and ideas of their time.

. . . Both its nineteenth-century origins and its present-day functioning provide excellent illustrations of the Danish concern for "development with a human face." The school is popularly referred to as a folk high school (the Danish term is folkehøjskole, or more simply højskole). Although such schools or closely related ones are found in the neighboring countries of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland, the first folk high school was created in Denmark in the mid-nineteenth century (1844). The schools are thus a particularly Danish innovation, an original and authentic contribution made by Denmark to the field of education. Interestingly enough, their present function in Danish society differs strikingly from the function they performed from the time of their origin until shortly after the Second World War, that is, for over a century. Once set up to serve almost exclusively the children of farmers, the schools have been subjected to far-reaching change in the past four decades. In its wake they have found themselves serving the needs of a different clientele, challenged by the demands of a new cultural context, and coping with the implications of an altered social role. This forced redefinition of their original social function has been neither an easy nor a comfortable process. Yet these schools continue to be a vital and important part of Danish society, as even a brief look at their present number and pattern of distribution suggests.

The folk high schools in the 1980s are distributed throughout the Danish countryside, all the way from the predominantly rural west coast of Jutland, the large peninsula that shares a land border with West Germany, to the urban milieu of Copenhagen and the far-off island of Bornholm in the North Baltic. The 1988 catalogue of the folk high school secretariat in Copenhagen lists 106 such schools. Close to fifty thousand students (in a nation of just over 5 million people) will pass through them this year. Many Danes choose to spend at least a part of their summer vacation taking a folk high school course. Some return year after year to the same school. Prospective students in 1987, for example, can choose among the 809 different short courses of one, two, or three weeks' duration, or one of the long courses (which typically take from three to ten months).

What type of person is one likely to encounter at a folk high school today? A middle-aged Danish farmer, spending a month with easel and canvas, finally surrenders to his lifelong desire to paint. A woman with a six-year-old son comes to shape clay on a potter's wheel. While she molds clay on long afternoons, the boy plays soccer, tries his hand with waterpainting, finds other children with whom to explore a friendly rural environment. Here is a man of thirty who has been unemployed for the past two years; there is a young woman taking a year off from her veterinary studies at the university. There are some who have just finished gymnasium, and others who never finished the eighth grade. Some come in hopes of finding a girlfriend or a boyfriend. Some are trying to kick a drug habit or control a problem with alcohol. Some come only because a social worker has urged them to do so and perhaps conveniently arranged their stay. Some want to see a different part of the country than the one they have always known or have come to escape the devastation of a recent and traumatic divorce. Some don't know what they want or why they have come here. Some will meet a future. wife or husband. Some charm everybody and leave without paying all their bills. In truth, all kinds of people come to a Danish folk high school, and they come for all kinds of reasons.

What in the world is this thing called a folk high school? The concept behind it is not easy to explain. Furthermore, an easy, word-to-word translation only confuses the issue. A Danish folkehøjskole is not really what the literal English equivalent suggests: a "folk high school." The translation is not entirely incorrect because these schools are for the "folk," for the people. Yet it is also misleading. The term "high school" means a secondary school for most Americans. It is commonly understood to refer to the school that handles the tasks of learning and socialization after primary and middle (or junior high) school and before university education. As such, it is (a) geared to those in a limited and specific age-group; (b) avowedly competence-giving, in the sense of intending to prepare students for vocational or professional employment; (c) competitive, with examinations and grading; and (d) an integral part of universalistic mainstream education; that is, it is felt that all citizens should complete their high school education.

A Danish folkehøjskole, in contrast to an American secondary school, is (a) open to all those above eighteen years of age; (b) avowedly and by law not competence-giving; (c) not academically competitive, with no grades or marks at all given; and (d) outside of the mainstream Danish educational system. Two further features will astonish outside observers. First, in spite of their officially marginal status, these schools presently receive approximately 85% of their expenses from the state. Second, in spite of this high degree of state support, the point of view and philosophical framework adopted by an individual school are entirely free from state control. It is true that a certain amount of mumbling is heard from time to time, usually by local officials unhappy with something they believe to be taking place at one of the more radical and experimental schools. But even such officials do not publicly challenge the right of the school to exist. Their maneuvering is usually limited to attempting to deny local subsidies to students who wish to attend such schools. And it should be added that this type of conflict is quite rare, almost certainly the exception rather than the rule.

The diversity of the Danish folk high schools in the 1980s and early 1990's is quite extraordinary. There are perhaps half a dozen schools with a radical communist or feminist orientation. There are, on the other hand, at least the same number of schools that teach some particular brand of ultraconservative Christian theology. Side by side with these can be found folk high schools that specialize in ecology and biodynamic agriculture, folk high schools for athletic instruction, folk high schools for instruction in music, and folk high schools for various kinds of travel abroad. There are folk high schools for the study of foreign languages, folk high schools for retired people, and at least one folk high school for teenagers under the age of eighteen. There are several "folk high schools for consciousness development," one of which teaches the Maharishi's transcendental meditation techniques and philosophy. In addition to these, there are many schools that call themselves by the perplexing (to the outsider) label of general "Grundtvigian" folk high schools. Use of this label entails a claim that a school is following in the footsteps of the tradition set by N. F. S. Grundtvig (1783 - 1872), who first proposed establishing such a school form in 1830.

Grundtvig's original vision of the folk high school was couched in both clear and compelling terms; yet his specific mandate concerning how this vision was to be realized has left many of the particulars open to debate and interpretation. And ever since the first folk high school came into existence in 1844, precisely what these schools should be doing and how they should go about doing it have been matters for continual debate, interpretation, and reinterpretation. It is not a static tradition. The very least one can say is this: a broader range of diversity than presently exists could scarcely be imagined, and all of this diversity is essentially state supported [1]


[1] Steven M. Borish, The Land of the Living: The Danish Folk High Schools and Denmark's Non-Violent Path to Modernization (Nevada City, Calif.: Blue Dolphin, 1991), pp. 7-9.

More Read-Links:

1) “Outward Loss, Inward Gain”: The Period of Emergence of the Danish Folk High Schools : Cultural Revitalization

2) N. F. S. Grundtvig (1783–1872) and Danish Non-Violence

Source : Asia Folk School Online - Asian Human Rights Commission


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