Folk School Movement, Grundtvig and the Happiness Factor

Recent social studies have identified Danish people as being the happiest people in the world. Oprah Winfrey went to Denmark to try to find out why they are so happy and was impressed by all the benefits from the social democracy. As with other Scandinavian countries, this includes free education and health care. Denmark also has a strong social fabric, but it is not just because of homogeneity. A little known worldwide, but significant and historical part of free education in Denmark is the folk high school. These are residential learning centers where people stay for months at a time to learn and live with a community of people, but don’t get grades or degrees. Civic learning and learning for life is the focus.

This movement was started by a Lutheran minister  N.F. S. Grundtvig (grewntvig) (1783-1872). He was also outspoken in his religious beliefs and was silenced by the church for 10 years. He went to talk to the King, who helped him out during this time by funding three trips to England where he spent much of his time translating ancient Nordic manuscripts, which were part of his realization about the importance of having a cultural knowledge of history to a healthy society.

Grundtvig saw the complexity nature of building a healthy society, and the need for balance, using the metaphor, Four-Leaf Clover, to show that there are relationships between the King (perhaps we can translate this to the government), the People, the Homeland, and the Mother Tongue. It is important that people know their own language or mother tongue and at the same time, know the history of their own people and country or father land. Obviously, King and government must be balanced with the needs and values of the people in a true democracy.

Grundtvig came up with the idea for folk (people) high (beyond grammar) schools where there would be less reliance on books (though Grundtvig himself wrote and read voluminously) but mainly on the living word of lecture, discussion and dialogue. He thought Latin and Greek were dead languages with little relevance to people’s lives. The central aim of education was enlightenment about life – livsoplysning. (Smith)

A poet and hymnwriter, Grundtvig said that the skald was the real teacher of the common people because of their ability to awaken and nourish love for the Homeland and to gain strength and richness from the Mother Tongue. Hence the centrality of myths, legends and poems in Danish in the curriculum of the first Danish folk high schools and the great importance given to the oral traditions of the past and oral communication, particularly story-telling with its rich historical precedents, of the present. (Lawson)

Grundtvig was born after the United States gained its independence and grew up during the French Revolution.  He used the terms freedom, but he wasn’t in favor of violent revolution. He saw how violent revolution was sweeping across Europe and was concerned for the common people and perhaps also for the royalty, because of his long connection to the king. What his exact impact was in Denmark on this process bears more research. However, the first folk school was begun in 1944 and the monarchy stepped down in 1948. Grundtvig served in the first parliament. Grundtvig believed in live debate and one can imagine that he was active in dialoguing with the king and as a campaigner for the legislature with the people at the same time, to help bring this about.

He saw how the industrial revolution was growing and was concerned that the people would be benefited but not oppressed by this new way of life. He saw the classics being taught and saw that they had little relevance to the daily life of the people. He believed the separation of church and state and said Man first (human), then Christian.

Another Grundtvig term was, folkelighed, meaning the life of the people. Peter Manniche, the 1921 founder of the International Peoples College in Elsinore, Denmark has translated it as meaning: community life that embraces everyone. …

It is concerned with the preservation of identity, of a people’s literature, poetry and way of life…. Paradoxically, Grundtvig… argued that unless a nation has a strong sense of identity it is stuck in the nationalistic phase, and tends to expand and conquer at the expense of weaker neighbours. Folkelighed, rather than promoting a narrow nationalism, must be seen as promoting… a means of defending a small country such as Denmark from being culturally crushed by more powerful nations. Another Grundtvigian scholar, Erica Simon, sees similarities between Grundtvig’s folkelighed and Léopold Senghor’s ‘negritude’, which has been defined as ‘that complex of attitudes and dispositions which make up the collective personality of black people and determine their unique outlook on the world. (Lawson)

This type of education, where we build on our own framework of knowledge, is what many other alternative educators like Freire have taught. While visiting Oxford, Grundtvig saw an equality between teachers and students who ate and played sports together and realized that education happens best when teacher and learner are most comfortable to be able to dialogue. Many current educational movements can trace some of their ideas back to Grundtvig, who has been called the father of Western adult education.

Though Grundtvig did his best to instruct and mentor early folk school leaders, the movement went way beyond him and his lifetime. There are about 100 folk schools in Denmark today but also in nearby Scandinavia, other surrounding countries and here and there around the world.

Myles Horton, founder of the Highlander Center in Tennessee, was inspired by visiting folk schools in Denmark before getting the inspiration to go home and start a school, based on many of these same ideals. Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Pete Seeger participated in the learning community at Highlander and it continues today, as a center for grassroots learning.

When I was growing up, I heard the term, Happy Danes and also Holy Danes, but didn’t know what they meant. The Happy Danes, also called Grundtvigians and could play cards and dance, in moderation, of course. However, celebrating culture has come to be important to Scandinavians around the world and is an important social fabric. Our challenge is to learn how to apply the principles of folk high schools beyond the Scandinavian folk school model as it has been done at Highlander and more schools, less known.

Kamenev, Marina, Rating Countries for the Happiness Factor, Bloomberg Businessweek, 10/11/06

Lawson, Max. N.F.S. Grundtvig (Paris, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education), vol. XXIII, no. 3/4, 1993, p. 613–23.

Smith, M. K. N. F. S. Grundtvig, folk high schools and popular education, the encyclopaedia of informal education, (1999, 2007)

Weir, Bill; Johnson, Sylvia. Denmark, The Happiest Place on Earth Despite High Taxes, Danes Rank Themselves as Happy and Content, ABC News, 2020, 1/8/7

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2 Responses to Folk School Movement, Grundtvig and the Happiness Factor

  1. The most important element of folk schools is the underlying respect given to everyone’s potential to contribute.
    My version of this philospohy is a fundamental feature of WISR’s thoughts about Community Action Think Tanks

    • Thanks, Richard. I agree with that value of striving to let everyone contribute. In Denmark, the concept of hygge, as I understand it, means a gathering of people for fun, where everyone is appreciated and included. I looked it up on wikipedia and then was led to a parallel concept in Germany: Gemütlichkeit , which I haven’t figured out how to pronounce. I like their definition for it better than Wikipedia’s for Hygge, though it says it is basically the same. Apparently this term has been used in England and other European countries have a parallel word, including Holland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and Czechoslavakia.

      I studied guidelines for cooperative group decision making taught by the Movement for a New Society, which influenced my introduction of the “Check In” at WISR when we gather. It is important, I feel, for everyone to have a chance to speak and that the conversation isn’t dominated by just a few. Sometimes others are content to listen when just a few are talking but it is polite and reasonable to draw everyone in at some point especially because those who may be less able to break into the conversation may have important things to say too and either way, it benefits the whole when we related to every member of the group and let them be involved and have time to express themselves.

      It’s interesting when you read about the Movement for a New Society: , that the reasons stated for it dissolving include not reaching their goal of multiculturalism and perhaps the consensus process itself. Either way, their Resource Manual for a Living Revolution (or Monster Manual) was a valuable tool, not just about how to have nonviolent demonstrations, but how to achieve consensus, with roots in the Quaker tradition.

      During the last few decades in California, I think this Manual influenced many social change groups and movements in that for instance, Roberts Rules of Order was not used in many groups or committees I worked with, when it was the standard for how to achieve decisions in mainstream organizations before the consensus movement came about in the U.S. People wanted to have consensus and to achieve equality in community. I think when those who began it, and as I understand it, this came out of shared living communities in Philadelphia, expanded by relateing to other cultures, those people didn’t want to accept their ways of consensus, etc. as they had their own ways to form culture they were trying to recover. I saw this in some interactions with Native Americans, for instance, at an organizational meeting for a bioregional gathering in Canada which was in the mid to late 1980s, I believe.

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