Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Adult and Continuing Education in the Nordic Countries: Folkbildning

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_486


Introducing Folkbildning

This entry discusses the Nordic variety of nonformal adult education or popular education. These English terms emphasize different aspects of this Nordic tradition. It is education for adults, including young adults. Unlike the formal school system, it is not bound by a set curriculum; it is therefore more flexible in its capacity to reflect changes in society. Furthermore, it is entirely elective. Although nonformal adult education is the term most commonly used in referring to this form of education in English, popular education captures a salient feature in much of this tradition; it is typically geared particularly to those with little education or low social status. It aims to be not only for the people but also by the people; it is the people taking the education of themselves and their fellow men into their own hands.

It makes sense to call this a Nordic tradition since the national varieties have common historical roots and share many key features. This is reflected in the descriptions. The Danish and Norwegian folkeoplysning/folkeopplysning can be translated as “enlightenment of the people” and the Swedish folkbildning to “cultivation or formation of the people.” In Finnish, two names are used, kansansivistys, the equivalent of folkbildning, and aikuiskoulutus, meaning “adult education.” The Icelandic word fullorðinsfræðsla means “adult education.” Due to limitation of space, focus will be on the Swedish tradition, together with remarks on Denmark, where Nordic nonformal adult education was born. Swedish folkbildning is here chosen as the prime example because it is the most closely allied with the State, raising the problem regarding the autonomy of the institutions of folkbildning, a central issue in higher education. The Swedish description folkbildning will be used to refer to the Nordic tradition in general.

Folkbildning as Philanthropic Emancipation and as Popular Education

In the nineteenth century, Enlightenment thought reached the people of the Nordic countries in the form of new ideas and ideals for the education of the common man. The movement can be roughly divided into two initial stages: folkbildning as philanthropic emancipation and folkbildning as popular education.

The first wave of Nordic folkbildning was initiated by a fraction of the bourgeoisie who, inspired by Enlightenment and Romantic thought, wanted to liberate the masses from oppression by educating them. The mission, inspired by seventeenth century philosophy, was to cultivate citizenship and civic virtues. At the heart of this Enlightenment project lays a conception of human beings influenced by British empiricism, especially by John Locke’s ideas about natural law. Locke saw certain human rights and values as inherent in human nature and as universally cognizable through human reason. According to Locke, no human being has a right given by nature or an almighty God to rule over someone else. Instead, the Law is something rooted in each individual; thus every man should partake in and be responsible for decisions regarding society. According to this ideal, the rational and enlightened citizen ought to be capable of critically examining different alternatives and autonomously taking a stand on them. The idea of natural law underlies the English Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and the American Declaration of Independence. The Western conception of democracy is thus founded on the idea of natural law, in which the rights of the individual area concern for all other citizens.

Conservatives, often influenced by Romantic ideals, challenged the philanthropy of bourgeois radicalism. The first attempts at folkbildning in Sweden were directed at the farmers, but since they were considered archetypical Swedes, many wanted the farmer to stay simple and untainted by urban decadence, industrialism, and the Enlightenment (Gustavsson 1991, p. 55). But Romantic thought also became an inspiration for folkbildning to move beyond emancipatory education of the lower class by the higher. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile introduces an ideal for education where the young learner actively searches for knowledge guided by his own needs and motivations, while having nothing but his own previous experiences as a knowledge base. This idea, in which the search for knowledge and cultivation originates in and emanates from oneself, is the backbone of folkbildning; it is cardinal to the pedagogy of folk high schools and forms the core of study circles. The ideal contains an implicit critique of philanthropic projects of folkbildning while, as will be discussed later, cherishing the ideal of folkbildning as character formation.

Folkbildning as popular education begins with the education of the people – the peasants, the workers, and those without property – and aims at challenging the social order. In it the ordinary man takes education and Bildung into his own hands, redefining those concepts in the process (Compare Crowther 2013, p. 262). At the turn of the twentieth century, new peoples’ movements arose and proliferated in Sweden. The most influential of these were the labor, temperance, and free church movements, all which became driving forces in the political and social democratization of Sweden. At the time, the public school system was relatively undemocratic; the majority had no access to education beyond mandatory schooling for 6 years. Within the peoples’ movements, folkbildning was created as an alternative educational model. Among its most salient features, distinguishing it from the public school system, was that folkbildning was “fri och frivillig” – nonauthoritarian, unregulated, and voluntary. Moreover, folkbildning, particularly as it arose within the labor movement, was popular: the people should decide for themselves what to study, what to teach, and what it is to be taught.

The Folk High School and the Study Circle

The Danish humanist and pastor N. F. S. Grundtvig played a leading role in the foundation of the folk high school. He criticized traditional instruction for having failed to bring about “common sense about that which lies nearest to us: about our own nature, conditions in the fatherland, and what is best for the common interest” (Grundtvig 1838, p. 88). Grundtvig wanted the Danish citizen to receive a Nordic education. By reading Nordic authors and reading about Nordic history, he would learn to understand himself better and find an inroad to knowledge about the rest of the world. Nationalism is a distinctive trait of Danish folkeoplysning, due in part to the fact that Grundtvig was a strong advocate of National Romanticism and in part to the historical circumstances in which the tradition arose. The first folk high school opened in Rödding, North Schleswig, in 1844. This province had a mixed population of people with Danish and German ancestry. Around 1830, tensions between these groups arose which triggered a growing feeling of belonging with the Danes as ethnic group in the people of Danish decent. Grundtvig had ideas not only on what should be taught but also on how to teach. Teaching should be a means for spiritual as well as historical awakening, and this ideal should permeate the planning and the pedagogy of the schools. The students should live on school premises and form good and nonhierarchical relationships with their teachers. Ideally, the school would have beautiful natural surroundings. The teachers should be free in their choice of pedagogy and materials. The folk high schools should be for young adults since, Grundtvig believed, they were best suited for learning (Holmström 1886, pp. 20–24).

The Swedish folk high schools were modeled on the Danish ones, but the Swedish tradition of folkbildning clearly stands apart from the Danish, as well as the Norwegian and Finnish. This seems largely due to differences between the nations in terms of political power at the time when folkbildning arose. Sweden was rather powerful in the nineteenth century, and the Swedes, unlike their Nordic neighbors, enjoyed national sovereignty as an ethnic group. Thus, when folkbildning arose in Sweden, it was not cloaked in nationalism, nor did Swedish national culture, literature, and history have the same elevated status in it as they had in Danish folkeoplysning. Folkbildning was not an ethnic issue in Sweden. There were, however, great political and social inequalities between the classes, which were slowly being acknowledged and addressed. In 1866, the Riksdag of the Estates was abolished, and the peasants won greater influence over the municipality. When folkbildning arose in Sweden, it was a response to this development. Holmström argued that the peasant became conscious that, from now on, he must see himself as a citizen and that the peasantry must be abolished as social class (Holmström 1886, p. 285). Some farmers saw the need for peasants to learn more about civic affairs, and one of the first Swedish folk high schools, Hvilan, was founded with this aim in view.

At the turn of the century, Oscar Olsson – who was later to become Social Democratic Member of Parliament – proposed a study form based on self-teaching to the Swedish Order of Good Templars. This started the extensive and widespread activity that study circles have become. A study circle is a small group of people joined by a common interest who meet regularly to partake in an educational activity: discussing a text, learning about union rights, or developing their skills in a certain handicraft. Olsson discusses the choice of name – study circle – as perhaps misleading, since they did not primarily aim at the acquisition of knowledge but at Bildung, i.e., character formation and sound judgment. Since this included the development of good citizenship and insights into culture, the social aspect was important. The study circles succeeded better in bringing education to the people than did the folk high schools, since there were hardly any costs involved, and the meetings did not take much time from work. They were also to a much greater extent expressions of an increasingly influential idea that one should take education into one’s own hands. Olsson rejected the idea that folkbildning should be objective and neutral, arguing that if one wants to accomplish something through folkbildning, one must start from the groups people actually make themselves, based on interest, vocation, and affinity. The study circle was a break with philanthropically influenced folkbildning, which was aimed at the people but over which the people had no influence. Olsson describes philanthropic folkbildning as a spiritual soup kitchen for those in need (Arvidsson 2005, p. 19).

In 1907, the Swedish Parliament decided to set aside government grants for the purchasing of books by study circle members. They could only be granted to national organizations, which spurred the development of the institution of study associations. The first study association, The Workers’ Educational Association, was founded by the Social Democrats, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, and the Cooperative Association in 1912.

Folkbildning as Civic Education and as Character Formation

Social and political interests were decisive factors in the founding of folk high schools and study circles in Sweden. Folkbildning had an important role to play in forming new layers of educated citizens who could partake in the democratic government of the country. However, the tradition in which folkbildning is primarily seen as civic education has always coexisted with a tradition that focuses on the individual and his character formation. This tradition was most strongly advocated in Sweden by the philosopher Hans Larsson and the author Ellen Key. It starts with the conviction that education should take the individual and his interests as its starting point and that it should aim at the integration of the faculties of reason, emotion, and will. In a well-integrated personality, moral cultivation is paired with the cultivation of reason to form a conscientious person. Analogously, a cultivated person is not a person who has been trained to learn specific skills or specialized knowledge and is therefore useful to others, but one who has appropriated what he has learned to form a deeper and more integrated character. Although this tradition focuses on the individual, it sees the individual as part of the greater whole – the development of the individual as part of the development of humanity – and it is permeated with the humanistic ideal that every citizen shall take equal part in society and in cultural life.

Enlightenment ideals are strong in this tradition, and Immanuel Kant’s voice reverberates with particular resonance in Larsson’s characterization. In Kant’s philosophy, as well as in Rousseau’s, activity is the basis for knowledge. Kant’s epistemology was revolutionary in that it changed our view of how knowledge is attained: knowledge does not consist of sense impressions statically received by reason, nor is it a product of reason alone, but sense impressions are structured by an active categorizing and conceptualizing reason to form knowledge. Folkbildning is greatly influenced by the idea of knowledge formation as an active process. It promotes an active search for knowledge initiated by the knowledge-seeking subject himself and is critical of emancipatory attempts at education in which knowledge is something that one learns passively and unreflectively. Instead, and in line with Kant’s call in What is Enlightenment? – “Have the courage to use your own understanding” – people are encouraged to select what they find worth while learning and to use and develop their reason actively in pursuit of knowledge and judgment to become morally responsible persons and citizens.

In the study circles, the traditions of civic education and character formation came together. Some study circles had a clear political content and aim and can be seen as expressions of a quiet social and political upheaval, while most were for learning and self-development through self-study, discussion, and shared responsibility in the democratic organization of the circle. Olof Palme, former Prime Minister and Leader of the Social Democratic Party, described Sweden as “to a substantial degree a study association democracy,” saying further that it is in study associations that generations have educated themselves in critical judgment, to belief in reason without loss of idealism in formulating their goals, in cooperation with others. Social change has often been set in motion in the study circles (palme 1969, p. 299).

Folkbildning and Its Relation to the State

Today Swedish folkbildning is strongly tied to the State, which is its main source of funding. It stands out from its Nordic counterparts in this respect. Folkbildning is highly regarded by the Swedish State. It is seen as a cornerstone in a well-functioning democratic society made up of educated, reflective, and capable citizens; thus, State funding has grown ever more generous. Being the main financier, the State has great influence over the activities and functions of the study associations and folk high schools. Many have regarded this economic bond as problematic, and it has been argued that it puts Swedish folkbildning in a paradoxical situation (von Essen and Sundgren 2012). Folkbildning has its roots in people’s movements, in civil society where people come together in joint activities for a common cause without interference from the State or other authorities. Civil society is thus put in a position to examine the authorities critically. Today Swedish folkbildning depends for its survival on State funding. How does this effect folkbildning as a critical body?

There is an agreement between the providers of folkbildning and the government that folkbildning should be free from State regulation. It should, as previously mentioned, be nonauthoritarian, unregulated, and voluntary. More specifically, this means that the State should not try to influence either the activities, the form, or the intellectual content of the bodies that make up folkbildning. Taken together, these stipulations could allow folkbildning to retain some of its autonomy. The government, however, has certain expectations as to what folkbildning should strive for, as well as how it should respond to societal changes and needs. In collaboration with Swedish folkbildning, the government sets up four aims that are to form the backbone of the activities of study associations and folk high schools. When the government evaluates these institutions, these aims form the basis for the evaluations. First and foremost, folkbildning should support and arrange activities that contribute to the strengthening and development of democracy. It should further contribute to making it easier for people to take control over their situation in life and engender engagement for taking part in the development of society, contribute to raising the level of education and Bildung in society and to evening out differences in levels of education, and contribute to raising interest and increasing participation in cultural life. But Swedish folkbildning is given further directives by the government. For example, the study associations are now expected to expand the Internet-based study circles. When assessment of the quality of the activities of study associations and folk high schools is based on the four aims and other directives given to folkbildning by the government, and this is used as the basis for continued funding, one may ask: How free folkbildning is? What does nonauthoritarian and unregulated mean under these conditions?

In 1990, the Social Democratic Government established that the providers of folkbildning shall define the goals for the activities, while government and Parliament shall define the goals for grant allocation (Proposition 1990/91:82, p. 6). However, the economic governance of folkbildning and the governance of its activities are not separable in practice. More State funding has been set aside for certain activities and pedagogical forms than for others, and this has influenced the study associations to expand in those fields at the cost of others (Sandahl and Sjöstrand 2014, p. 93). While folkbildning is said to be free to determine its own activities and pedagogy, in practice, State funding and its related guidelines exert powerful influence over the content and form of these activities (Hållén 2016).

Given the ambition and reality of Swedish folkbildning, the form it has taken, and its extension today, it is difficult to imagine an alternative to State funding. One of the most fundamental values on which folkbildning is built is that it should be available to anyone. Cost should not be an obstacle. While the first folk high schools were largely paid for by private donations, this is no longer an option. Some researchers argue that, in spite of obvious difficulties, the State is a natural ally for folkbildning in our time since they can together challenge the market interests which threaten to undermine the State, by reinvigorating the public sphere, for example, and keeping open alternative options to the language and values of the market (Crowther 2013, p. 260).



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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Uppsala UniversityUppsalaSweden