Land of the Living

The Danish Folk High Schools and Denmark's Non-Violent Path to Modernization

Steven M. Borish, Ph.D.  

516 pp., 88 photos, 6x9

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The Land of the Living is a study of the Danish folk high schools, a remarkable alternative school form that has endured in Denmark for nearly 150 years. The existence of the folk high schools today allows the Danish citizen to undertake a direct, personal experience in free education. For a limited period in his or her life, any Danish citizen can enter a folk high school and encounter a variety of new ideas, people and places.

Beginning with a year's total immersion in three folk high schools, Steven Borish embarked on a personal journey through Danish society. His journey took him from the fields and small towns of Jutland to the busy streets of Copenhagen, and enabled him to see Denmark as few foreigners ever have. Combining his anthropological sensitivity with the broader outlook of the historian, he came to ask a unique and unprecedented set of questions about the path to modernization taken by Danish society.

The author's inquiry is centered around an historical puzzle: Why did the same modernization process that was so often accompanied by violent repression elsewhere take place more peacefully and non-violently in Denmark? His research took him back to the remarkable Danish Land Reforms of the late 18th century, and to the life and work of a major prophetic figure, N. F. S. Grundtvig (1783-1872). "The schools for life," the "People's Enlightenment," "the living word": these are some of the ideas set forth by Grundtvig, who in 1830 first proposed the establishment of a new type of school in Denmark.

Professor Borish's description of these events provides a living example of how the people of one small country responded to a series of political and economic crises with a non-violent political revolution that enabled them quite literally to "rise from the ashes." Yet the author presents this historical analysis not as an end but as a departure point for understanding the Danish present. In an unusual blend of cultural analysis and personal observation, he brings contemporary Denmark alive for the reader with his description of today's folk high schools.

This well-researched and meticulously documented study represents the first definitive account of Danish society to be written by a non-Dane. Its creative use of techniques from anthropology and related fields is certain to attract favorable attention from all those interested in the problems of social and historical analysis.


"I have never read anything written by a foreigner that to this degree captured key themes both in Danish history and in the folk high school's essence. Both the author's eye for the peculiar Danish character, and his ability to show how the folk high schools originated in an interaction between this history and character, are extraordinary. " Niels Hojlund, former principal, Ry Folk High School

"This is a remarkable book about a particular form of Danish educational institution, the "folk high school," and its founder, N.F.S. Grundtvig, in their social and historical context. Dr. Borish holds up Denmark and this educational institution as examples that both complex industrial societies and third world countries might emulate. He makes his case well." George Spindler, Professor of Anthropology and Education, Emeritus, Stanford University, California

"Dr. Borish began his study with a real understanding of the Danish folk high schools, He himself has lived at three of these schools, is fluent in Danish, and through talks with pupils and teachers has been able to draw precise, well-formed conclusions about the theory and practice behind these schools. Dr. Borish's interpretation of Danish history and culture is one that needs to be discussed, and will be discussed, both within and outside of Danish borders." Vagn Skovgaard-Peterson, Director, Institute for Danish Educational History, The Royal Danish School of Educational Studies, Copenhagen

"This fine volume established Dr. Borish as a master at the ethnographic study of education. Dr. Borish has given us a timely and important book, and one that redeems the larger promise of Anthropology." Steven Piker, Professor of Anthropology, Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania

Table of Contents

List of Maps, Tables, and Photographs
Foreword by Vagn Skovgaard-Petersen
Preface and Acknowledgments

1. Nature and Purpose of the Inquiry
The History of Denmark Through Maps

2. The Foreign Image of Denmark
3. A First Look at Modern Denmark

4. Revolution Without Violence: The Danish Land Reforms of the Late Eighteenth Century
5. The Rise of the Danish Folk High Schools

6. Democracy and Egalitarianism
7. Balance and Moderation
8. Hygge and the Art of Celebration
9. Welfare and Social Responsibility
10. Through a Glass Darkly: A Counter-Perspective on Danish National Character

11. A Year in Three Danish Folk High Schools
12. A Critical Reappraisal

A Select English Bibliography
A Select Danish Bibliography


The Central Importance of Education

What are the unique features of the Danish path to modernization? How can one best approach this topic in order to make explicit whatever lessons it has to teach? One critical feature of any society undergoing modernization is the kind of education it provides to its citizens. The ensuing discussion of modernization will focus initially on Danish educational history. Consider the following questions. If it is possible to show that a particular society has a special and unusual educational institution, one that plays a social role unique to that society, what can an analysis of this reveal about its history and culture? This question suggests in turn two others: (a) what more general features can be learned about the society from a study of the historical circumstances under which this particular school form emerged? and (b) what can be learned about the society from a study of the school's present-day functioning, from an investigation of how it has changed in order to adapt to changes in the surrounding society?

The Danish Folk High Schools

These questions are relevant because precisely such a school does exist in Denmark. Viewed from a comparative and cross-cultural perspective on education, it must be regarded as quite an unusual school. 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 folkehojskole, or more simply hojskole). 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 folkehojskole 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 folkehojskole, 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 1990s 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.

Blue Dolphin Publishing, 1991

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