The History and Philosophy of the Nordic
Folk School Movement
The folk school movement has a rich and fascinating history dating back to the early decades
of the 19th century. The social and political revolutions that paralleled the Industrial
Revolution created a demand for more education. At a time when formal education
was restricted to the upper classes and university teaching was in Latin, the
folk school movement presented a new challenge through its democratic philosophy.
Conceived in Denmark by the great 19th century Danish nationalist poet,
philosopher and theologian Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig, the movement continues
to grow, as it searches for new ways to respond to the changing needs of people
in a changing world. Today more than 400 schools across the Nordic countries,
and over 150 schools in Northern and Eastern Europe, respond to Grundtvig’s belief
that all people should have access to education according to their own needs and
During the 19th century, massive technological and economic changes forced the Nordic populations
into a painful process of adaptation from their old ways of life. New nation states,
new constitutions, a new nationalism and a new social class, the bourgeoisie,
were born. At the same time the identities of the Nordic countries were imperiled:
Denmark was threatened by Germany; Finland was then politically a part of Czarist
Russia; Iceland was a Danish colony; and Norway had been forced into a political
union with Sweden. A new consciousness about individual national identity began
to grow in each Nordic country. The birth and spread of the folk school system
is closely tied to these political and social conditions, and played a major role
in the establishment of the modern Nordic states.
N.F.S. Grundtvig (1783-1872)
The educational philosophy for the folk school grew out of N.F.S. Grundtvig’s
extensive and influential work. In the 1830s, Grundtvig began a tireless campaign
to convince the Danish population that a new type of school was necessary if the
Danish people were to cope with the transition to democracy. Inspired by visits
to English universities, Grundtvig stated that these new schools should encompass
three toward breaking the bonds of Swedish cultural and Russian political control.
In Finland and Norway, the schools were involved with national revival movements
struggling to legitimize folk culture and break the grip of foreign cultural influence.
In Norway the folk school movement rejected Danish cultural elitism and sought
legal acceptance of Norwegian peasant dialects. In all four Nordic countries the
folk schools became part of the cultural and political liberation and emancipation
of disenfranchised groups, first the farmers and small landholders, and later
the industrial workers.
As early as 1895, the Danish Parliament decided to offer state grants to
the folk schools. This is an early example of a particular feature of Nordic political
thinking which persists today and influences much social legislation: if an initiative
taken by private groups for the benefit of the public interest is considered useful
and worthwhile by the state, public authorities will support it, while preserving
private responsibility and economic risk. Today, public grants account for the
major proportion of the budget of the folk schools. Yet, the folk school movement
has developed independently of the official educational establishment, and although
they accept some degree of supervision by the Ministries of Education, the Parliaments
have continued to insist through legislation that government supervision remain
The number of folk schools in the Nordic countries has remained high since
the early 20th century. With the transformation of Scandinavia into a full industrial
society, however, important changes in the schools have taken place. In the past,
students had come mostly from rural populations, then
industrial workers enrolled, and during the depression of the 1930s, considerable
numbers of unemployed workers entered the schools. These later students brought
with them an urban culture different from the traditional one associated with
the rhythms of farming life. A more diverse student body brought complexity and
change to the folk schools, and fundamental values and beliefs were challenged
there as they were throughout the entire society. After World War II, the folk
schools were as changed as the societies themselves.
The Folk Schools Today
The Nordic countries are industrialized societies, among the wealthiest in the
world. They are dependent upon international trade and access to world markets,
and exist in a context where education has grown into basic principles:
1. “Youth,” not childhood, should be the proper time for education.
2. Students should be taught in their native language.
3. Education should focus on the native country’s conditions, history
and culture, rather than classical civilization.
His philosophical approach to education was based on his faith in the innate
abilities of all people, and his belief that education should be available to
everyone. Instead of following a rigid curriculum, the goal should be to inspire
students through confidence and “empowerment.” These “schools for life,” as he
called them, would not mold the masses into predefined shapes, but challenge and
assist people “to grasp their own identity and look after their own affairs and
interests.” Grundtvig stressed adamantly that the folk school should not include
vocational and professional training. He also
believed that students should board at the school, like members of a family,
and attached great importance to the interactions and discussions among teachers
Grundtvig himself never founded a school. Yet a total of about 50 folk
schools were founded in Denmark between 1850 and 1870 by his many disciples. The
first was started by Christian Kold for the purpose of meeting the educational
needs of young farmers, using non-formal educational methods. The emphasis was
on personal development, good citizenship and democratic participation, in addition
to practical knowledge of agriculture.
The Growth of the Folk School Movement, 1850-1930
The idea of the folk school spread rapidly, and the movement is in fact credited
with creating a true democratic rural civilization in Denmark. The earliest schools
were established by socially-conscious university men of the cultural elite, often
theologians. But the impetus soon shifted to grassroots groups of local farmers,
and later labor unions, and the movement was carried forward by the common people
themselves. All schools were privately owned either by the head of the school
or by a collective.
As the movement spread to other Nordic countries, it responded there to
local and national interests, developing its own particular national flavor. For
example, the Finnish movement, which was spurred by Swedish and Russian domination
and the nation’s desire to strengthen the Finnish language and culture, took conscious
steps a major business to serve the needs of a population and the constantly changing
conditions of life.
Today, the folk schools have a complex relationship with social and educational
establishments as they continue to define and redefine their role. Their purpose
is no longer as easily identified as when they were instruments of oppressed but
emerging groups within society. They continue to exert the
influence they have always had on educational philosophy, but they are not part
of a machinery of formal academic credentializing for the adaptation and mobilization
of labor, and still remain distinct from the social welfare establishment of the
The folk schools as a whole form a network of residential, adult educational
institutions, which offer one- and two- year programs of study. They do not grant
degrees, which is consistent with the philosophical position that they seek to
enlighten and educate, not train students for industry, technology, bureaucracy
or academia. The folk schools are eager to be havens for contemplation and renewal
and see their mission as one which inspires, not compels. They are independent,
self-governing, and generally un-specialized, encouraging learning for life instead
of for an exam. Each school remains free to set up its own curriculum, to admit
and maintain students on its own terms, and to hire faculty and plan projects
with little or no influence or oversight from the state, which remarkably still
provides 75-80% of the funding.
Students today come from all over the country, as well as internationally.
They vary tremendously in socioeconomic, educational and occupational background,
and represent a cross-section of contemporary national culture, with all its needs,
interests, and problems reflected there.
With their roots in small towns and rural areas, folk schools normally
have a close relationship with the surrounding communities and act as centers
for cultural activity. Students have contact with local citizens, thus contributing
to the experience-based philosophy of the schools while
offering local people the opportunity for information, debate and discussion.
This framework has placed the folk schools among the most progressive and dynamic
learning centers in Europe. They help shape the issues confronting a changing
world and stimulate active participation in society, thus promoting a living democracy.
Despite the national differences in the folk schools, much of Grundtvig’s
original idealism remains at the heart of this unique educational movement: the
holistic view of the human being and society. As the world becomes smaller, different
cultures encounter one another, global conflicts multiply, and the environment
reaches a crisis, the need for this type of education may grow. Thus they remain
schools for life.