Popular education in Sweden: much more than you wanted to know
Growing up on the Swedish seaside, I had a five-minute walk to four open learning facilities – not counting the library and the youth center. It was very Christopher Alexander.
One of the premises was an abandoned church that my friends and I used as a recording studio; we'd renovated it ourselves with funding from a study association. In another, I learned French from an émigré of Montpellier. We arranged public lectures – once, to our great surprise, we even managed to book then general secretary of the United Nations Ban-Ki Moon for a lecture in Uppsala. I analyzed Soviet cinema with a group of whom an unsettling number sang Sång för Stalin before the screenings.
Since leaving Sweden, I have realized that not everyone grows up like this. And I miss it. In fact, if the whole of Sweden was about to burn down and I could only save one thing, I might grab just folkbildningsrörelsen.
Folkbildningsrörelsen: that is the name we have for this movement of self-organized study groups, resource centers, maker spaces, public lectures, and free retreats for personal development.
These types of things exist in other countries too – but not at the same scale. Or even close.
To get a sense of how comprehensive folkbildningsrörelsen is, it helps to remember that Sweden has a population roughly comparable to New York City. If NYC had as many free resource centers per inhabitant as the municipality where I grew up, Manhattan would look like this:
At every other intersection, there would be a few rooms where you could go in and get some money to buy literature or access tools you needed. (In practice, the resource centers in cities tend to be lumped together in larger units, but the map still captures a lived reality for the 7.5 percent of Sweden's population who regularly take part in study associations.)
Experientially, the spaces I have been part of have felt more like niche internet forums than schools. There were plenty of trolls, witches, and freaks – but we were also able to sustain a depth of conversation which was out of scope at school. When I entered university, seminars often felt like play-acting in comparison. In our often quite dilapidated buildings (as in internet communities), we hadn’t thought about what we were doing as learning.
We were just obsessing about things.
How did this all come about?
In the 19th century, when these houses and the financing that enables them began to be built out, the main impetus came from the German Bildung tradition.
Bildung etymologically refers to shaping yourself in the image (das Bild) of God. God in this context should be imagined as a highly self-possessed spectral being – in control of its emotions, with mind and heart in harmony, and willing to take individual moral responsibility. Think Bertrand Russell but less atheist, and sitting on a cloud.
In its original formulation, Bildung had a somewhat bourgeois flavor. It smelled of tweed and leather elbow patches. But in the early 1800s, thinkers such as Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, N.F.S. Grundtvig, and Johann Friedrich Herbart figured out how to sell Bildung to farmers and day laborers – a folk Bildung, or folkbildning in Swedish. This was the tradition that took root in Sweden: the popular movement to shape yourself in the image of Bertrand Russell.
The English language version of folkbildning’s Wikipedia page refers to it as popular education. This translation is not entirely correct. The term "popular education" has a strong political connotation – the Wikipedia page talks about "class, political struggle, and social transformation" – which does not map entirely to the present Scandinavian reality. Though the study associations grew out of popular movements (the free church movement, followed by the temperance movement and the labor movement) – these spanned the political spectrum. And the learning infrastructure they spawned, as we will see, rapidly outgrew their political aims.
Building intellectual retreats for farmers
Since the 17th century, there have been popular educational movements in Sweden. Perhaps most interesting among these were the so-called Readers, who arranged reading lessons for peasants and opened secret libraries. The state, which had its own compulsory reading education, persecuted the Readers, fearful of the social unrest that might result from free reading.
In the 19th century, the popular education movement started to grow into a significant societal force. This began with the creation of so-called folk high schools (folkhögskolor). These first emerged in Denmark, in Ryslinge, where Christen Kold in 1851 started a school based on N.F.S. Grundtvig's idea of an ungraded, discussion-focused institution for higher education, aimed at the lower classes.
Folk high schools were located in scenic areas - not so much to be romantic retreats for city dwellers but to be close to the farmers who were their main clientele. In The Nordic Secret, Andersen and Björkman argue that folk high schools were retreats for ego development along lines similar to Robert Kegan's. It was about creating the conditions for people who had lived in simple small-scale communities to develop the knowledge and psychological complexity required to navigate modern society. Much emphasis was placed on discussions, practical skills and simulations.
The first Swedish folk high schools, Hvilan, Önnestads, and Herrestad, started seventeen years later, in 1868, seemingly without contact with the Danish movement.
They arranged role-playing events where workers and farmers played out committee meetings and other arcane parts of the political process. This meant that once they got the vote and started sweeping into office, the worker representatives out-maneuvered the representatives from the upper classes, to the great surprise of many who had argued against democracy on the grounds that it would lead to a flood of unwashed plebeians. The secretaries in the government office, who were in the habit of grading political representatives for their professionalism, left good marks for the early workers' representatives.
At their peak, 10 percent of young adults in rural areas choose to attend folk high schools. Andersen and Björkman’s thesis is that this created a critical mass, well distributed in the population, that had the intellectual and emotional tools needed to effectively navigate a complex society. This, in turn, would explain the rapid transition that the Nordic countries made, from being the poorest in Europe in the 1850s to being the happiest, most equal, and nearly richest societies in the world eighty years later. I think that is overplaying the importance of the folk high school – but it does gesture at the transformative impact that popular education had on large swaths of the population.
And it was only just beginning.