Along with the other Nordic countries, Denmark is usually in the top ten — if not top five — of international indexes of good country qualities: happiest people, high levels of trust, most livable cities, best for business, cultural capital, and much more. Denmark is not perfect, but it is remarkable. How did Denmark develop these qualities? What is the secret? Can this secret be exported to the rest of the world today, the way it was exported to the other Nordic countries 150 years ago? There is no reason the answer to that question should be “no.“ The Danish secret is a special kind of education called folk-bildung and it should be replicable everywhere. This folk-bildung allows for a strong sense of national identity that is not chauvinistic; a nationalism that promotes diversity, which in turn leads to both open-mindedness and cohesion. This sense of peoplehood and nationalism was driven, not least, by an ongoing border conflict with Germany that culminated with two wars but ended in a peaceful referendum. So please buckle up, this is a lengthy article, but it is also 200+ years of cultural and democratic development in the most condensed form possible. It is a historical ride from impoverished, feudal, agricultural Denmark around 1800 to the thriving, industrializing Denmark of 1920, and the modern Denmark of 2020. It is a two-step transition that ought to be doable around the globe in just one or two generations with current means, and building on the existing level of industrialization and education.
Denmark frequently pops up in American politics as an example worth emulating: democratic, prosperous, peaceful, well organized, and with a successful single-payer health care system. Some, like Fox News, seem to think, though, that Denmark is socialistic and resembles Venezuela; they should travel more — or, given COVID-19, call somebody at the US State Department who actually knows Denmark.
The truth is that Denmark is a capitalistic, liberal, socially conscious democracy and constitutional monarchy with high taxes, a conservative streak regarding culture and national identity (OK, these days it is becoming xenophobic) and a unique tradition for education. For the past 175 years, Denmark has invested wisely in education for all. Not only has all primary, secondary, and tertiary education been available for free for generations, there is also a government stipend for all students so that few have to start their adult life in financial debt. But that is just part of the story.
The real secret to the Danish success is a unique kind of education called folk-bildung. It started in a farmhouse in 1851, initiated by a stubborn teacher, who did not fit into the system. He created this new kind of education together with 15 young farmhands; they lived and learned together for five months, the young men were transformed, and afterwards, they went home to their villages and set an example of informed and independent thinking. Together, they laid the foundation for changing the course of Danish and Nordic history. I have previously shared the full and detailed story in The Nordic Secret: A European Story of Beauty and Freedom (co-authored by my Swedish colleague, Tomas Björkman) and presented a shorter version in my latest book Bildung: Keep growing (2020). Here follows the shortest possible version of the Danish secret and the border conflict with Germany that boosted the whole thing:
Poor Denmark in the 1800s
We are going on a historical journey, and as with all historical journeys, to fully understand what happened, we need to enter history a bit earlier than the development we would like to explore. We need to understand the initial conditions and a bit about the cultural and geopolitical situation in and around Denmark.
For centuries, German was the official language of the public administration in Denmark, but in 1772, it was changed to Danish. In 1776, citizenship was introduced in Denmark, after which only Danes could become civil servants, which in turn meant new opportunities for the sons of the Danish bourgeoisie; German aristocrats had previously dominated these jobs. In 1789, serfdom for Danish peasants was abolished.
In 1800, Denmark included Iceland, while Norway was under the Danish crown and administration. Sweden included Finland. All three (five) countries were dirt poor; historical data show that GDP per capita was among the very lowest in Europe. Due to the Napoleonic wars, Sweden lost Finland to Russia in 1809, and Denmark lost Norway to Sweden in 1814.
There were also two duchies that made up the border area between Denmark and what is today Germany: Schleswig and Holstein. Schleswig-Holstein were technically not a part of Denmark but the personal property of the Danish king.
Schools to the rescue
So, 1800, Denmark was a poor, feudal, agricultural country with an absolute monarch. The ruler was the crown prince regent, but he soon became King Frederik VI and though rather conservative, he and his cabinet made some very progressive moves. Apart from liberating the peasants, he also made a land reform in 1789 and established a school commission: it was obvious to Frederik and his cabinet that industrialization was coming to Denmark and that the peasants needed better education.
Denmark — like the rest of the Nordics — had an almost 100% literacy rate throughout the 1700s; one could not get a Christian confirmation and could thus not get a job or get married, without being able to read Luther’s Catechism. This level of literacy was accomplished with no countrywide organized school system. In the countryside and if people could not afford to hire teachers for their children, local pastors, bell-ringers and parents taught the children to read, or — if the peasants were lucky — the nearest aristocrat was captured by the spirit of the Enlightenment and had started a school on his estate. On Frederik VI’s school commission were a number of such aristocrats who were experimenting with schools on their own. They were inspired by thinkers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Schiller and the Swiss pedagogue Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, and they were dedicated to figuring out what the Danish schools of the future should be like. Unfortunately, their work on the commission was disrupted by the Napoleonic wars and it took them 25 years to come up with a plan.
Finally, in 1814, Denmark got what has been called the most progressive school legislation of its time. Seven years of education became mandatory for all children, and the state guaranteed seven years of free school for all children between age 7 and their Christian confirmation (usually around age 14). The legislation also included education for the teachers and teacher training schools, schoolhouses, and two hours of free school per week for adults in the rural areas during winter. Perhaps the most radical part of the legislation was the philosophy behind it: until their confirmation, the primary obligation of a child was to go to school, not to be cheap labor, though child labor was still the norm. Due to Denmark’s poor finances, though, the legislation was not fully implemented until around 1840. Apart from being poor in the first place, Denmark also suffered from the British firebombing and more or less burning down Copenhagen and stealing the Danish navy in 1807, Denmark losing a war with Sweden in 1813 and going bankrupt that same year. Anyway, by the 1840s, all Danish children had access to seven years of free public school.
Enter: The border conflict, a constitution, and bildung
Beginning in February 1848, revolutions spread across Europe, and the bourgeoisie in Denmark wanted a liberal constitution rather than absolute monarchy. Frederik VI had died and had been succeeded by Christian VIII in 1839, he had also died and had been succeeded by Frederik VII on January 20th, 1848.
The new king now faced two major threats: political unrest in the duchies Schleswig and Holstein where some preferred closer ties with the German states than with Denmark, and a bourgeoisie demanding a liberal constitution. The two conflicts led to the First Schleswig-Holstein War 1848–1851, to the first Danish Constitution on June 5th, 1849, and to folk-bildung.
It may seem strange that we now need to go through German philosophy from the 1790s, the ideas of a Danish pastor, and the history of a Danish-German border conflict in order to understand a strangely named kind of education. Here is why: we are shaped by our society and culture, and the political development in Denmark changed the existing order and understanding of the world. In that process, folk-bildung became a tool not just for making those societal and cultural changes meaningful to the Danes, but for allowing the least educated Danes to see new opportunities in the turmoil and to grab these opportunities and improve their lives.
So, what is bildung in the first place?
Bildung is a German word that does not have an exact translation in English, though formation comes close. One difference between bildung and formation is that bildung has a 250-year-old philosophical tradition in Germany, and among the bildung philosophers we find Herder, Goethe, Schiller, Fichte, von Humboldt, and Hegel — and in Switzerland, Pestalozzi. Bildung is both ‘ordinary’ education and moral and emotional development, and bildung is the process of bildung as well as the result.
In the late 1770s, the German intellectuals just mentioned were deliberately brought together in Jena, a university town, by the visionary Duchess Anna-Amalia of Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach (1739–1807). As a result, Jena became a hothouse of advanced thinking in the 1780s and 1790s. It became the birthplace not just of bildung philosophy but also of German Idealism, Sturm und Drang Romanticism, and, eventually, Hegel’s phenomenology and dialectical philosophy.
One philosopher particular, Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805), explored a very useful definition of bildung. Schiller said that there are three kinds of people, and that people can transform from one type to another:
- The physical, emotional person, who is in the throes of his emotions, who cannot transcend his emotions and who is therefore not free.
- To transcend our emotions, we need calming beauty, aesthetics that can align our emotions with the norms of society; we can then transform and become:
- The person of reason or rational person, who has aligned himself with the ‘rationale’ and moral norms of society and has made the norms his own; this person cannot transcend those norms and expectations, though, and therefore he is not free either.
- To transcend the norms, we need invigorating beauty, aesthetics that can shake us up and wake us up, and make us feel our emotions again, which allows us to transcend the expectations of others and become:
- The free, moral person, who can feel both his own emotions and what is right and wrong according to morality; because this person has transcended his own emotions and the expectations of others, he can now think for himself and is therefore free.
Schiller explored this in On the Aesthetic Education of Man from 1795, and this is interesting for a number of reasons:
First, Schiller’s definition of bildung comes extremely close to the way modern developmental psychology describes our emotional development through life today: The physical, emotional person matches late childhood from age six to teenage years, the rational person matches what psychologists today call self-governing and the free, moral person matches what they call self-authoring. As a child / physical, emotional person, you have not developed a moral compass yet. As a self-governing / rational person, you have an outer moral compass (you take your guidance from others and from the rationale of the culture around you, and you govern yourself accordingly; one could also call it being a team player). As a self-authoring / free, moral person, you have an inner, personal moral compass; you are the moral authority in your life and you are the author of your own life; you can overrule both your own emotions and the moral expectations of others. 200+ year-old bildung thinking matches modern developmental psychology.
Secondly, Schiller wrote this in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The European bourgeoisie had had such high hopes when the absolute monarchy in France was overturned: Finally, political freedom! Then the revolution turned into a bloodbath, and the disillusion was immense. Why could the French not handle political freedom? Why did they become just as barbaric as the tyrant they had just overthrown?
Schiller’s answer was their lack of bildung. The emotional persons would be in the throes of their emotions, and once they started decapitating royalty, they could not get enough. The rational persons who took their moral guidance from others would emulate the emotional persons and be caught up in the same emotions. Only the free, moral persons would have the moral backbone to resist more violence. They would have internalized moral norms of enlightened self-constraint, and they would have the spontaneous emotions telling them that murder is wrong. Schiller’s conclusion: Only the free, moral persons (in modern terms: the self-authoring) would be able to handle political freedom.
Thirdly, what we know today as Schiller’s book On the Aesthetic Education of Man was originally a letter correspondence between Schiller and people in and around the Danish school commission. Schiller’s letters were circulated among several people in the top layer of the Danish society and were read and treated like treasures.
Romanticism and the Danish Spirit
The Enlightenment was rational, cerebral, and scientific; spirituality, emotions and nature did not get much attention. This left an inner void, and the bildung philosophers in Jena explored it, they discovered our inner development and they discovered culture as a phenomenon. Along with these new discoveries, they also discovered nature as a phenomenon, and they united their new topics of interest under the concept of spirit, Geist. They developed Sturm und Drang, Romanticism, and they discovered folklore as the indigenous source of local culture and spirit. By philosophizing about our inner world and how it interplays with the outer world, they explored what goes on in our mind, what they called Ideals and so, they developed German Idealism. This is not idealism in the sense we use the word today, but Idealism (with a capital I), which means how our inner world, the spirit, our idea(l)s, and the outer world interplay; it shapes us, we shape it, and we interact in this great ‘system’ of thoughts and interaction with the world and each other. Our spirit changes the world and thus, the world has spirit. Particularly Hegel became famous for writing about this world spirit, but Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814) wrote about it first.
Fichte also noted that what makes us self-aware is pushbacks. The self is only an absolute “I” when it becomes self-aware, and this can only happen when it is confronted with experiences to which it has to react. If there were no friction, no pushback, the self would be one with its activities and fully absorbed in them. In other words: in order to develop self-awareness, the individual must allow pushbacks and ensure that there are “bones of contention.” According to Fichte, the self can be understood as an infinite striving for autonomy.
A young Norwegian Dane, Henrik Steffens, studied in Jena and picked up this new philosophy of spirit and Romanticism in the 1790s, and then he gave a series of lectures about it in Denmark, in Copenhagen, in 1802. It fell like rain on dry land. Suddenly people were allowed to feel their emotions again, to connect with the deepest roots of their culture, with folklore, with spirituality, and with nature. In their mother-tongue, in Danish. In no time, this new approach to life created a watershed of inspiration, poetry, and artistic creativity of all sorts in Copenhagen, in pursuit of the Danish spirit.
Democratizing bildung and making it folk-bildung
In the audience was Steffens’ 19-year-old cousin, Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783–1872), a student of theology and an ardent Protestant Christian. He was not impressed by this ‘spirit stuff’ from Jena; according to him, there could be only one spirit: the Holy Spirit! But he was intrigued by the idea that there is a “spirit” in a people and that this is expressed through, among other things, folklore, tradition and language; that there is a cultural force keeping a people or nation together. Over the next decades, he kept exploring this and read everything by Rousseau, Herder, Goethe, Schiller, Fichte, and Pestalozzi that he could get his hands on, and then he reached the conclusion that the spirit of a people would be, so to speak, a chapter of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was everywhere, but the Danes had their Danish part, the Swedes their Swedish part and so forth.
As the top layers of Danish society began speaking Danish among each other, and as Denmark went bankrupt in 1813, struggled with poverty, slowly industrialized, and saw Schleswig-Holstein industrializing faster and becoming more prosperous than Denmark, a sense of Danishness started emerging in the bourgeoisie. This went hand in hand with the desire for a liberal constitution, and the abolishment of the absolute monarchy.
Grundtvig was by no means a democrat, but he was worried that the young men of the bourgeoisie who went to high school and university learned plenty of Latin and Greek, much German and French, and some Danish, but not Danish as a living language of the spirit. They may have read Danish and spoken Danish, but they did not learn poetic Danish, spirited Danish, Danish as a means of bildung and culture. For culture and cultivation, for developing a moral compass, i.e. for their personal bildung, the young men studied Greek and Latin texts, dead letters and dead languages, not the living language and heritage of their own people.
During three trips to England between 1829 and 1831, Grundtvig met for the first time liberal ideas in practice, and at Cambridge, he met a colloquial, conversational style of learning and teaching. This inspired him tremendously, and he envisioned a Danish college for the young Danish students based on the same principles. (Since the German and Danish words for college are Hochschule and højskole, i.e. highschool, and Grundtvig envisioned what he called a folkehøjskole, the English name for these folk colleges is most often folk high school or folk school.)
Grundtvig also started writing books narrating the Norse mythology and Danish history in order for the Danes to get to know their spirit, and he wrote song and hymn lyrics and became one of the most productive and important lyricists in Denmark ever.
What Grundtvig realized over the years was that we need both cultural identity and diversity — he used other words of his time, but that was what he meant. We need a people and a history, and we need to be able to express ourselves and to disagree in a civilized manner; peoplehood is not uniformity, it is pluralism along with love of the country we share. He expressed this in a famous line in a poem from 1832: Freedom for Loke as well as for Thor; not only noble Thor must enjoy freedom, the chaos-producing trickster, Loke, must enjoy freedom too.
This plurality and love of country was what the new kind of college / highschool should be about. But when Grundtvig tried to present this idea of a Danish highschool of the people and for the people, a folk-highschool, his writing was a hodgepodge stream of consciousness and nobody understood what he was talking about. The first time he presented the idea was in 1836, by 1838 he realized that it should not just be a school for the few sons of the bourgeoisie, but actually a folk high school for the people itself, i.e. the peasants who were the true carriers of the Danish folklore and spirit. This was Grundtvig’s true stroke of genius: he took the German concept of bildung and wanted it for the people, the peasants; he “democratized” bildung. He began to talk about folk-bildung and folk-enlightenment — and people still did not understand what he meant.
It took until 1842 before somebody finally understood what Grundtvig had in mind and decided to build a school. The first folk high school thus became Rødding Folk High School, which opened in 1844. Rødding was a village in Schleswig, and the purpose of the school was to strengthen the Danish spirit among the young Danish farmers in the duchy. The investors were rich farmers of the Danish persuasion in Schleswig, and bourgeois patriots around Denmark (the government was not involved), the headmaster of the school was Pastor Christian Flor, and the school was a boarding school with a two year program. Here the young men learned Danish history, world history, the latest agricultural techniques, the latest science, and Christianity. The school became a modest success; it was very expensive and only the sons of the richest farmers could afford to go there. Also: something was missing…
Danishness and the War — 1848–1851
As liberal ideas spread across Europe and industrialization caught on, there was a fear in Denmark that people in the duchies Schleswig and Holstein would rather join the richer German states and their confederation than be part of a poor country like Denmark. To make a long story short: In February 1848, as revolutions broke out across Europe, it came close to a civil war in the duchies over independence and/or affiliation with Denmark or the German Confederation. On March 21st, angry Danes in Copenhagen who wanted a liberal constitution marched to the royal castle; King Frederik VII agreed to giving a constitution if he could remain king — to the protesters, that was good enough. On March 24th, a war between Denmark and the German Confederation over Schleswig was officially declared and it became the First Schleswig War, which lasted from 1848 to 1851. It was ended by an armistice. In 1849, on June 5th, Denmark got its first liberal constitution; the monarchy survived, but absolute monarchy was gone (and Grundtvig was one of the authors of the constitution). Part of the armistice in 1851 was that Denmark, Schleswig and Holstein each got their own separate constitution, that a fourth constitution should unite all three of them, and that Schleswig, which had the strongest cultural and ethnic connection to Denmark, could not have closer political ties to Denmark than Holstein had.
And here comes the connection to bildung: “the War of ‘48” — as Danes prefer to call it — started a tsunami of Danish nationalism. Today, nationalism tends to be portrayed as the limiting worldview, the backwards-looking chauvinism. Not so in 1848. The bourgeoisie had developed a national, Danish sense of self since the 1770s, and the Napoleonic wars had strengthened this sense of identity, but outside the bourgeoisie, nationalism was the new and horizon-expanding way to feel a sense of belonging. Like the rest of Europe, the Danes were used to a feudal society where different estates, strata or layers of society had different obligations and privileges, and where the royals had their own European network, the clergy, the aristocracy and the trading bourgeoisie each theirs, and common people of the third estate were stuck in their villages or workers’ quarters. With the War of ’48 and the constitution, all Danes began feeling Danish and relating to the country, not just their village, town and/or estate. Voting was limited to men above the age of 30 who owned property, meaning only about 15% of the entire population, but they were Danish men! Grundtvig captured this new emotional connection to Denmark in a song in 1848 (my translation):
Of the people all must be now
’cross the country, head to toe
Something new is surely rising
Even fools already know
But can all that shatters meet up
With the New that’s born and heal up?
Do we know what our wish is,
More than ”bread and circuses”?
Please don’t mind my asking!
The sense of peoplehood was new and it created a new sense of personal responsibility towards this larger collective called Denmark.
A collective as well as individual mind-shift
How the constitution and the war changed people’s frame of mind, their emotions, their bildung, was captured eloquently by 19-year-old Mathilde Fibiger (1830–1872) in her semi-autobiographical letter novel Clara Raphael 12 Letters, which was published in 1851.
Young Fibiger was the daughter of an officer in the Danish army, she worked as the teacher of two children on a large farm some 100 kilometers south of Copenhagen, and the bourgeois country life bored her stiff! In the novel, she described the bourgeoisie as gray characters of grayness with gray on them and no contours to distinguish one from the other; the book is still hilariously funny, and it created quite the scandal at the time. Fibiger also made some interesting observations regarding the political situation, the war, and bildung. Here Clara, the main character, describes how the fight for the constitution and the almost-revolution on March 21st, 1848, affected her:
The 21st of March, a new life dawned for me. I saw the Danish people, whom I had only known from sagas and songs; I heard the words spoken, which found the deepest resonance in my soul. My ideals greeted me in real life and my heart beat with proud self-consciousness. When I saw the Danish national colors, read about the war, or met a brave countryman soldier who was about to leave, then something stirred me in the depth of my chest, like when in a strange country one hears the beloved melody of one’s mother tongue. And along with my fatherland I received faith in God! It was as if the sun came out and woke me up from a long dream. I felt what it was like to be a human being, created in God’s image, created for an eternal life.
Among Clara’s / Fibiger’s observations is this, where she describes a friend (who is boring her):
She is passionate about little things, I about grand ones. I love all the soldiers as brothers because they fight for our common cause; she only cares about the cause because she knows a couple of the officers.
Clara’s friend cannot relate to the abstraction of ‘country,’ she can only relate to her own feelings. Clara, on the other hand, has become what Schiller called a rational person — in modern terms, a team player, one who has learned to put country above self, and devote herself to a grand cause. Fibiger herself was — despite being just 19 years old — self-authoring, in Schillers terms: a free, moral person. She had the moral backbone to transcend the expectations of her surroundings and expose the bourgeoisie. Her observations are an outside perspective on the self-governing, “rational” bourgeoisie around her and on herself too; an extreme complexity of mind and bildung for a 19-year-old. She could not have written her satire without being self-authoring.
It seems that the wave of nationalism that flooded Denmark in 1848 inspired people in most strata of society to put country over self. The young men as soldiers; the poets, composers, authors, painters, pastors, intellectuals, and schoolteachers through aesthetics, each in their own way, to elevate the spirit. Aesthetics created and consolidated a new sense of Danish self, and promoted political development.
In bildung terms, and in modern psychological and sociological terms, there was a mass transformation into self-governing national team-players for those who were not so already; the country called upon people to stand up for their fatherland and to serve it. Slumbering physical, emotional people became rational people, who made the moral norms and expectations of society their own. But that was only part of what happened. Many people would have been self-governing / rational people already, but many would have identified only with their family or local community. Now the nation, this big abstraction of two million strangers at the time, centuries of history, and a constitution became the entity of identification. Part of the bildung transition was therefore the expansion of people’s identity and sense of responsibility from what historian Benedict Anderson called ‘real communities’ (tangible) to an ‘imagined community’ (intangible). The Danish people, over the course of 1848, became self-identifying Danes who believed in an idea named Denmark.
Folk-bildung, the secret
One person, who desperately wanted to fight for Denmark in 1848, was a schoolteacher named Christen Kold (1816–1870). Unfortunately (or maybe not), he was too clumsy to load a gun, and the army dismissed him. This made him so disillusioned he considered emigrating to America, but he never did.
A couple of folk high schools had started since Rødding opened in 1844, but the schools were not that successful; Kold realized why, and developed his own folk high school concept.
As a teacher, Kold had often noticed that when he taught the children what he was supposed to teach them, they were bored and did not pay attention. But if he told them stories, they listened! Something similar happened when he read great novels aloud for adults: they lit up! Their spirit came alive.
Kold started his own folk high school in November 1851 outside a small village named Ryslinge on the island Funen, and it was different from Rødding in a several ways. With his personal savings and financial help from Grundtvig and some generous donors of the Copenhagen bourgeoisie, Kold bought a modest farmhouse. He moved in with 15 young farmhands who were in their late teens and early twenties, and he made sure that the place, the food and the atmosphere were as plain and informal as the young men were used to at home and at the farms where they worked. Furthermore, the program at Kold’s school was five months, not two years like at Rødding, and thus more affordable.
But the real magic was Kold’s pedagogical method. He read heroic novels about Denmark’s glorious past by Romantic author Bernhard Severin Ingemann (1789–1862) to the young men, and then he let them ask questions. He got their attention through stories with which they could identify, and then he let them think for themselves. In 1851, that was radical. And it worked! Once these farm boys got the conversation going, Kold taught them everything they wanted to know. He introduced them to history, more literature, Biblical stories, politics, science, and different kinds of news. During their work on the farm, he also taught them new agricultural techniques, and with communal singing, he taught them new songs. According to himself, though, he did something else: he awakened their spirit! Once the spirit was awake, then it was time for enlightenment, but only then. As he put it: First enliven, then enlighten! The whole purpose was to make them love Denmark and trust God, and, as he later put it, to “reinvigorate the spirit of ’48.”
One thing Kold’s school had in common with the Rødding school was that there were no exams. This was not a school for diplomas; it was a school for life. Grundtvig, Kold, and other folk high school teachers and headmasters were very explicit about this. Life was the exam. Will this young person become a responsible, successful adult engaged in society and leading a meaningful and purposeful life? Will he or she serve God and country, will they develop their own opinions and have a voice, and will they have the moral courage to stand up for what is true, good, and right?
Kold opened Ryslinge to young women in 1861. The men were there November to March; the women May to July. His format was hugely popular with the young people who went there, and similar schools popped up here and there in Denmark: two in 1852, three in 1853, and then about one per year. It wasn’t quite a movement yet. It took something else to make that happen.
That other fateful year, 1864, that transformed Denmark
The status of Schleswig-Holstein had not been fully settled, and in 1864 it got Denmark into a new war, this time with Prussia and Bismarck on the other side. The war was devastating to Denmark. Prussia conquered all of Holstein and Schleswig, i.e. half the peninsula of Jutland or one third of the landmass perceived as Danish after Norway was lost 50 years earlier. The defeat was not just a shock; it created a fear that Prussia might take the rest of Denmark as well.
What to do? Two strategies were official: more intensive industrialization, and new cultivation of moorland to make up for lost land and economic development. A third development was never formulated as an actual strategy; it was spontaneous and self-organized, but it ended up having a much bigger impact: more Danishness, more folk high schools! In 1865, five folk high schools opened, in 1866, four, in 1867, 17, in 1868, 11 — and by 1900, 135 folk high schools had been started across Denmark; 110 of them had survived. They were typically started by a teacher or pastor with the help of local farmers and pastors, and they had anywhere from 20 to 70 students; in less than a generation, between 10% and 20% of the rural youth went to a folk high school.
Pastors, teachers, intellectuals, and some wealthy farmers and influential members of the bourgeoisie in the other Nordic countries were quick to realize that the Danes were onto something. In Norway, the first folk high school opened in 1863; in Sweden, the first school opened in 1868; and in Finland, the first school opened in 1874. The history of the folk high schools is a bit different from country to country, but overall, the concept proliferated to the rest of the Nordics, because people could tell that these schools were transforming Denmark.
One of the things that differed among the Nordic countries was how much support the schools got from the government, but there is a general picture. The schools were all started on private initiative with private funding and participants’ fees from the students. In all four countries, the political leadership and a substantial part of the bourgeoisie were keenly aware that their rural youth needed education. In Denmark and Sweden, this was quickly turned into financial support from the government, in Norway and Finland it took longer. Both the folk high schools and the governments adamantly insisted on complete academic freedom; the money had no strings attached. School leaders in Denmark were very explicit that they would rather not get the small government stipend per student than have to accommodate any content requirements.
The wider landscape and consequences of folk-bildung
The folk high schools matched the needs of the rural population, but workers needed education and bildung too. In the 1860s, Pastor Hans Christian Sonne (1817–1880) was appalled by the material poverty and moral misery of the workers in his small-town parish, and he went looking for a way to empower them. Inspired by the Rochdale Society in the UK, Sonne and local workers started the first cooperative grocery store in 1866. The bylaws stated that 2.5% of the profit should be spent on proper reading materials and they started a library and reading classes in the attic above the store. In 1867, based on these experiences, Sonne wrote a handbook for workers’ associations on how to start their own cooperative grocery stores cum folk-bildung, and over the next ten years, 160 stores were started; by 1919, Denmark had 1,820 cooperative grocery stores, many of which were also the local study center.
Due to late industrialization, education organized for and by workers through the socialist party only gradually emerged in the 1880s.
This access to education and bildung and the attitude towards it in the bourgeoisie was in sharp contrast to other parts of Europe. In Prussia, Bismarck basically shut down the workers’ education associations in 1871; to stay open, they were only allowed to continue programs for professional skills and to host harmless cultural lectures after which there could be no Q&A, i.e. no questions, no discussions. Only by the 1920s, were there attempts in Germany to reinvigorate empowering education and bildung for workers. In Italy and Portugal, illiteracy was still widespread until the 1920s. When Bismarck stopped the empowering education among the Prussian workers, he deliberately and explicitly did so because he feared that if the workers knew too much, they would start a revolution. In the Nordics — perhaps even as early as among Frederik VI and his school commission, but definitely since Grundtvig, Kold and Sonne — the philosophy was the opposite: if people did not know enough, they would start a revolution.
On the surface of it, 10–20% of young farmhands and -girls getting another 3–5 months of school without a diploma, and some workers opening a library above their grocery store, may not sound like the way to change the fate of a poor country. But imagine the historical context of rural Denmark: usually, from the age of 14, after seven years of school and then Christian confirmation, young people worked on a farm until they got married and got their own farm. And that was it. Now, instead, after confirmation, they worked maybe 4–6 years, and then they got a break. They spent 3–5 months around other young people, learned the latest agricultural techniques that could help them improve their own farm, they developed an understanding of politics and society, an appreciation of literature, an understanding of science, and a love of God and country. They did this, precisely at the time of their life, when we typically search for meaning and purpose and try to find out what it means to be an adult. At the schools, their thinking was challenged and sharpened, they got some pushbacks and were encouraged to ask questions, they developed a political voice, and they learned the latest and most progressive songs.
These young people then went back home to their villages, improved farming, impressed their peers, shared their new knowledge, dared to speak their mind, and became community organizers. Inspired by the workers and their grocery stores, these young farmers also became active in starting cooperatives on the production side.
In 1882, the first co-op dairy in Denmark was started by farmers, and then the concept spread like a wildfire. In 1894, there were 907 co-op dairies, in 1900, there were 26 co-op slaughterhouses. By pooling their resources and building co-op factories, Danish farmers could produce higher quality that could compete in the global market. Danish butter and bacon became a brand. In 1900, Danish GDP per capita surpassed that of industrialized and natural-resource-rich Germany and France.
An open-minded sense of peoplehood
Now, wouldn’t this much focus on love of God and country lead to nationalism and chauvinism towards other countries and peoples among the Danes? It should be no secret that the Danes had no great love for the Germans and Prussians, but something else happened.
In 1920, Eduard Lindeman, an American educator, visited Denmark; this was in the aftermath of WWI, in which Denmark did not participate. In 1926, Lindeman wrote a book, The Meaning of Adult Education, and here is what he wrote about Denmark:
Here I came into contact with a civilization which, by sheer contrast with hate-ridden Europe, seemed like a cultural oasis in the desert of nationalism. Whereas the victorious nations were grasping for territory, Danish statesmen were conducting a scientific study to determine how much of Schleswig-Holstein might be regarded as being integral to Denmark. (…)
And then I saw farmers studying in peoples’ colleges (Volkshochschulen), studying for the purposes of making life more interesting; these same farmers were members of comprehensive cooperative enterprises — dairies, creameries, cheese-factories, egg-shipping associations, slaughtering-plants, banks, stores, insurance societies, et cetera — enterprises which performed so many economic functions that the farmers were freed for other activities; and there could be found neither wealth nor poverty in the land. Here it seemed to me, was a culture which included many of the attributes which have been desired since the time of the early Greeks; besides, it was founded upon rigorous science and a degree of economic freedom — both of which were absent in Greek culture.
Beneath the easily-recognizable distinctions in Danish life — collective economic organization, interest in literature, art and recreation, absence of imperialism, et cetera — one finds an educational ferment such as motivates no other people in the modern world. Since the days of Grundtvig, which were also the days of Denmark’s material and spiritual impotence, Danish adults have striven to close “the yawning abyss between life and enlightenment.” “What the enemy has taken from us by force from without, we must regain by education from within,” they said and forthwith laid the foundations for a system of education which continues so long as life lasts. Adult education, one begins to learn after prolonged observation, has not merely changed citizens from illiteracy to literacy; it has rebuilt the total structure of life’s values.
The border conflict between Denmark and Germany ended in 1920, when there was a referendum in Schleswig and Holstein. The people in the area got do decide for themselves to which country the wished to belong, and the border was drawn accordingly. On each side of the border, there has been a German and Danish minority, respectively, and apart from WW2, nobody has questioned the border since.
In the culturally fertile context of folk-bildung, a parallel intellectual wave emerged in Denmark: Cultural Radicalism. In many respects, it was the exact opposite of the folk-bildung of the folk high schools. The folk high schools taught the rural youth about their historical past; to value their traditions and national identity. Cultural Radicalism was an ideology that tried to get rid of religion, nationalism, conservative moral norms, and old gender stereotypes. Instead, it promoted modernity, enlightenment, universal values, sexual liberation, gender equality, and a scientific worldview.
Cultural radicalism got its name in the 1930s, but it started in the 1880s, when Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1820–1906) wrote A Doll’s House, and when Danish literary scholar Georg Brandes (1842–1927), Norwegian poet Bjornstjerne Bjornson (1832–1910), and Swedish author August Strindberg (1849–1912) got into a pan-Scandinavian public dispute about sex before marriage and the double standards for men and women. Brandes held that both men and women should have the moral right to sex before marriage, Bjornstjerne held that both sexes should stay chaste until marriage, and Strindberg held that things were absolutely fine as they were: men were entitled to sexual freedom, women should stay chaste. One could say that, 100 years later, Brandes has won.
In other respects, Cultural Radicalism shared some similarities with the folk-bildung in the folk high schools: the cultural radicals wanted people to wake up, expand their horizon, and develop an inner, personal moral compass of their own. They did not know the modern term self-authoring and they definitely did not refer to Schiller’s ‘moral person,’ but this level of personal development was exactly what the Cultural Radical thinkers tried to get their contemporaries to achieve. And they definitely gave them some pushbacks.
Rather than creating a new kind of school, beginning in the 1920s, the Cultural Radicals turned their narrative of modernity and pragmatism into new design, new aesthetics, and manifested their philosophy and ideology in beauty.
In the 1930s, as authoritarian and totalitarian ideologies captured minds across Europe, Cultural Radicals started writing poetry and satire. The most famous Cultural Radical voice in Denmark was architect, lyricist and satirist Poul Henningsen (1894–1967), who advocated strongly against both communism and Nazism and who had to flee Denmark during WW2. Cultural Radicalism thus became a crucial voice across the Nordics against authoritarianism and totalitarianism.
Throughout Denmark, Norway and Sweden there were communist and Nazi sympathizers, and there were also poor people, but there was not a critical mass of desperate people who had been side-railed by the technological and economic development, nor was there a widespread longing for a strongman. Finland was still poor and terrified of a possible Soviet invasion, but there, too, authoritarianism had no appeal.
In 1942, the association of Danish cooperative stores decided to make their own furniture line inspired by the Cultural Radical values. What we know today as Scandinavian Design, is in fact Cultural Radical design: minimalistic, somewhat frugal, human proportions, in harmony with nature (contrary to Bauhaus), slick, excellent craftsmanship, and always with the following ideal: a simple, good life for everybody. Ironically, so-called ordinary people hated the Cultural Radical design from the onset — too much of an aesthetic pushback — but, eventually, it became integral to the Danish spirit. Today, the classical designer furniture is too expensive for most people; on the other hand: the tradition is alive as ever, and the furniture represents lasting beauty and is very durable.
With different means, Cultural Radicalism became folk-bildung 2.0: a cultural wave in the Nordics that made modernity beautiful, meaningful, and democratic. The earliest Cultural Radicals tended to loathe Grundtvig, his nationalism and the folk high school people, particularly for all their communal singing, but even Georg Brandes had to admit that the schools and the general folk-bildung they produced had had a tremendous and positive effect on Denmark and the other Nordic countries. Perhaps not surprising, then, Cultural Radicalism also emerged with Denmark as its ground zero.
The workers and the unions
The workers, their unions and the Social Democrats have played a huge role too, but even here, a special Danish invention has shaped not just Denmark, but all of the Nordic countries. It is called the Nordic Model, or the tripartite-negotiations, and it means that Denmark and the other Nordic countries have no official minimum wage. Yet wages are high, the job market is flexible and both employers and employees are overall happy.
In 1898, Danish unions and employers’ associations reached the same following insights: the other party had the right to have economic interests different from their own, it was in nobody’s interest to fight so much it harmed the overall Danish economy, and if they could agree among themselves regarding wages and working conditions, the government might not interfere. Particularly if they invited the government to be present at the negotiations. Workers and employers therefore developed a model for collective bargaining between unions and employers’ associations with the government present at the table, hence the name tripartite-negotiations. Since 1898, this model has been at the core of the Danish job market, it is 30+ years older than the earliest steps towards the welfare state and it quickly spread to the other Nordic countries.
The negotiations allow the three parties to negotiate minimum wages, security in the workplace, job security, unemployment benefits, holidays, maternity leave, education for upgrading professional skills, etc. and to coordinate what should be regulated by agreement between unions and employers’ associations, and what should involve the government and be defined by legislation.
The Danish Secret
So, this is the Danish secret: Some 10% of all Danes went to a folk high school, sharpened their thinking and became conscientious citizens with a moral compass, an urge to keep standards high, and the knowledge and skills to actually do so. These young men and women in the farming community impressed their peers and in many respects turned the general culture around. The workers did something similar, though at a different scale. Through private initiative and government support, Danish citizens invested in the education and bildung of each other, and we have done so for 150+ years. Workers and employers had the bildung to treat each other with respect and to see the wellbeing of the country as a common goal. They had the creativity to develop a model for collective bargaining that provided both flexibility and security, the so-called flexicurity.
There has also been a cultural and aesthetic wave of modernity that was not focused on industry and technology, but on human wellbeing, individual autonomy, democracy, beauty, science, and the good life: Cultural Radicalism.
The rumors about Danish and Nordic socialism say more about a limited conceptual frame than what actually goes on in the Nordic countries. The Nordics enjoy a complex political fabric and the countries have been extremely successful in the industrial era because we invested in education and bildung for everybody.
Unfortunately, the Danish secret is so secret that even the Danes and everybody else in the Nordics seem to have forgotten about it. The folk high schools are still around and there is plenty of folk-bildung, but the political and societal edge and the conscious effort to upgrade people’s ability to handle a massive societal transition are mostly gone. The open-minded and culturally self-confident nationalism in Denmark is also becoming increasingly national-chauvinistic.
We could change that. In Denmark and elsewhere. We could upgrade our understanding of the world. We could promote bildung again and educate ourselves to grasp the challenges from exponential technologies, new ownership and power structures, globalization, climate change, and the overall human impact on the only habitable planet we have. We could make the world a wiser place, and we could create new empowerment, folk-bildung and folk high schools for the 21st century around the globe. We could start studying “for the purposes of making life more interesting.” We could create a woke culture that was actually tolerant, not just a monolith of the politically correct opinions and cancel culture, but an open minded and curious culture that made learning fun, meaningful, diverse, and with deep cultural roots and the necessary pushbacks that force us to re-think and to grow.
If Danish peasants, pastors and teachers could change the fate of a country 150 years ago in just about a generation, we ought to be able to do something similar around the globe today.
At the macro level, we could also start developing, together with the tech giants and our governments, the new institutions that will secure our freedoms and democracy now and in the future for all. At the personal level, as individuals and as families, we could grant ourselves a richer, more meaningful and rewarding life though folk-bildung.