The Danish Secret

What shaped the Nordic countries

20 minutes by car from downtown Copenhagen, Denmark, a local farm displays their daily fresh strawberries, potatoes, and honey at an unattended roadside stand. Using your phone, you pay for what you take and, so far, the farmer has never had anything stolen.


So, what is bildung in the first place?

Painting: Anna-Amalia of Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach
Duchess Anna-Amalia of Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach
Friedrich Schiller
Among the readers of Schiller’s letters were the sister of Frederik VI and Count Ernst Schimmelmann, member of the school commission, minister of finance and the richest man in Denmark. The picture shows the palace that was the Schimmelmann residence in Copenhagen in the decades around 1800; the most prominent members of Danish society would have gathered here, and for entertainment, they would read aloud, among other things, the letters from Friedrich Schiller.
Today, the mansion is headquarter of the Danish Odd Fellows and hence named The Odd Fellow Palace.

Democratizing bildung and making it folk-bildung

Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig, 1820
Rødding Folk High School / Rødding Højskole, which opened in 1844.

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!

Mathilde Fibiger, around 1850

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.

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.

Christen Kold, 1850
The farm in Ryslinge that Kold bought in 1851, fixed up, and turned into his first folk high school.

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.

Georg Brandes, 1880s
Poul Henningsen, 1930ish

The Danish Secret

Famous 1949 Cultural Radical chair by Danish designer Hans Wegner, here 1960



Economist, futurist, author, full member of the Club of Rome. Works at Next Scandinavia, Nordic Bildung & European Bildung Network.

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Lene Rachel Andersen

Economist, futurist, author, full member of the Club of Rome. Works at Next Scandinavia, Nordic Bildung & European Bildung Network.