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These days, elev/er (pupil/s, student/s) all over Denmark are coming back to school life after sommerferien (the summer vacation). Sweating, with the sun shining through the classroom curtains, they’re doing their best to rehearse and learn the answers the teacher would like them to write in their final eksamen [ekSAmen]. Everyone’s competing with themselves and everyone else in order to get the highest karakter/er (mark/s, grade/s). Well, not everyone: Some students don’t get any marks at all, and have neither tests nor exams to prepare for… Welcome to the folkehøjskole, one of the backbones of modern danskhed (Danishness) and perhaps one of the most notable Danish contributions to global culture…
Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig was a Danish priest, author and politician who lived from 1783 to 1872. He was a very influential person, and his texts and ideas are still very prominent in Denmark. N.F.S. Grundtvig, as he’s usually called, wanted to free the minds, as he saw it, of his fellow Danes: Through folkeoplysning (general education, literally ”folk enlightenment”), everyone should get a chance to understand the basic things – like the history of your forebears – required in order to become a content and fully ”alive” member of their society. In a way his mission was helping people to become ”fully human”. Grundtvig believed that some of our most ”human” moments occur when we’re engaged in conversation with each other. Therefore he placed great emphasis on den levende samtale (the living conversation), rather than rigorist learning from books. Grundtvig loved modersmålet (the mother tongue, which for Grundtvig of course was Danish!) and was fascinated by Nordic mythology. He was also a Christian who meant that religious faith should come from the heart and could not be imposed on anyone. In the same way people should not be ”forced” to learn anything. They should learn out of love or interest, in order to grow as humans, and not to gather A’s and B’s in a list.
Grundtvig’s ideas resulted in the first folkehøjskole [FOLkeh-hoy-skoh-leh], which opened its doors in Rødding in 1844. The first pupils were mostly young farmers. Folkehøjskole means ’folk high school’, and today there are about 70 højskoler (as they’re called in short) in Denmark, as well as several Grundtvig-style højskoler in other countries, from Norway to the US to Nigeria.
Thousands of Danes have spent a semester at a højskole, and returned home with ideas about democracy and the value of art, knowledge and togetherness. The højskoler also play an important role in conserving and evolving the Danish song tradition.
Most højskoleelever (højskole students) today are people in their early twenties who’ve finished public school but don’t feel ready yet for a job or further studies. They come to the schools to socialize and ”find themselves” and experience something out-of-the-box: sail a canoe, stage a play, take a course in pottery, learn Spanish, sing in a choir… The courses usually last one semester, and include many optional subjects. Students pay for their stay, and eat and sleep at the school during the whole period. The place quickly becomes an osteklokke (cheese-dish cover), as we say in Danish: A world of its own, a place of joy and laughter and friendship, where the rest of the world seems oh so far away…
In a couple of days we’ll be talking to three højskole survivors. Stay tuned!