President Obama has long been an admirer of the Nordic countries, and he has just hosted a meeting with the five Nordic prime ministers. Toasting his guests, he made the standard jokes about Vikings, ale and Norwegian TV. He also took time to praise the Danish tradition of adult education.
Many of our Nordic friends are familiar with the great Danish pastor and philosopher Grundtvig who, among other causes, championed the idea of the Folk School — education that was not just made available to the elite, but to the many. Training that prepared a person for active citizenship, that improves a society.
Over time the Folk School Movement spread, including here to the United States. One of those schools was in the state of Tennessee. It was called the Highlander Folk School. Highlander, especially during the 1950s, a new generations of Americans came together to share their ideas and strategies for advancing civil rights, for advancing equality, for advancing justice. We know the names of some of those who were trained or participated in the Highlander school. Ralph Abernathy. John Lewis. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
They were all shaped in part by Highlander and the teachings of the great Nordic philosopher, and they ended up having a ripple effect on the Civil Rights Movement and ultimately on making America a better place. We would not have been here had it not been for that stone that was thrown in the lake and created ripples of hope that ultimately spread across the ocean to the United States of America. I might not be standing here were it not for the efforts of people like Ella Baker and the others who participated in the Highlander Folk School.
Grundtvig, well known as an adult educator, was a nineteenth century Lutheran pastor, poet, and historian, and also a politician. I hadn’t known much about Grundtvig’s political career until we watched the Danish TV series 1864, in which the esteemed founder of the folk high school movement featured as a war-mongering nationalist, who helped push Denmark into a disastrous war with Prussia.
Can we reconcile this rather negative portrait with our image of Grundtvig the peaceful paron saint of adult education? Or was this just a television director’s way of heightening a dramatic moment in Danish history? Grundtvig was indeed a nationalist, whose first proposal for the folk high school claimed that ‘King and Folk, Fatherland and mother-tongue’ were the four leaves of the Danish clover.
So the folk high school went along with other measures such as replacing the Lutheran hymn book with Danish writings, emphasising the value of the ‘living word’ over the written text, and celebrating Nordic mythology. Grundtvig championed adult education as a means of integrating young men into a distinctly Danish way of life, helping preserve the country’s language, literature and song from Germanic contamination, and promoting a qualified egalitarianism.
Later generations were faintly embarrassed by this nationalistic dimension to Grundtvig’s thought, emphasising his respect for the German speaking people of Schleswig, and pointing out that his nationalism represented the conditions of the nineteenth century. Of course it is reasonable to insist that we do not simply judge the past by our contemporary standards, but neither should we airbrush away those parts that we now wish to disown.
Grundtvig was a many-faceted figure whose influence went way beyond Denmark’s shores. I am deeply impressed, and cheered, by the fact that the President of the USA took time in a brief speech to single out the Danish folk high schools, and made clear the connection with the training for active citizenship which helped equip the civil rights movement. Skål!