Bildung is a German concept; folk-bildung is the Danish democratization and popularization of bildung. Folk-bildung is for the people and by the people, and it was invented in order to create a collective sense of peoplehood, a collective sense of self, and in order for people to step up to the responsibilities as a citizen when they first got political freedom. It was invented in Denmark and quickly travelled to Norway, Sweden, and Finland.
The Danish pastor Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783-1871) first envisioned folk-bildung in the 1830s when he developed the concept of a folk college or folk high school. He translated the German word Hochschule into Danish højskole and then, to emphasize the popular aspect, he called it a folke-højskole. This means that he was in fact talking about a folk college, not a folk high school, though that has become the standard term in English. In American English, the term folk school is also used.
The first folk high school opened in Denmark in 1844 as a boarding school with a two-year program for young farmhands. They studied Danish history, literatur and science, read the Bible, and learned the latest agricultural techniques so that they could develop their own farms. The program was rather expensive, and it was never a huge success.
The folk high school that truly popularized bildung and defined the folk-bildung movement in Denmark was started in 1851 by a teacher, Christen Kold (1816-1870). He had realized that whenever he taught pupils what he was supposed to teach them they were rarely paying attention, but when he told them stories, they lit up and listened. When he read aloud great novels to adults, the same thing happened. Kold’s pedagogical technique at his Ryslinge Folk High School was therefore radically different from any previous approach to education: Kold did not teach his students anything. Instead, he started by reading Romantic, heroic novels about Denmark in the Medieval period to the young farmhands, and once they were all excited about the glorious past of their country, he let them as questions. As he answered their questions, he also asked them questions and got them to think for themselves. In 1851, this was radical.
Kold’s summed up his method as “First enliven, then enlighten.” Through mobilizing their curiosity, Kold taught the 18-25-year-olds history, science, the latest agricultural techniques, the Bible, and inspired them to read other literature as well. The conversations and mutual questioning was the method.
The first folk high school opened in Norway in 1863, in Sweden in 1868, and in Finland in 1874. Like in Denmark, these were boarding schools with a 3-5 month program and they were targeted the rural youth.
It soon became obvious that the working class youth in the cities also needed folk-bildung, and evening classes and study programs emerged from the 1880s and onwards. )n Sweden, teacher and philosopher Oscar Olsson (1877-1950) invented the study circle in 1902, and the Swedish democracy has been called “a study circle democracy.”
Folk-bildung in the Nordics is thus more than 150 years old, and the emergence of these new study and bildung opportunities created a lift of the Nordic societies from the bottom as the countries industrialized.
At the European Bildung Network, we aim to bring this historic Nordic experience into the 21st century at a continental level.