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Folk High Schools

Folk high schools are a central element in Danish history and particularly in Danish education. Originally these schools were founded to bring popular and non-formal education to the lower classes of Danish society so that the peasantry could also be active participants in the modern Danish state. Today many Danes still take courses in the 70 folk high schools around the country

Askov Rødding Højskole, the oldest folk high school in Denmark established in 1844

The rise of the Danish folk high school is closely connected to the beginning of Danish nationalism in the 19th century. From 1801 to 1807 Denmark suffered several defeats in the on-going war between France and Britain, which Denmark was involuntarily made party to. This led to Denmark´s bankruptcy in 1913.
As a result of these difficult years there was a focus on the revival of the Danish people. The leading figure in this movement was one of Denmark´s intellectual peers N.F.S. Grundtvig.

 

“A school for life”

Grundtvig was an eager but realistic advocate for reforms. He wanted a new democratic constitution and along with it more democratic education. His solution was the folk high school. According to Grundtvig it should be “a school for life” with a focus on popular education and enlightenment. As opposed to the formal education in the universities, the folk high school should focus on giving the peasantry a higher educational level through personal development. The language in the school should be that of common people and the content of the teaching should be the history and language of the fatherland, its constitution, its main industries and its folksongs, all taught within a Christian framework. The schools should not hold exams because the education and the enlightenment was sufficient reward in itself. Schools based on these principles, Grundtvig argued, would provide the lower classes of society with the educational level required for them to be active participants in a modern and less elitist society.

 

Nationalism

The first folk high school was established in Rødding, in southern Jutland, in 1844 and others soon followed. However, the breakthrough for the new schools didn´t come until 1864 when Denmark was forced to surrender a large part of Jutland to Prussia (Germany) after the second war of Schleswig. The loss of territory was another blow to the Danish identity and it spurred a strong nationalism epitomized in the phrase penned by Danish poet H.P. Holst “what is lost without should be gained within”. Folk high schools were established throughout the country with financial backing from the state. In 1918 the number of schools reached 68 with 273,000 Danes having taken a course in a folk high school since 1844.

 

Askov Teaching at Askov folk high school. Painting from 1904.

Initially the teaching only took place from November to March, as the students would be working on the farms for the rest of the year. From 1861 some schools also began summer courses, allowing women to gain access to the schools.

The folk high school idea also caught on outside Denmark with the founding of folk high schools in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Austria, USA, India and Africa.

 

The modern folk high school

Today there are around 70 folk high schools in Denmark. Some still have a religious focus but most are secular. However, they are still considered “Grundtvigian” in the sense that they focus on enlightenment, ethics, morality and democracy. Typical subjects today are music, arts, design, writing, journalism, religion, psychology, philosophy and literature. Schools that specialize in sports are also very popular. Many courses are open to foreigners and often a course includes travelling to other countries. Between 5,000 and 7,000 students attend a folk high school every year in Denmark.

You can read more about the Danish folk high schools and how to apply here: http://www.danishfolkhighschools.com/