The Folk School: Education for Social Change

(EDITORS NOTE: This is the first article in a series taken from a thesis written in 1982 by Louise Spencer in partial fulfillment for the requirements for her M S degree in Education from the Bank Street College of Education.
Chapter I, which will appear in two parts, is an introduction to folk schools and attempts to define what they are and are not. Subsequent chapters describe the folk school philosophy of education as it is found in the contributions of three men:
N.F. S. Grundtvig,(1783-1872), the founder of the folk school in Denmark; American, Myles Horton, and Brazilian educator Paulo Friere. References in the article to “today” refer to 1982, when Louise Spencer wrote her thesis).


Folk Schools are institutions more common in Europe than in the United States or elsewhere. They are residential schools for adults with diverse curriculums, having no prerequisites for attendance and usually offer no academic credit or grades. Courses given vary widely, often are determined by the students. The length of attendance is usually short –– from a week to as much as two years.

The first folk schools were established in Denmark in 1844. Their founder, N. S. F. Grundtvig (1783-1872), was a poet, historian, pastor and educational reformer. Folk schools came to this country with the Danish immigrants during the late 1800’s; the first folk school in America was established in Elk Horn, Iowa in 1878.

Today there are about 80 folk schools in Denmark. The five schools established by the Danish immigrants from Grundtvigian backgrounds in the United States no longer function as folk schools, nor does the one which was established in Canada. However, there are two existing institutions with folk school connections in the United States. They are the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina and the Highlander Research and Education Center in Knoxville, Tennessee (originally called the Highlander Folk School).

My parents and grandparents attended folk high schools. Their other schooling was limited. I think my father finished sixth grade and my mother eighth. I do not know what primary schooling my Danish grandparents had but their attendance at the folk high school for a period of two or three months when they were young adults was the education which not only permanently affected their lives, but also that of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
What is the power behind schooling whose effects can be felt into succeeding generations? Folk schools have been acknowledged not only to have had powerful effects on the lives of individuals but are also credited with having had powerful social and political impact. In Denmark, a largely backward peasantry was transformed into a progressive farming middle class within two generations. The tide of German political and cultural influence into Denmark was halted. Today, although only 10% of the Danish population attends folk schools, 50-80% of those serving in Parliament have attended folk schools.1

This article will attempt to summarize the education philosophy of work of the folk school founder, N.F.S. Grundtvig and two other men who have practiced the folk school concept — Myles Horton, and Paulo Freire.
Myles Horton, who founded the Highlander Folk School has been described as “The Man Whose School Started the Civil Rights Movement in the South.2 Paulo Freire was asked to leave Brazil because he was seen as a threat to the existing power structure.

A renewed interest in folk schools expressed itself in the formation of the Folk-College Association of America in the fall of 1976. The 1960’s had seen our society severely questioned from within and our educational system the target of ridicule from all sides. Re-examining an educational system known for inspiring and motivating students rather than turning them off and also for contributing to the improvement of society at such a time seems most logical. In the first issue of Option, the newsletter of the Folk-College Association, excerpts from an article, “The Need for Folk High Schools” by Richard Drake, a professor of history at Berea College:

Certainly the Land of the Free in its Bicentennial year cannot afford to ignore creative ways to deal with the alienation of youth and the mindless attack on traditional institutions... Rather than dismantle the public school system, perhaps we ought to erect another level of education, another set of schools based on the Scandinavian folk high school idea...3

In their first issues Option contains many articles in which people attempt to define and list the characteristics of a folk school. Because folk schools are so varied and because their purpose is to meet the needs of students, it is difficult to be specific. As Johannes Knudsen in his article “The Folk School” says:

It (the folk school) is not primarily an institution but an instrument. As an instrument it has given shape to institutions, but it must not be confined to known forms.

He continues:

“There is no official program for the folk school nor an approved form. There are certain features, however, that might be singled out and recognized in order to be true to this school as an instrument…4

Among the features agreed upon by most people who have attempted to define or list characteristics of the folk school are:

1. Creation of a caring, learning community -— a total environment in which students and faculty eat, sleep, work and learn together. When I recently asked my 90 year old uncle what it was about the folk school that made it so special, he unhesitatingly replied, “The atmosphere.”

2. The spoken or the “living word” rather than the written or “dead letter” is the vehicle for most teaching, lecture, discussions, question periods and conversations are emphasized. Personal contact between teacher and learner is vital. The greatest conveyor of human values, of human understanding, and of human sharing is the spoken word. The word is creative. 5

3. The goal of the folk school is to enliven and empower the students rather than to instruct. Christian Kold (1816-1870) is the man who more than any other put the philosophical ideas and theories of Grundtvig into practice. The first folk school established in 1844 in North Slesvig had a troubled existence and was not considered by Grundtvig to be a true example of his intentions. The border conflicts and war with Germany interrupted its existence, and although it served a significant role, it was the folk school established by Kold in 1849 that has served as the model for all succeeding Grundtvigian folk schools. Therefore for specific examples, we turn most often to those of or about Kold. His approach to teaching is described:

He always tried to speak to the very souls of his pupils ...He considered the acquisition of external knowledge as quite secondary, believing that a young man with an awakened and clarified inner life could easily acquire the information he needed in his daily occupation. The aim of the school was to approach the soul of the pupils through “the living word” and thus awaken a life which would never stop growing. Kold said that his special task was to enliven the young people rather than to enlighten them. 6

An incident regarding Kold concerns a young student who lamented that although he enjoyed Kold‘s lectures he often could not remember them later, to which Kold is said to have replied:

Don’t trouble yourself about that. If it were dead knowledge about which we were speaking it would be another matter. It is as it is out in the fields. If we just lay the drain pipes in the earth, we must put marks so that we can find them again. But when we set corn, it is not necessary to mark the place. It comes up again. You can be sure that the things you have heard from me with joy will come up all right again when you want them. 7

No specific curriculum guide designed to insure that all students left the folk school enlivened and empowered was available for folk school teachers. They were expected to share with students the knowledge, issues and concerns about which they felt deeply, and to respond to the needs and concerns of the particular student body. Another incident involving Kold is pertinent:

An efficient teacher, who later became a prominent politician, came to Kold’s school as assistant, and eagerly inquired what subjects he should teach. Kold answered: “I usually speak an hour every morning, and towards evening I usually tell the pupils something about my life. Between these times you must see that the youngsters are occupied so that they don’t make a rumpus. That will be your job, and you can yourself decide what you will teach them.8

Despite the diversity, similarities in the curriculum did exist. If the goal of awakening the student was to be achieved then it was essential that every aspect of the individual — heart, soul, mind and body –– be touched and brought into unison.” And some topic areas were fundamental in Grundtvig’s concept. Among the commonalities in curriculum are:

A. Singing — A day at a folk school typically began and ended with unison, single-toned group singing. Grundtvig wrote hymns, songs and poems throughout his life. Hymns alone are counted in numbers of four figures. I came to know Grundtvig this way. Not only in church but on Sunday afternoons and on special occasions friends and relatives gathered in living rooms and sang fervently and lustily those translated songs. My husband, from other backgrounds, recalls with humor his first exposure to such a gathering. Not only was he impressed by the length of the songs and their limited melodic line, but even more by the gusto with which a group of obviously limited musical talent, sang so un-selfconsciously and joyfully. Of this singing Harold Balslev in The Danish People’s High School says:

“It is surely of singing in this connection of which the poet thinks when he says that it can shed its clear light over the work and with its warmth melt away the cold and haltingness of the mind; that it can dispel the inharmonious, do away with doubt and lead the fighting powers into one united desire. 9

I believe it would be impossible to over-estimate the importance of singing in the folk school. There could not be a folk school without song. We might almost ask if there could be human life without song. Certainly singing has a power in creating a sharing, caring atmosphere and the folk schools capitalized on this. The high school songbook was undoubtedly the one book found in all folk schools. A collection of Danish songs was gathered in Sanqboq for det danske Folk i Amerika. In 1941 the Danish American Young People’s League published a collection of translated Danish favorites combined with other traditional songs in a collection called The World of Song. Grundtvig‘s hymns were translated before his sermons and other polemical writings. The living word is found in his songs.10

B. History —- The historical teaching in the folk school is not the rote learning of names, dates and places but rather the use of historical events or characters to throw light on the lives and thinking of the student. Emphasis is always on the role of each person in the process of transmitting the past, transforming the present and creating the future.

C. Language and Literature — Grundtvig strongly felt the importance of knowing and using the mother tongue. He contended that only in the language which was endowed with the emotional force of that first human contact could true self-expression occur. His aversion to the increasing use of German and Latin was strongly expressed. The Norse myths and legends, which Grundtvig studied and translated, were among the literary pieces considered important.

Kathryn Parke in discussing the varied curriculum in Scandinavian folk schools says:

... still the phrase “folk school subjects is universally understood to mean history, literature, language and song — and particularly those of the home country. 11

To this I would add one other area which might be considered recreation rather than a subject as such.

D. Gymnastics — The young adults who attended the first folk schools were usually farmers and laborers accustomed to a good deal of physical activity. Obviously, they could not suddenly switch to a sedentary way of life. Gymnastics in the early folk schools were patterned on the German gymnastics designed to train for military purposes. These gymnastics came under heavy criticism and the Ling system of Swedish gymnastics was introduced. The head of Vallekilde folk school and folk school, Ernest Trier, said of the new gymnastics:

“These gymnastic exercises are not at all designed as a form of training for a military or any other special purpose: nor are they intended merely to develop strength and agility in the human body; they aim at the improvement of the whole person.12

My grandmother attended Vallekilde and in a letter to the man who would be my grandfather she wrote:

“You would laugh if you could see us in our gym suits! There were two teachers here from Sweden on Saturday to see our Gym because it was in Sweden the gym originated and it is sometimes called Swedish Gym. Several hundred people viewed the exhibition. You will probably wonder of what good is gym. I’ll give you a little explanation: In the first place there hasn’t been so much illness since it started —as is often the case when so many live in one house (170 girls). In gym all our muscles are exercised so we become strong, energetic women. 13

The observation was frequently made that students who performed well in the gymnasium were often those who listened most carefully during lectures. The particular style of gymnastics has varied, and frequently traditional games and folk dances have complemented or supplemented the gymnastics but the need for physical activity to awaken the whole being has been generally recognized.

4. Folk schools are outside the traditional educational system. Usually students are between the ages of 18-24. They attend voluntarily and receive no academic credit or performance evaluation. Sessions vary in length from two weeks to two years but are most often two to five months in length. Being outside the traditional school system, folk schools have also traditionally been outside governmental influence. Christian VIII favored the folk school idea, but died before a folk high school system could be established. The liberal government that came to power following his death opposed the idea and so the folk schools were established independently. In 1853 Christian Kold refused state aid unless it was explicitly stipulated that no conditions could be attached. Today the folk high schools of Denmark are state subsidized and attending students receive stipends but the schools remain free and independent from governmental influence.

5. In the folk school, education of the whole person is emphasized. Likewise it is emphasized that the fullest self-expression can only occur in a cultural context.

Essentially it (the folk school) believes that education must be an education for wholeness; emphasizing the heart and the body as well as the mind. Education, if it is to create wholeness, must liberate the individual from narrow shortsighted and self-centered preoccupations and instill an imaginative participation in the larger continuities and processes of which he/she is a part. In the largest, richest meaning of the world, the folk school seeks to empower people towards a folk identity, a consciousness of being deeply related to other people and to the earth itself in a common life and aspiration. 14

1 Ramsay, John. “Who is N.F.S. Grundtvig?” Option, Vol. I, No. 1 (Fall, 1976): p. 5.

2 MacLean, Kenneth T. “Origins of the Southern Civil Rights Movement:
Myles Horton and the Highlander Folk School.” Phi Delta Kappan. Vol. XLVII,
No. 9 (May, 1966): Cover.

3 Drake, Richard. “The Need for Folk High Schools.” Option. Vol. I, No. 1.
(Fall, 1976): p. 2.

4 Knudsen, Johannes. “The Folk School.” Kirke og Folk. Vol. 27, No. 13
(August 15, 1978): p. 10.

5 Ibid, p. 10.

6 Begtrup, Holger: Lund, Hans; and Manniche, Peter. The Folk High Schools of
Denmark and the Development of a Farming Community. London: Oxford Univ.
Press, 1926. p. 100.

7 Begtrup, Holger. The Danish People’s High School. Copenhagen: Det Schonbergske
Forlag, 1918, p. 102.

8 Begtrup, Lund, Manniche. Folk High Schools, p. 101.

9 Begtrup, Danish People’s High School, p. 75.

10 In her appendix, Louise Spencer includes a transcription of “The Word,”
a hymn by S.D. Rodholm adapted from N.F.S. Grundtvig.

11 Parke, Kathryn E. Norway’s Folk High School. State University of New York,
1963. p. 32.

l2. Begtrup, Lund, Manniche. Folk High Schools, p. 62.

13 [This letter from the author’s mother will be printed in a future issue of
Church and Life.]

14 No author given. “Origins of the Folk Schools.” Option. Vol. 2, No. 3.
(Summer, 1978): p. 1.