What a Folk High School is NOT


(From: Louise Spencer’s 1982 theses “The Folk School: Education for Social Change” Chapter 1, Part 2)

In addition to the generally agreed upon criteria characterizing the folk school there are also generally agreed upon “nots.” They include:

  1. The folk school is not essentially a religious institution. It is religious in the sense that there is a genuine concern for the forces which create and give meaning to life. Grundtvig himself was a Lutheran pastor, descending from a long line of pastors. When a religious movement of the masses –– a revival of old Lutheran Christianity — came into opposition with the clergy, he sided with the laymen. His support of these dissidents forced him to resign as an ordained clergyman. His opponents attacked him labeling him a humanist and a pagan. He was a bold advocate of freedom for all points of view and believed that it was this present immediate life that was of concern. In a personal letter Grundtvig once wrote: “All our (Christian) endeavors are wasted unless the response in people to human ~mirth and joy is reawakened; for of what worth is an eternal life, if we do not have a temporal life which we can joyfully anticipate as being eternal ... “15

Grundtvig’s followers came to be known as the “Happy Danes” because of their proclivity for finding joy and happiness in this life — for dancing and singing and playing in a manner considered unseemly by the traditional pietists. My ancestors were among these “Happy Danes.” In reading about the Danish and the Danish-American folk schools one is certainly aware of a strong Christian emphasis but as Enok Mortensen says in his book Schools for Life, “It (a true folk school) is rooted in a culture and in folkways that antedate Christianity; mythology, music, songs, tales, poetry, dances and all the other ingredients that are indigenous to, and which shape and mold the life of the people.” 16

  1. Although deeply concerned with the history, lore, language and traditions of a people, a folk school is not nationalistic. Dame Olive Campbell in her book The Danish Folk School quotes a folk school principal as distinguishing between “National” and “Nationalistic.”17 The first implies inward development and the latter outward expansion. An international attitude is reached through the national and not nationalistic. The significance of each culture is recognized and their inter-dependence stressed. The first folk school in Denmark was established near the German border and a deliberate effort was made to prevent further cultural incursion by the Germans. However no attempt was made to impose Danish culture outside Denmark. In Poland folk schools have been strong in the Russian sector where concern about cultural domination is strongest. Folk schools stress the importance of cultural identity and the need for dialogue between people from these diverse cultures. The Danish-American folk schools were a means whereby immigrants and their children could achieve an American identity without losing their Danish roots. The chauvinistic patriotism of World War I was deeply lamented in the Danish-American folk schools — in Iowa a law forbade the use of foreign language in a public gathering –– and yet one of the folk school leaders was to write, in Danish, in a church publication: “We must speak strongly of love for America. America is a conglomeration of peoples of all the earth, and that is the marvelous thing about our country, that it does not end in chaos but that it quietly and without strife reaches unity ...18
  2. The final phrase in the previous quote — the wish that the United States would achieve a unity without strife or chaos — leads to the third “not.” Folk schools do not teach philosophies that advocate violence nor do they aim to inspire people to revolution. Folk schools are concerned with basic ideals and values and with the development of awakened, independent, responsible and free individuals. Johannes Knudsen states in his first characteristic of a folk school: “In ‘the folk school’ every person has a value and a potential. The individual must be made aware of the potential in order that the values may be realized or fulfilled. Paulo Friere calls this “conscientization.”19

This conscientization, this awakening and enlivening of individuals may threaten established agencies. Traditional educational institutions are designed to train students to function more effectively within that particular societal framework. Folk schools seek to motivate individuals to function cooperatively for their common welfare with a deep respect for their culture and society. In the first case there is an effort to maintain the status quo; in the other there is an impetus to pursue growth and change. Again I quote Johannes Knudsen:

“In its essence the folk school is not the vehicle of a specific political or social program. If it does not awaken individuals to a strong and continued concern for man and his earth, it has failed in its very being, but it does not promote any one particular stance.”20

The early Danish folk schools did not advocate the development of co-operatives. However in the 1870’s and 1880’s when the Danish farmers were faced with economic ruin due to foreign competition in the grain market they did develop co-operatives and switched from grain to export of dairy products. Holger Begtrup, Hans Lund and Peter Mennicke in their book, The Folk High Schools of Denmark and the Development of a Farming Community say:

“.... It is universally admitted that the agricultural population could not, but for the work of the People’s High Schools, have shown adaptability so great, open-mindedness so intelligent... Corporate life in an atmosphere of liberal education had given practical culture. The new leaders of the peasantry, the organizers of the new and effective co-operation were for the most part High School men.”21

In addition to these characteristics which have been mostly deliberate and reflective of Grundtvig’s philosophy there are at least two others which have evolved —which are so to speak, inherent in the folk schools‘ nature. They are an individuality of each school imposed largely by the personality of the Head or Principal, and secondly, a student body composed mainly of a rural, farming, peasant class.

As mentioned previously, Christian VIII had planned to establish folk schools but his death and changes in political climate resulted in folk schools becoming independently established by impassioned individuals committed to Grundtvig’s philosophy. Christian Kold used his life’s savings and money he solicited to buy land and construct a building, then went out to attract students who paid a meager amount for their spartan room and board. Kold‘s sister was cook and housekeeper and Kold and a fellow-teacher slept in the loft with the pupils. Reportedly there were no complaints from students: “The daily feast of good words made the pupils forget all thought about food.”22

And so the pattern was established and what Myles Horton called “men on fire” have continued to demonstrate their commitment by investing financially, emotionally and intellectually in institutions which will bear their stamp. In a speech given at a centennial celebration of the Norwegian Folk school and printed in the Norwegian paper “Syn og Segn” Sigmund Skard said:

“The school came into being in its own special way. The theory of the school was born in the brain of a Danish poet-dreamer who in his own time wasn’t thought to have absolutely sound judgment. The school was revolutionary — in methods, in philosophy in its view of society. It provoked opposition of those who were in positions of serious responsibility. Besides how impractical it was! It deliberately avoided organization —- it was individualistic to the point of suicide. In that characteristic it hasn’t changed with the years. Now as formerly a folkehogskule is set up by a single man who intends to run the school his way or not at all. “23

These charismatic leaders leave their mark on the students and the school. My parents did not refer to the numerical year they were at folk school but rather, “the year Holger Strandskov was there,“ or “when Aage Moller was there.”

Grundtvig’s followers tended to regard the church as an official arm of the state and consequently there was a reluctance to have the schools owned by a church. Ashland, a folk school in Michigan, was largely supported by the members of a local congregation, but they opted not to own the school and so it was transferred from one Head to another for 99 cents although the buildings were valued at $3,000.24 The premium placed on freedom and the faith in individuals as against that of institutions reflected in this insistence that folk schools be outside the influence of any organization reveals much about the Grundtvigian distrust of authority based outside the individual.

This distrust of institutions was balanced by a firm belief in the common man. Grundtvig saw his schools to be schools for all the people. He firmly believed that the folk school experience would be as essential to those entering any field of public service as for the general citizenry. There would be no duplication of the curriculum of the Latin school and in the folk school setting these future public servants could learn their language and their culture together with their peers from the larger population of manual laborers and both would be enriched.

“Therefore, even if there were no need in the land for a royal Danish folk high school for the general population, the need would still exist, especially for those whose education right from the elementary level has been planned to meet the course requirements of the Latin school. For if the performance of those students in their future work as public servants or professional men is to be truly beneficial, they must be able to think and speak in Danish and to love and know their country and its fundamental laws as well as the best among their peers. However, this will not happen unless they, through the folk high school, are given the opportunity to enter into living contact and personal interaction with a number of students of approximately the same age. True, these students know no language other than Danish, but through experience they have acquired a far different kind of knowledge than that which can be found in any textbook, certainly not in those prescribed for use in the Latin school. I am speaking of their personal familiarity with greater or smaller parts of the country, the people and the daily life of its citizens. 25 ....

Despite Grundtvig‘s intention the student body at folk schools has remained largely rural. Efforts to establish urban folk schools have not been encouraging. As a matter of fact, as Dame Olive Campbell reported in 1928, the sophisticated, educated Copenhagener is off-hand and a bit disdainful of the folk schools. She quotes these responses to queries about the folk schools from people in Copenhagen:

“Folk schools? Oh. yes. They are for the peasants.” “Very well for the peasants, but of course superficial. They are apt to make the peasant think he knows everything.” 26

My own experience was with the peasant’s disdain of those from Copenhagen. In a book of Danish children’s poetry a poem dealing with confirmation is illustrated with a boy wearing a top hat, smoking a cigar and swaggering with a cane. In response to my questioning, my father scornfully explained that in some places in Denmark, especially Copenhagen, people only went to church at Christmas and Easter and that confirmation was mainly an occasion for a drinking party. Also when a Danish author was scheduled to speak locally my enthusiasm was dampened when I was told that he wasn’t really one of us — he was from Copenhagen.

In spite of Grundtvig’s firm commitment to have his schools serve all young people, in practice they found their pupils among the laborers and have continued to serve mainly a rural people. The most successful folk schools in the United States have been in the rural Midwest and Appalachian regions.

Having made this attempt to describe and define a folk school I must conclude, that as with most definitions, something is lacking. The definition does not convey what attendance at folk school has meant to those who attended.

Again I quote from the letter written by my maternal grandmother: “You will never know how dear Vallekilde has become to me in the time I have been here. I’m sure America hasn’t become that dear to you ..... We are living a rich cultural and religious life here at Vallekilde. E. Trier who is the president is wonderful in explaining so many things for us..... (After lunch) Trier has a lecture and that’s the best hour of the day! In his lectures he started with creation and emphasized how much we have to thank God for and that we are created in His image. How important a Christian home is. Nothing in the world influences children more than a good Christian mother. And he says so many things which mean so much to me that I hadn’t thought of before. May God help me to never forget all the good things I have heard here at Vallekilde.”

And surely, from somewhere, she who had left home at the age of 7 to work as a goose girl, acquired and transmitted beliefs, commitments and joys which are trickling into the fourth generation. Wright Morris, in his book Plains Songs for Female Voices, speaks of the high price that was paid in settling the American west. His character Cora who is situated in the same part of Nebraska where my grandparents homesteaded and at about the same time protects herself from the awareness of the desperate difficulties by sublimating or denying passions and emotions. My grandmother, after having borne and raised six children in a dugout and sod house in western Nebraska, insisted on a move to eastern Nebraska where the family could join a community of fellow Danes and find the community and fellowship which she so sorely missed. The emotional poverty which Wright Morris calls the heritage of the plains was not to be our heritage. Instead we were to inherit the joy of living, a belief in the inherent goodness of man, and a sense of our worth and value.

Throughout years filled with drought, depression and grasshoppers, on Sunday afternoon after the picnic, the ball game, the water fight, or whatever other foolish diversion the joy of being alive and together might have fostered, Grundtvig’s songs of joy and hope rose, if not melodically at least passionately.

Having given the guidelines for a folk school and having spoken highly of its benefits, there are three men who have worked to establish such schools. Each of them found a need and in trying to find answers to the need came upon the “folk school approach” independently. Grundtvig founded the folk school. Myles Horton discovered the folk schools during his search for a means to aid his Appalachian neighbors. Paulo Freire, a century after Grundtvig, a half a world away, came to use almost the same terminology as that used by Grundtvig although there is no evidence, nor is it likely, that he was familiar with this obscure Danish poet. (The author’s chapter on Paulo Freier’s work will be published next month.)


15 Mortensen, Enok. Schools for Life: A Danish American Experiment in Adult Education Askov, MN: American Pub. Society, 1977, p. 18.

l6 Ibid, p. 20.

17 Campbel1, Olive. The Danish Folk School. New York: Macmillan Co. 1928, p. 164.

l8 Mortensen. Schools for Life. p. 70.

l9 Knudsen, “The Folk School.” p. 10.

20 Ibid, p. 10.

2l Begtrup, Lund, Manniche. Folk High Schools, p.7.

22 Begtrup. Danish People’s High School, p. 101.

23 Skarol, Sigmund, “The Norwegian People’s Colleges for One Hundred Years.” Syn og Segn, No. 7 (1964).

24 Mortensen. Schools for Life, p. 41.

25 Knudsen, Johannes, editor. N.F.S. Grundtvig: Selected Writings, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976, p. 155.

26 Campbel1, Danish Folk School, p. 2.