Folk education

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Folk schools (folkehøjskoler ) were established in Denmark in 1844 (Borish 1991). Inspired by the ideas and principles of N.F.S. Grundtvig (1783-1872), the Danish philosopher and poet (, they originally sought to educate Danish peasants and farmers, who were excluded from the classical Latin education system in the nineteenth century. Such schools merely prepared the elite for predetermined privileged positions in society; it was this which caused Grundtvig to acknowledge a “widening gap between life and learning” within Denmark’s educational system (Ribble 2002). Language was a major factor in the divide: the educated elite spoke German; the peasants, Danish (ibid.). Danish was therefore perceived to be a language of low status, spoken only by “rude”, “ignorant” people (ibid.). Grundtvig strove to raise the status of Danish, while simultaneously providing farmers with dignity, through the development of residential folkehøjskoler. His ideas were put into practice by Christian Kold, amongst others (Ribble 2002).

Folk schools aimed to bring together young adults from all areas of Denmark and allow them the opportunity to study Danish history, society, language and culture (ibid.). Some basic principles about human identity were adhered to: education was collective; the individual was ‘whole’ only within a community; the needs of normal people would be provided for; the “living word” would be used in instruction (ibid.). In other words, learning and dialogue between teachers and learners takes place through the language of day-to-day life with oral activities such as discussion and interpretation (Parke 2002). As Grundtvig declared, the written word “is dead” (ibid.).

Steven Borish (1991) sees the establishment of folk schools as a vital part of Denmark’s “non-violent […] transition from absolutist monarchy to parliamentary democracy” (Borish 1991 pp.10-15) as they provided “the common people” (Ribble 2002) with enlightenment and knowledge (ibid.) (see Paulo Freire and the education of illiterate and politically dispossessed people); compare this with the violent revolutions of the time in other European countries such as France (ibid.).

Although Folk Schools were established in Denmark, their popularity grew and similar schools appeared in other Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland (Borish 1991). As already stated, the folk school movement is linked with the development of Scandinavian society and culture. However, folk schools have also played a significant role in the development of people’s education in North America (Ribble 2002). In the 1920s, this saw the establishment of schools in the USA such as Poconos People's College, Pennsylvania, Waddington People's College, West Virginia and the Highlander ( in Tennessee (Smith 1996). Educators in the UK and Northern Ireland were also inspired by the idea of folk schools. Residential establishments such as Fircroft College of Adult Education in Selly Oak, Birmingham (, still exist today (ibid.).

Common features of Danish folk schools include: the use of the spoken word, the provision of summer courses ranging from short courses (lasting between one and three weeks) to longer ones (three to ten months) (Borish 1991) and access for anyone over the age of eighteen. Surprisingly, although they are “outside of the mainstream Danish educational system” (Borish 1991 pp.7-9), they are state funded for “approximately 85% of their expenses” (ibid.). However, this funding does not have any impact on a school’s philosophical orientation: they are beyond state control (ibid.). Schools can be experimental and deal with radical issues such as feminism (ibid.) or focus on diverse subjects such as athletic instruction, music or foreign languages (Smith 1996). By law they are not competence giving; academic competition is discouraged and marks are not awarded (ibid.):

“[They] depend[…] on cooperation, encouragement, and the natural interest in learning, rather than on such artificial stimuli as grades and credits.” (Parke 2002)

These features are reflected in schools abroad such as Fircroft College of Adult Education in the UK. In fact, until 1997 this College “offered no external accreditation” when it was requested to do so by the Further Education Funding Council (1997 p.2).

The original aims of the Danish schools are still reflected in the mission statement of the Highlander Centre in the USA, whose aim is to empower those oppressed by society through education:

“The Highlander Center works with people struggling against oppression […] It creates educational experiences that empower people to take democratic leadership towards fundamental change[…] Because we are located in the poorest region of the world's richest and most powerful nation, we work with people who benefit least from our society as it is now structured.” (

However, the role of folk schools in Denmark itself has actually changed since they were originally set up. Smith (1996) notes a shift in focus from their “concentration on rural pursuits” since the Second World War. No longer the exclusive territory of farming families, their “clientele” has broadened and changed, responding to the new challenges posed by today’s society (Borish 1991 p.7).

The continuing popularity of folk schools in Denmark is evident with the 1988 catalogue of the folk high school secretariat in Copenhagen listing 106 schools. It was predicted that nearly fifty thousand students (out of a total population of just over 5 million people) would attend folk schools in 1991 (Borish 1991). This includes those taking a folk high school course during the summer holidays. In 1987, for example, 809 different short courses were on offer (ibid.).


Borish, Stephen M. (1991) The Danish Folk High Schools (pp. 7-9) and Outward Loss, Inward Gain: The Period of Emergence of the Danish Folk High Schools (pp. 10-15) in Steven M. Borish, The Land of the Living: The Danish Folk High Schools and Denmark's Non-Violent Path to Modernization, Nevada City, California: Blue Dolphin, pp. 7-9; pp. 10-15. (Visited 1-July-05)

Fircroft College of Adult Education (Visited 1-July-05)

Further Education Funding Council (1997) Report on Fircroft College of Adult Education, Link to can be found on Inspection reports for colleges in the West Midlands region, pp.1-29. (Visited 1-July-05)

Highlander Center ( (Visited 1-July-05)

Smith, Mark. K. (1996) folk high schools A survey of their development and listing of key texts., the informal education homepage, Last update: January 30, 2005 (Visited 1-July-05)

Parke, Kay (2002) Folk Schools, (Visited 1-July-05)

Ribble, Mark (2002) A Brief History of Folk Education, (Visited 1-July-05)

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (2005) Nicolai Grundtvig, (Visited 6-July-05)

Useful links

Asia Folk School Online
New online magazine, launched by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in Hong Kong. This page provides links to extracts from the book The Land of the Living: The Danish Folk High Schools and Denmark's Non-Violent Path to Modernization, by Steven M. Borish (1991) as well as information about N. F. S. Grundtvig, folk schools and human rights in Asia. Readers, especially those actively involved in the Folk School movement worldwide, are invited to submit articles. (Visited 1-July-05)

Highlander Research and Education Center
Includes details of the Highlander Center’s current programs, links to social justice organizations and online resource catalogues. (Visited 1-July-05)

Institute for People's Education and Action (IPEA)
Founded in 1976 in Kentucky as the Folk School Association of America, the IPEA used the “Scandinavian concept of the folk school” to promote adult education, in particular political education. Renamed the IPEA in 2001, this reflected the change in focus from folk education to “people’s education” and acknowledged the idea that folk education is only one form of informal adult education. This page covers all types of “people’s education” such as folk education, Latin American popular education, South African people's education and indigenous education. (Visited 1-July-05)
Publications and resources relating to “social movements around the world where people's education has played an important role” - including folk education and Grundtvig - can be ordered via the People's Education Book Shop. (Visited 1-July-05)

The informal education homepage (infed)
Part of the UK National Grid for Learning, this site provides information about “the theory and practice of lifelong learning and informal education”. Includes a searchable encyclopaedia, archives and links to more than 90 thinkers. (Visited 1-July-05)