N.F.S. Grundtvig is considered to be the father of Danish folk schools. His radical ideas were the cornerstone upon which this educational reform was based. He was a Danish minister, a theologian, a poet, a philosopher, a historian, a hymn writer, a social critic, and most relevantly, an educator. His educational vision was for a unique school that would serve Danish people of all social standings, especially the farmers. He originally called it "folkelig hojskole" (loosely interpreted as "a school that would be "of and for the people"") (Borish, 1991, p. 17). His idea was to create an educational system that would give dignity to each person who attended. He wanted to awaken in each person a pride in Danish culture, and a love of learning that would continue for the person's entire life. One of Grundtvig's most well known poems, Enlightenment (translated by Borish), illustrates his view of learning:
Is the light of the spirit only something for the learned to spell with? No! Heaven has bequeathed more good things, and the light is the gift of heaven. The sun rises with the farmer, and not with those who possess learning. It illuminates, from top til toe, the one who is really on the go.
Grundtvig was born in 1783, in a small village about 50 miles outside of Copenhagen, Denmark. His father was a clergyman, and Grundtvig was educated and trained to become one himself. After graduating from the University of Copenhagen in 1803 he worked as a tutor and as a historian for several years, before becoming ordained in 1811. While working as a historian, studying mythology, Grundtvig published his first book, Nordic Mythology, in which he criticized the Danish people for not taking their country's humiliation in the defeat by Britain in 1807 more seriously. One of Grundtvig's first appointments was as curate at Vor Frelsers (Our Saviour's) Church in the district of Christianshavn, where he worked as a writer and a clergyman. During this time he published a controversial reply to an article written by another priest. His reply was entitled, The Church's Reply to Professor of Theology Dr. H.N. Clausen by Nik. Fred. Sev. Grundtvig, Curate of the Church of Our Savior. In response to this article, Grundtvig was taken to court for libel, which ultimately resulted in him resigning from his position. He lost the case, was ordered to pay all court fees, and was set under official censure.
In the late 1820s, while traveling in England on business, Grundtvig spent two weeks at Trinity College in Cambridge. He was exposed to a new type of educational system here, where dialogue between the student and the teacher was valued. The conversations between them were open-ended, continuous and intense (Borish, 1991, pg. 166-167). "What fascinated him most was "the free and unhampered inquiry and method of study an the deep fellowship which developed among the men who taught and the men who learned" (Knudsen, 1955, pg. 149). That experience ultimately led to Grundtvig's theory about education, idea for folk schools, and to the publication of one of his most famous works, School for Life and the Academy in Soer. This booklet promoted the major tenets of Grundtvig's philosophy of about education:
He emphasized the importance of the spoken word, and believed that actual spoken words revealed the essence of one's being. He applied this to education by viewing books as secondary resources, and lectures, stories and discussions as primary.
He believed that an understanding of the real and deepest truths that constitute enlightenment never comes from studying classroom texts, but can only be taught by life itself. This idea presents a paradox for teachers: it is the deepest task of our lives to acquire enlightenment for life, but it is something that no schoolroom lesson will ever teach us.
He was convinced that each people, each tribe, each nation on earth had a valuable role to play in the unfolding of world history. He had a high degree of respect for the other cultural traditions of the world, and did not view Denmark as superior. Grundtvig believed that all humans are born into a particular cultural and historical context, through which their own personal drama of enlightenment must be played out. He believed that there is a collective as well as an individual aspect to the experience of enlightenment, and that it must be a goal of society to create the conditions that will lead to enlightenment.
A translation of Grundtvig's idea for how to do this is "a balance between two things that remain different, but that should fertilize each other in their differences" (Borish, 1991, pg. 169). He favored a peaceful transformation of all elements in society based on a mutual recognition that all had the right to exist. Also, he insisted that each individual could both teach and learn in a dialogue predicated on mutual respect.
He believed in the wisdom of the ordinary people above the educated and elite, and thought that it was the ordinary people who were capable of enlightenment.
Based mainly upon these ideas, the first folk school was opened at Rodding, on November 7, 1844. A group of patriotic Danes, led by Professor Christian Flor, ran the school. Despite it's promising beginning, the school had a difficult time. It was closed and re-opened several times before being closed permanently in 1864. However, by this time the folk school movement had taken hold. Kristen Kold, who "was to influence the folk-school movement more profoundly than any other of Grundtvig's disciples" (Campbell, 1928, pg. 71), opened a school at Ryslinge in 1951. Between 1866-1869, after the war with Prussia ended, the folk school movement experienced it's largest growth ever, with 44 new schools opening. Folk schools continued to gain popularity after Grundtvig's death in 1872, and his picture still graces the wall of many Danish folk schools today
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