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Grundtvig in English

af Ingrid Ank, head of The Grundtvig-Academy

Learn more about N.F.S. Grundtvig – the man who formed Denmark.

How can a free, peaceful, stable, happy and democratic society be established, a society where there is no small group of people who are far too rich and powerful, and where no one is poor? Where no one is supressed, and where it is possible for everyone to have a say, and everyone is included in society?

Of course, there is no recipe for that. On the contrary, it is often said that when the Allied Powers invaded Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), the invasion was based on the misconception that freedom, democracy and equal rights can be established overnight by people coming from outside.

But there are countries that are claimed to be particularly free, egalitarian (people being equal), democratic and happy. One of them is Denmark. Denmark has a long history. In that history there are wars, poverty and suppression, and there is of course no point in copying Denmark’s history – and then become like Denmark. But there is one man from the 1800’s who is often mentioned as someone who was all-important for the country’s development. This is not because of what he did, but because of what he thought and wrote and, in that way, indirectly set going.

His name is Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783-1872). He was a Protestant Lutheran priest, writer, poet (hymns), politician and educationalist. His lifetime was the period when Denmark became a democracy, and he took part in the debate about what was to be laid down in the Constitution that came into being in 1849.

Here we will focus on three things: his ideas about 1) education, 2) community and 3) freedom.

1 The School for Life 

The French Revolution, which broke out in 1789, led to the King being executed (beheaded) – and many with him. The Revolution grew out of a wish for freedom and for the right to have a say in matters that concerned people generally, but in its wake came bloodshed, terror and power struggles that were difficult to see through. Grundtvig was well aware that the force of revolution could not be stopped – not in Denmark either. The time of absolute rule (Absolutism) had come to an end.

But he wanted to prevent bloodshed and chaos. He thought: Human beings cannot be given power and responsibility overnight. There are things we must understand first. And then he fostered the idea of the people’s high school. He wanted all the Danish people to go to a high school so that they could learn to take an active part in society and realize that they were participants in a shared history and a shared future.

Grundtvig is far from the only one who has thought that a community must be based on education. But he is special in that he finds that on the one hand there are many things that people should learn and be familiar with, such as our shared history, but on the other hand he definitely did not want a fixed curriculum or exams. It was of extreme importance to him that the people’s high school was a school with no exams.

This has to do with his view of man. Human beings should not be crammed with information they could reel off. We should do our own thinking, and we have an urge to do so. We do want to understand the life we are living. In this respect students and teachers are equal.

So, according to Grundtvig, the people’s high school was necessary for society if it was not to end up in bloodshed and terror. But the people’s high school was not there for society’s sake. Or for the state or the nation. Or for the sake of economic growth. The people’s high school was a school for life.

These ideas have also had an effect on primary education in Denmark, namely the public schools. And on secondary education. Danish young people are often criticised, or praised, for being rather self-assured. Some might claim that they do not respect authority, but they are not completely right in that. It is rather so that young people respect the idea of all humans being equal.

2 The inclusive community

When Grundtvig was born in 1783, the Danes did not call themselves Danes. At that time in history, it was a new idea that one could have a national identity.

During the time that Grundtvig lived, Denmark became smaller and smaller. We lost wars. Grundtvig found that it was necessary to create a common understanding of the Danes belonging to a community: one history, one culture, one language, shared mythology and narratives. At the university they spoke Latin, and the elite spoke French and German. But Grundtvig called the mother tongue the language of the heart, and he wrote new songs in Danish and encouraged everybody, high and low, to communicate in Danish.

Today – as was the case then – national identity is a difficult topic because nationality is connected with conflicts and wars. But on the other hand, it is difficult to imagine that we can have a society – a democracy – where people refuse to talk about shared traditions or a shared culture. Along with Grundtvig we must ask if it is not still possible to do things together – for instance sing together – even if we are different?

3 Freedom is dangerous

But even though Grundtvig found that a national community was necessary, one thing was of equal importance to him: individual freedom. By freedom he meant freedom of the heart – that is the freedom to think, express your views and believe in what gives meaning to you.

For Grundtvig this was closely combined with his Christian conviction. He considered each human to be a unique, divine being. It did not matter whether you were Danish or German, a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim. You could be an atheist, you could be old or young, man or woman. No one should lose his or her dignity by others insisting that he or she must have a certain faith or view of life.

Furthermore, we see his love of truth. There is no truth that can live and thrive in a society where the truth is dictated. In that case people will begin to lie out of fear or because they adjust to those who are in power. So, freedom is necessary and indispensable. And freedom must include both the right to lie and the right to be truthful. This is the way truth has the best conditions for thriving.

Grundtvig fought for freedom of worship, of speech and assembly, and he fought for the right for parents to educate their children according to their beliefs and ideas. They should, for example, be allowed to choose where their children were to go to school. These principles are fundamental to the Danish constitution.

He was well aware that freedom is dangerous, and that freedom of speech can be used for many purposes. But life and truth cannot exist where freedom is suppressed. Furthermore, he expected us to use our freedom to contradict one another – when necessary.

4 Getting to Denmark

‘Getting to Denmark’ is a term used by Francis Fukuyama, the famous political scientist, in a book from 2004. Fukuyama is well aware that there is no readymade method to establish a free, peaceful and stable

society. And he knows that there is no universal wish among people and countries to be like Denmark, of course. Nevertheless, he has begun to look to Denmark and to Grundtvig. Grundtvig finds community and freedom to be of equal value. They are not opposites. For a stable community is a free community - where you can be critical of both the system and those in power.

Only there is the challenge that there is no straight road to Denmark. For in the same way as there is no curriculum and no exams in folk high schools, there is no textbook that lays down what constitutes a free and living community. You cannot look it up in a book by Grundtvig. You need to take your starting point in the life you are living right now. The life we are in together.

Translated by Birgit Ank

Want to know more about Grundtvig?

Buy the book Anders Holm: The Essential N.F.S. Grundtvig in our webshop.