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The school for life

Højskolen is a Danish invention that influenced the world. Danes teach us how not just to make a living but to live a life.

Photographs: Pexels

Text: Natália Šepitková

Picture a school where the traditional pressures of exams and grades are replaced with a focus on exploring your passions. Envision a community of learners who share your interests, where your drive and interests are respected and celebrated as the guiding force of your educational journey. This is the Danish Højskolen, where students are educated and empowered to shape their lives. Many young people in Denmark take a break from traditional education and enrol at a folk high school, where they can find their path in life, discover the joy of learning, and be part of a close-knit community. Research shows that individuals who attended a folk high school are more likely to complete further education than those who did not.

Influencer of the 19th century

If Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig were alive today, he would become a significant influencer. The Danish pastor, philosopher, author, and teacher is one of the most influential people in Danish history. N. F. S. Grundtvig was born in 1783 when education was establishing itself as a central concept. “If democracy is to be introduced into Denmark, it must be firmly and broadly anchored in ‘the people’. And this requires popular education,” writes Ove Korsgaard in his essay Grundtvig’s Philosophy of Enlightenment and Education.

Grundtvig's revolutionary idea that education should be accessible to all, regardless of language, was a game-changer. He argued that education should be in the people's language, not Latin, which was the academic language of the time, making higher education inaccessible to the masses. His educational writings have garnered international recognition from the USA to Japan. Grundtvig's contributions to education are profound and foundational. He is hailed as a pioneer of the folk high school movement, a unique form of non-formal adult education. His ideas laid the foundation for developing folk high schools, a vital component of the modern Danish educational system.

"The pivotal point of folk high schools is to study and live together. Fellowship and togetherness go hand in hand with education."

The freedom and flexibility of learning

Today, about 70 independent folk high schools are located all over Denmark. Their purpose is to provide life enlightenment, public enlightenment, and democratic education, as The Association of Folk High Schools in Denmark informs. Folk high schools are residential schools for anyone 17 and a half years or older – there is no upper age limit. You don’t need specific qualifications to attend a folk high school. There is no fixed curriculum, no exams and no grades. Students choose subjects and classes according to their aspirations and interests. Shortly, they study what makes them happy. It seems like a fair offer in Denmark, one of the happiest countries.

The motivation of an average of 40,000 people to attend a folk high school in courses of different lengths every year in Denmark is trying to do new things, challenge themselves, and get the latest information and skills more fitting to their lives. The teaching method, based on positive motivation, dialogue and equal and friendly relations between students and teachers, also adds to its attractiveness. The combination of passionate teachers and engaged students creates a unique educational environment.

According to Lisbeth Trinskjær, Chair of the Association of Folk High Schools in Denmark, Danish folk high schools cultivate a positive approach towards learning through an interest and curiosity-driven form of schooling on the part of both the students and the educators. They also support people's personal, social and professional development, providing them with civic competencies and encouraging them to become active citizens within Danish society.

The power of community

The pivotal point of folk high schools is to study and live together. Fellowship and togetherness go hand in hand with education. According to the Danish Act on Folk High Schools, they must provide teaching and fellowship that challenge not only the students' minds but also their social and emotional skills. They live together, dine together, create events and projects together, and spend their free time together – all good backgrounds for studying. Students and their teachers benefit from reciprocal and equal relationships and learning from each other as equals.

An essential feature of the Danish folk high school is that the Ministry of Culture supervises it, so it has its laws, protection, and regulations. A new folk high school in Denmark must meet specific criteria to be authorised and attain the right to receive subsidies from the state. A Folk High School is a non-formal residential school offering learning opportunities in different subjects. Denmark has a long Folk High School tradition; the first school was founded in 1844. Over the past few years, an average of 40,000 people have attended a folk high school course in Denmark every year. Most (approx. 30,000) sign up for classes that last one or a few weeks, but about 10,000 people attend long-term courses from four to ten months.

There are seven types of folk high schools in Denmark that offer a wide range of courses, study trips, and specialised subjects: general schools, gymnastics and sports schools, Christian or spiritual schools, lifestyle schools, specialised schools (e.g., film, design, arts, music, etc.), youth folk high schools, and schools for senior citizens.

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