A Brief History of Folk Schools

To attach the phrase “folk school” to an organization or school is to connect to a rich heritage of folk schools and folk education that began in Denmark in the 1800s and spread around the world. This summary provides a brief description of that history.

The folk school story has its roots in 19th century Denmark with Nikolai Frederik Severin (NFS) Grundtvig whose vision for education is credited with supporting Denmark’s successful transition to democracy. Grundtvig was a philosopher, poet, theologian, educator, historian, composer of hymns, translator, and social critic. Education, however, was one of his primary concerns. Grundtvig believed that the classical education of the time with an emphasis on Greek and Latin studies, created a rift between life and learning. His particular concern was that schools should bring dignity to rural people and to the life of the farmer, the majority of Denmark’s population at the time. He wanted education to instill a pride in national culture and a love of learning that would be lifelong. In the 1830s, Grundtvig carried out a tireless mission to convince the Danish population that a new kind of school was critical if Denmark was to have a successful transition to democracy. He believed that only through the establishment of the folk school would the Danish people be able to build the foundation of skills and the enlightenment necessary for creating a peaceable and just society (Borish, 1991; Ribble, 2005).

For Grundtvig, to be a human being is to accept and take pride in one’s community connection and cultural identity. His philosophy of learning was based on an understanding of human identity that includes an individual identity, a cultural identity, and a democratic identity. Individual identity cannot be separated from community, and the wholeness of the individual happens in the connection with community. Grundtvig encouraged placing our human identity at the core of education (Borish, 1991; Lawson, 1991).

Grundtvig did not actually found any schools; his philosophy was put into practice by Christen Kold and was based on a deep faith in the intrinsic abilities of all individuals and a belief that education should be available to everyone. “Schools for Life” as Grundtvig called them were to assist people in understanding their own identity and to strengthen and empower communities. The folk schools were part of a decentralized grassroots movement that gave farmers a means for personal and social transformation (Borish, 1991). Between 1850 and 1870, about 50 folk schools were founded in Denmark following Grundtvig’s inspiration (Scandinavian Seminar, 2004). Christen Kold founded and ran the first successful schools. Fundamental beliefs for Grundtvig and Kold included (Borish, 1991):

  • Education must consider the nature of children and youth and their needs.
  • Students must be given time to develop the capacity for feeling before learning facts, and appreciation before learning skills.
  • The living word (oral culture) is central.
  • The wholeness of the individual was experienced only in the context of community.
  • The purpose of education was to respond to the needs and struggles of common people.
  • Education should embrace heart, mind, and body.  The main purpose of education was not to teach factual knowledge, but “life’s awakening”. “The school should be for life, for the spiritual, and for that which is of the heart” (Grundtvig in Borish, p. 196).
  • The school should be free of government control, and there should be no tests, grades, or certificates of competence given.

Steven Borish, a Grundtvig scholar, proposes four lessons that folk schools have to offer: 1) Real education begins with the communication of a sense of personal mission and purpose, and the belief that everyone has the ability to acquire the skills and knowledge to accomplish that mission. 2) The principle of folkelighed, offers an alternative to nationalism. It is a form of patriotism that values culture and identity while emphasizing that other nations and cultures are equally as valued. 3) Education should be for all aspects of life and lifelong. 4) The movement that gave rise to folk schools was local, decentralized, and grassroots.

In the United States, folk schools have taken a variety of forms. In the early 1900s, the Danish folk school model was attractive to political progressives in the U.S. who wanted to bring together economic, political, and educational experiences. Poconos People’s College near Henryville, Pennsylvania and Waddington People’s College in Wheeling, West Virginia developed out of this interest (Smith, 1996). Perhaps the best known is Highlander Folk School near New Market, Tennessee, renamed in recent years, Highlander Education and Research Center. It was founded by Myles Horton and Donald West in 1932. Horton had invested considerable study and time exploring educational philosophies and approaches for use in empowering the mountain people of Appalachia. Most of the institutions Horton visited offered only what he called “national education”, one not adapted to any particular region or group of people (Adams & Horton, 1975). As Horton saw it, “Everyone in the U.S. was to learn the same subjects in the same sequence or fall woefully behind the national average” (p. 15). To Horton, most of what was considered education did not grow out of the needs of the people. Curriculum was imposed on children and adults with little consideration for age differences or personal needs or local context. The Highlander approach to folk education, which is taken into communities in addition to onsite at the Highlander Center, includes: a group of not more than 30; sitting in a circle; sharing, reflecting, analyzing; sharing culture through food, stories, music, etc.; developing resources for collective action; encouraging leadership; and encouraging grassroots organizations to change unjust structures. Highlander has provided a unique place for the training and empowerment of community leaders seeking justice and democracy such as Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Another of the early folk schools in the United States was the John C. Campbell Folk School founded in 1925 in Brasstown, North Carolina; it is the largest folk school in the U.S. today. It states its mission as: “The Folk School seeks to bring people to two kinds of development: inner growth as creative, thoughtful individuals, and social development as tolerant, caring members of a community.” Individual expression and social interaction are developed and supported through classes in music, crafts, nature studies, gardening, cooking, dance, and other expressions of culture. This school carries on the Grundtvig educational philosophy through: learning that connects heart, hands, and mind; learning that is inspiring for both students and teachers; valuing of the oral tradition; and seeing education as a lifelong endeavor.

Folk Schools model an educational approach that places relationship, culture, and personal and community empowerment at the center of learning and life. Grundtvig believed that cultural identity in each individual is born in a particular time and place and within a particular historical, cultural, and political context (Lawson, 1991). Understanding and honoring that identity are critical. Democracy is strengthened through citizens that understand their history, are actively engaged in dialogue, and participate in problem solving to effect social change. This belief is borne out in the crediting of the folk school movement with Denmark’s successful transition to democracy (Borish, 1991). Folk schools are not just about learning skills, but also about human empowerment and educating for participatory democracy.

Miles Horton, co-founder of Highlander Folk School, asked, “How do we implement the creative philosophy of the Danish Folk High School idea in the life and times of the United States? (Graham in Spicer, 2009, p. 88) The United States is experiencing a resurgence of folk schools. In the last five years, —- new folk schools have been founded. In this context, folk education offers the possibility of revisioning local life, culture, and social ecology. In the U.S., the philosophical and pedagogical framework that informs folk schools may also go names such as community learning center or cultural center. Folk schools connect and build a myriad of community resources, and they capitalize on networking and collaboration at its finest. Folk schools can provide much needed enrichment and balance to public schools during an era of enormous pressure for academic and intellectual achievement. Public school/folk school collaborations are happening in a number of folk schools. Folk schools around the United States:

  • Offer a local, place-conscious educational experience.
  • Build collaborations and networks among diverse community groups an organizations.
  • Build on local strengths.
  • Build appreciation of local culture and agriculture.
  • Encourage a recovery of local voice, empowerment and cultural memory.
  • Emphasize, dialogue, conversation, and relationships.
  • Offer the expression of an alternative educational paradigm, one that is collaborative, noncompetitive, experiential, and holistic.
  • Offer enrichment as well as core programming for public, private, and homeschools.
  • Provide a context for diverse groups to come together for shared learning.
  • Provide a context for the presentation and discussion of local issues.
  • Inspire local economic initiatives that support the local economy.

The Danes have emphasized that the folk school is not something to be exported to another place, but rather viewed as a source of inspiration. Ludwig Schroeder in 1872 said, “Stick your finger down into the ground and smell where you are! This is where the needs of the people are found, which can be different in different times and places. Where this meets the abilities of the teacher, there lies the hojskole’s calling.” The varied manifestations of Folk Schools in the U.S. today reflect a hope for making a transition from an unsustainable industrial society toward sustainable, post-modern societies. Denmark has demonstrated the degree to which folk schools can be woven into the fabric of society and can be a rich resource for renewal and change. Folk schools have great potential to inspire change for education and communities.

Adams, F., & Horton, M. (1975 ). Unearthing seeds of fire: The idea of Highlander. Wintson-Salem, NC: John F. Blair.

Borish, S. (1991). Land of the living: Danish folk high schools and Denmark’s nonviolent path to modernization. Nevada City, CA: Blue Dolphin.

Lawson, M. (Ed.). (1991). Selected educational writings of N. F. S. Grundtvig. Skive, Denmark: International People’s College and the Association of Folk High Schools in Denmark.

Ribble, M. A brief history of folk education. Downloaded from the Institute for People’s Education and Action at www.peopleseducation.org. on Scandinavian Seminar. (2004). The history and philosophy of the Nordic folk school movement. Retrieved from http://www.scandinavianseminar.org. on Oct. 19, 2005.

Spicer, C. (2000). Carrying on despite the violent twentieth century: A tenacious history of People’s Education. In R. Miller (Ed.), Creating learning communities (pp. 267-278). Brandon, VT: Foundation for Educational Renewal.

Spicer, C. (Ed.). (2009). Lifted by the heart. Nyack, NY: Circumstantial Productions.