The development of folk high schools

A survey of their development and listing of key texts.

Contents: introductionthe development of folk high schools in Denmark folk high schools beyond Denmarkfurther reading and referencesacknowledgementshow to cite this piece

The first Folk High School first opened in 1844 (the year the YMCA was founded). The key figure was N. F. S. Grundtvig who planned a network of self-governing residential institutions in Denmark that according to the prospectus of the first would provide a place ‘where the peasant and the citizen can obtain knowledge and guidance for use and pleasure not so much in regard to his livelihood but in regard to his situation as … a citizen’ (quoted in Moller and Watson 1944: 27). He talked of life as follows:

I saw life, real human life, as it is lived in this world, and saw at once that to be enlightened, to live a useful and enjoyable human life, most people did not need books at all, but only a genuinely kind heart, sound common sense, a kind good ear, a kind good mouth, and then liveliness to talk with really enlightened people, who would be able to arouse their interest and show them how human life appears when the light shines upon it. (1856 quoted in Borish 1991: 18).

The development of folk high schools in Denmark

They originated in the need to develop residential forms of schooling – because of the dispersal of populations in rural areas. As was Morris was to do later, Grundvig and his followers made connections with the development of substantial social movements – in cooperative agriculture, village meeting houses, independent congregations and so on. As Lindeman comments (1929: 32).

In both the Danish and German models of adult education is included two aspects a. intellectual, cultural and spiritual growth and b. a folk or group motivation and end.

Hence the significance to community education.

The folk high schools of Denmark… are for farmers; students live in residence as part of a group; the farmer-residence aspect is fully as important as the fact that they have come there for study. (Lindeman 1929: 32)

Grundtvig visited Owen and New Lanark to learn about the Institute just as school reformers, adult educators and community workers in turn studied, replicated and adapted his ‘schools’. His encounter with developments in England – in industry and in what he saw as the English public spirit were a ‘source of great inspiration’ (Borish 1991: 166).

By 1914 Denmark had 83 Folk High Schools (Rordam 1965) and the movement was well established in Norway, Sweden and Finland and isolated examples operated in the USA, UK, Japan Czechoslovakia and Switzerland (Manniche 1939: Davies 1931). It was argued that they made an immense contribution to the economic and cultural resurgence of a previously backward nation. Moller and Watson (1944) also maintained that the cultural and intellectual climate they, more than any other institution, created, enabled Denmark to unite against Fascism and resist the lure of collaboration to a degree not encountered elsewhere.

In the last forty to fifty years their focus has shifted away from the concentration on rural pursuits. They are:

  • open to all those above eighteen years of age;
  • avowedly and by law not competence giving;
  • not academically competitive, with no grades or marks at all given;
  • outside of mainstream Danish educational system. (Borish 1991: 8)

As Borish goes on to say – two further features astonish outside observers. First, that these schools recieve 85 per cent of their ecpenses from the state. Second, they are free from state control in philosophical orientation (thus you have radical or feminst schools; Christian schools, folk high schools for athletic instruction or for music, foreign languages or retired people).

Folk schools beyond Denmark

In the United States a number of schools were established by Danish-Americans ‘mainly to resist assimilation’ (Ketts 1994: 362), but the model was particularly attractive to progressives wanting to bring together ecomonic, political and educational experiences. Interest developed in the 1920s. Perhaps the best known examples and developments were the Poconos People’s College near Henryville, Pennsylvania, Waddington People’s College at Wheeling, West Virginia and the Highlander (founded in 1932 by Myles Horton and Donald West). In Britain and Northern Ireland, the idea of the folk high school was taken up by a number of people associated with the educational settlements and residential college movements (seeDrews and Fieldhouse 1996) – Woodbrooke and Fircroft, Selly Oak are examples here. It also appeared indirectly via the influence of Horton and Highlander e.g. the establishment of the Ulster People’s College, Belfast.

The selection

The history, ideology and practice of Danish folk high schools has been well served in the literature. Here I have listed some of the more significant English language texts – and one example of how the ideas were built upon in a north American context.

Borish, S. M. (1991) The Land of the Living. The Danish Folk High Schools and Denmark’s non-violent path to modernization, Nevada City, Ca.: Blue Dolphin. 487 pages. Major treatment of folk high schools that examines the origins and setting for the schools; Grundtvig’s philosophy; and the way they contributed to the making of Denmark (and the commitment to democracy) . Exploration of their current state. Includes substantial bibliography.

Campbell, O. (1928) The Danish Folk School, New York: Macmillan. One of the first substantial English language treatments. Awaiting annotation.

Glen, J. M. (1988) Highlander. No ordinary school 1932 – 1962, Lexington, Ken.: University Press of Kentucky. 309 + x pages. Account and analysis of Myles Horton’s (and others) efforts to develop a folk school in the USA.

Moller, J. C. and Watson, K. (1944) Education in Democracy. The folk high schools of Denmark, London; Faber and Faber. 160 pages,Written as a contribution to thinking about the post-war reconstruction of Europe this book provides a good insight into the development of folk high schools, their concern with democracy, and the bulwark they helped to form against Nazism and Fascism.Chapters examine their history; the contribution of Grundtvig; their spirit and practical achievements; and different incarnations e.g. internationa;, agricultural, gymnastic and ‘ordinary’.

Skrubbeltrang, F. (1952) The Danish Folk High Schools, Copenhagen: De Danske Selskab. 88 pages. Short, accessible introduction to folk high schools. Examines their origin, development and underpinning ideology.

Other references

Drews, W. and Fieldhouse, R. (1996) ‘Residential colleges and non-residential settlements and centres’ in R. Fieldhouse and associates A History of Modern British Adult Education, Leicester: NIACE.

Kett, J. F. (1994) The Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties. From self-improvement to adult education in America, 1750 – 1990, Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press.


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How to cite this piece

Smith, M. K. (1996). ‘The development of folk high schools’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K. Smith. First published July 1996.