In the early 1800's, thoughts of enlightenment in Denmark were peaking and the tradition of national romanticism were developing. Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783 -1872) was deeply inspired of these thoughts, and after personal experience from the Trinity College in England, he developed the concept of the folk high school.
Grundtvig identified a growing democratic need in society - a need of enlightening the often both uneducated and poor peasantry. This social group had neither the time nor the money to enroll at a university and needed an alternative. The aim of the folk high school was to help people qualify as active and engaged members of society, to give them a movement and the means to change the political situation from below and be a place to meet across social boarders.
The idea came from the collegial atmosphere and mutual respect between the teaching staff and the students who all lived together in a small community transcending social classes. The atmosphere at the schools was important.
By singing, reading and exploring the surroundings the students at a folk high school were also meant to have an amusing time, and not only obtain educational knowledge. Teachings in national core values such as language, history and constitution were in focus, but were supplemented by a large variety of other subjects. Exams were prohibited.
The first school opened in Rødding, Southern Denmark in 1844.
A new direction in education
Grundtvig fought for a school with popular education as the primary focus. After a disastrous war against northern German provinces and Prussia in 1864, national conservatism was strong in Danish politics. A folk high school movement was founded as an act against conservative ideals of both education and culture. An act against an ideal of literacy and book-learning, a use of language unknown to common people and an ideal of learning where the primary relation was between the individual and the book alone.
Hence, the movement started as a row with the traditional school. Grundtvig fought for a public education as an alternative to the university elite. The folk high schools should be for those wanting to learn about society in general and to help people form part of human relations and society.
The Folk High School quickly inspired folk high school movements in other Nordic countries. Today, a strong folk high school tradition is also found in other Nordic countries, although the concept differs slightly from the Danish one.
The folk high schools have changed through time, but many of Grundtvig's core-ideas are still to be found in the way they are run today.