Speech from Højskolerne at international conference in Poland

Publiceret 05-10-2021

In these days Folkehøjskolernes Forening is attending a big international conference in Poland. Monday Elsebeth Gerner Nielsen held a speech about the influence of the folk high schools in the democratisation of society. Read the speech here.

4th of October 2021

The Role of Folk High Schools in the Democratisation of Society


Hello everyone, my name is Elsebeth Gerner Nielsen and I am the Secretary-General of the Association of Folk High Schools in Denmark. I am very honoured to be here today.

It is with great humbleness that I represent the Danish folk high schools. A tradition and a philosophy that started in Denmark more than 175 years ago. A school tradition - rooted in the belief that all citizens should be able to take part in the development of a society.

For Grundtvig, there were three central questions for the human being:

  1. The existential: Why am I here?
  2. The communal: How do I relate to the people I am living with?
  3. And what does it mean to be a human being in relation to the world, in other words, the universal dimension. 

This is still the case today. As folk high schools, we are tasked to address these questions and to awaken the youth (to use a Grundtvigian term). To live meaningful lives. To create caring communities. To take care of our common life and future together. And, one could add, to take care of nature and the world around us.

Anthropocene era

The pandemic has given us all a shared frame of reference across countries, continents and cultures. We have probably all worn masks, been in isolation for months and seen our friends - and possibly also ourselves - lose a livelihood. And we probably also know of several people who have died of Covid.

Today, we need to figure out how to develop our students to master life in the Anthropocene era, which is marked by the climate crisis, the crisis of biodiversity and pandemics.

These crises are interconnected. When biodiversity is diminished, it becomes more attractive for viruses - like Coronavirus - to make the leap to human beings. Because there are billions of us, and we move around quickly.

When natural habitats are destroyed, viruses have to behave differently. And they do this very effectively, as we have discovered.

So how do we educate our students to master life in the Anthropocene era? We need to find new answers to this question. And the folk high school has all the potential to do that.

Freedom to try

For 177 years, the folk high schools in Denmark have been unique learning spaces where people have gathered and learned the skills needed to create meaningful lives while also fostering entrepreneurial individuals.

While society has been governed by the logic of capitalism and rationalism, the Folk High Schools have had ample opportunity to cultivate spirit and emotion. The irrational. They have been able to build hope.

And what is probably just as important, because they had life enlightenment as a foundation, self-determining beings were fostered at the folk high schools. Individuals who went back to their communities and created new ways of farming, new ways of organizing food production and the like.

My father-in-law, who is now 85 years old, attended Frederiksborg Folk High School (Grundtvig Folk High School), when he was 20 years old. The headmaster's wife taught him to calculate; and the teachers taught him about Nordic mythology and about the latest cultivation methods.

At the folk high school he met a Japanese student, probably the first foreigner he had ever encountered, who opened his understanding of another world.

My father-in-law had only attended school for 7 years, and only every other day. In the folk high school, he learned - as he says - everything he can do and has wanted in life.

He bought a farm against all odds, helped get a dairy up and running, joined the board of directors in the local cooperative store. He became a driving force in the local community.


Today we have 71 folk high schools throughout Denmark. Each year we have around 10.000 (mostly) young people attending long courses of about 5 months and around 30.000 people of all ages attending short courses of 1-2 weeks. 

The Danish Folk High Schools receive around 100 million EURO yearly from the Danish state. This covers about 2/3 of the costs. The students pay the rest themselves.

In Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland we are very fortunate, in that our long tradition and history has taught us that non-formal adult education is a crucial element in creating a strong civil society, and because of this, the folk high schools are considered a natural part of the educational system and receive state funding.

This is not the case in many other countries and funding is often a struggle.

Fortunately, we see a growing interest for the folk high schools from all over the world. And recently the Faroe Islands and Iceland enacted their own folk high school laws and implemented state subsidies. 

The law

We are very proud of and grateful for the Danish folk high school law. As early as 1851, the Danish state supported the folk high schools with grants, and in 1892 the first folk high school law was implemented.

Here you see the first paragraphs of the law:

The Act shall apply to folk high schools that provide teaching and fellowship in courses with the primary aim of advancing life enlightenment, popular enlightenment and democratic education and training and that have been approved of by the Minister of Culture for grants.

The teaching shall be of a comprehensively general nature. Individual subjects or subject groups may feature prominently, but never at the expense of generality. The activities of the school shall be organized according to their self-elected basic values.

So, what does the Danish folk high school law consist of? Central elements are:

  1. The relationship between classes and fellowship. By law, the folk high schools are required not only to teach their students, but also to create togetherness/community. In practice, all the folk high schools in Denmark are boarding schools (with one exception).
  2. The folk high school is free to plan the education according to its own beliefs. There is no fixed curriculum. But the teaching needs to be of a comprehensive general nature – you could also call it ‘the universal’.
  3. No examinations may be held.
  4. The courses must be open to all interested parties.

Because we have the state subsidy and because we have the freedom secured by the law, the Danish folk high schools are able to develop new ways of addressing the challenges we face today.

Let me give you an example:

Peoples Future Lab

In Denmark we have initiated a project that aims to strengthen and develop the contribution of the folk high schools to the sustainable transition of societies. The project focuses on pedagogical development, global relations and local initiatives.

The project is structured around 11 partnerships between Danish folk high schools and foreign folk high schools. We are very pleased to have the Ecological Folk High School here in Poland as a part of this project.

A school that we have followed with admiration. Their dedicated work to address the climate crisis by educating organic farmers on their own organic farms with dialogue, songs and fieldwork while at the same time playing an important role in their local community.

I believe that the purpose of Folk high schools should be to create the necessary space for experimenting and developing a wide range of examples of how to cope with the crisis threatening our shared fate.

To develop a comprehensive, sustainable education that can address not only the climate crisis, but also the social crises of today.

But what is sustainable general education? We don’t know this yet. We need to figure this out. One could perhaps say that general education has up till recently been about being able to relate to other people.

In the future, general education will also be about how we relate to the nature that we share our breath with. That we are embedded in. That is a part of humanity. Our task as teachers is therefore to support our students in mastering progress, rather than seeing themselves as being controlled by progress.

How do we do this? How do we inform them of the terrible consequences of the actions of previous generations in a way that still leaves space for hope?

In this project, 44 educators from 12 different countries will work on creating new educational programs in collaboration. They will educate young change makers who will initiate actions for more sustainable glocal societies with ‘people’ in their local communities.

Two years from now, we will hopefully have strengthened our knowledge and practice around sustainable education and created enduring relationships between folk high school educators around the globe. And contributed with our visions and actions to a more sustainable future in our local communities.


We stand at a crossroad in history. We need to develop new mindsets and new solutions.

The folk high schools are one of the only places where we have freedom to experiment and find answers to the major challenges that we face today. Because we have the possibility to do something extraordinary. Break habits. Play with an imaginary world and find solutions for it.

We are pleased that the Polish government supports the Polish folk high schools and hope you will also take the necessary actions to secure the folk high schools in Poland economically and legislatively.

And help to secure this unique type of school in its ambition to create free, alternative spaces for thinking and rethinking society.

For our part, we would be pleased to enter into a dialogue with regard to this ambition. Please let us know if we can be of any help in the process. We welcome mutual inspiration and collaboration between our countries.

Congratulations on a hundred years of Folk High Schools in Poland and hopefully many more…