This spring, my participation in radical education is in a linedance course. For some reason, US country-western dancing has gained quite a following in our Swedish village, and there are now three courses offered every week, at a price of about fifty dollars for a whole semester. While most people take these courses because dancing is fun, they are also part of a history of radical education: folkbildningsrörelsen, “the people’s education movement.”
This educational movement is run by various studieförbund, “study associations,” the largest of which is the worker’s-movement affiliated ABF. In 2009, studieförbund had almost 20 million participants. For a country whose total population is only slightly higher than that of New York City, this is quite impressive; the average person in Sweden participates in over two studieförbund programs every year! These numbers still mark a continuous decline over the past few years, down 24 percent since 2004.
The study associations, while not government run, are largely funded by local and national government. To what extent this influences the course content is of course up for debate. In either case, a glance at the course program does show a wide range of course offerings: in our county alone, people can take courses in painting, Spanish, wool felting, chicken keeping, sourdough baking, tango, and chimney sweeping, to name a few. One can also join a choir, take a course to get one’s hunting license, or join a support group for those with family members struggling with illness.
As the above list shows, most courses are of a “non-political” nature. What is so radical about this form of education is not the content, but the format. Education in folkbildningsrörelsen was to be about learning for learning’s sake. Students are there because they want to be, never because they have to. Grades are never assigned, and nobody is turned away for not being “good enough.” The philosophy is that everybody can learn, and should have the opportunity to do so. Even the financial barrier presented by the modest fees is flexible: the leader of our linedance group, for example, made clear from the beginning that the fees could be lowered, that everybody should be able to join.
So what can we at the FreeU and in other similar projects learn from folkbildningsrörelsen? The thoughts below about mutual learning, cooptation, and pleasure are not new, yet grounding them in a particular people’s educational movement makes them concrete. Radical education is not just an idea, but rather something that happens around the world.
1) A central aspect of folkbildning is studiecirklar, “study circles,” drawing close to two million participants every year. As the name implies, these are non-hierarchical spaces for education. One studieförbunddescribes study circles as voluntary, fun, and a space where curiosity and mutual learning reign. A leader of a study circle often has some experience of the topic at hand, but most important is a willingness to learn together with other people. Study circles show that education can take place without a formal teacher.
2) Our struggle can be coopted. One of the foundational principles of folkbildning is that anyone can learn: our potential for actively acquiring new knowledge and skills is not limited by age, national origin, class, or other categories. This radical principle has, according to professor of pedagogy Bernt Gustafsson, been reformulated by neoliberal actors to mean that, when laid off, people should just go back to school and learn a new, more “modern” profession. Instead of using education as a tool in unionization and class struggle, as early proponents of folkbildning envisioned, this neoliberal model uses education as a justification for putting the burden of a volatile economy on individuals. Lost your job? Don’t blame the boss, blame your own laziness and unwillingness to be constantly reeducated.
3) Educational experiences have benefits beyond the official course content. In my first few weeks of class, I have learned (in addition to new dance moves) some of the nitty-gritty details of insurance reimbursements and that the village dentist is also the go-to person for foot injuries. This, to me, is a strong argument for the continuation of in-person education in this era of glorification of online degrees and courses. You never know what’s going to come up when a group of people gather; the learning not in the course plan can be one of the most valuable parts of education.
4) Perhaps most important: there is no contradiction between fun and political struggle; in fact, the two can strengthen each other. Studieförbund survive by offering a range of courses that appeal to as broad a segment of the population as possible. Someone who wouldn’t take a course on the history of the labor movement might enjoy singing in the choir. Next semester, flipping through the course catalog, that person might notice a seminar on feminism and invite a couple of their choir buddies along. Not to mention the possibilities that choir coffee hour holds for community building and consciousness raising.
– Stina Soderling