David Brooks is one of those columnists who vacillates between truly thoughtful essays and self-referential, self-important cant. Just when I want to tell him to get over himself, he comes up with a thought-provoking and undeniably accurate assessment.
Almost everybody admires the Nordic model. Countries like Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland have high economic productivity, high social equality, high social trust and high levels of personal happiness.
Progressives say it’s because they have generous welfare states. Some libertarians point out that these countries score high on nearly every measure of free market openness. Immigration restrictionists note that until recently they were ethnically homogeneous societies.
But Nordic nations were ethnically homogeneous in 1800, when they were dirt poor. Their economic growth took off just after 1870, way before their welfare states were established. What really launched the Nordic nations was generations of phenomenal educational policy.
Brooks attributes the social and economic success of Scandinavian countries to their successful “folk schools”–deliberately fashioned for the least educated among them, and focused upon making lifelong learning a part of the natural fabric of society.
The core difference between the American concept of education, according to Brooks, and “Bildung”–the approach in Scandinavia–is the very definition of “education.”
Today, Americans often think of schooling as the transmission of specialized skill sets — can the student read, do math, recite the facts of biology. Bildung is devised to change the way students see the world. It is devised to help them understand complex systems and see the relations between things — between self and society, between a community of relationships in a family and a town.
In other words, the idea of Bildung was to introduce students to connection; to a sense of their place in ever wider circles of belonging — from family to town to nation — and to emphasize the students shared responsibility for each “circle of belonging.” According to Brooks, the results of that emphasis, of that approach to educating the whole person, is largely responsible for the Scandinavian balance between individuality and social responsibility.
That educational push seems to have had a lasting influence on the culture. Whether in Stockholm or Minneapolis, Scandinavians have a tendency to joke about the way their sense of responsibility is always nagging at them. They have the lowest rates of corruption in the world. They have a distinctive sense of the relationship between personal freedom and communal responsibility.
High social trust doesn’t just happen. It results when people are spontaneously responsible for one another in the daily interactions of life, when the institutions of society function well.
In the U.S., at least before Betsy DeVos and her assault on the very idea of public eduction, fights over education policy have been between those who see schools essentially as providers of consumer goods– skills their children can use in the marketplace–and those who see them as guarantors of democracy, as places where, in addition to those skills, children learn how to learn, how to understand their government, and how to relate to other Americans who may not look or worship as they do.
The public schools are the single most important integrative institution in most countries. Scandinavian countries understand that, and have developed a “whole person” approach to education that has strengthened their societies.
In the U.S., we are still trying to repel the unrelenting attacks of religious fundamentalists, racists and market ideologues on the very concept of public education, let alone education that emphasizes circles of belonging.