26 September 2008 **** Front Page

Finns get advice from The Times

By Tapani Lausti

After the shooting tragedy in the Finnish town of Kauhajoki, The Times published an article by Roger Boyes who created some controversy last year with his comments about the massacre in Jokela. Again Boyes had the condescending tone which many British journalists use when they deal with lesser countries: "... it has to be said that there is something disturbing going on in their proud, self-regulating Nordic culture. After not one, but two massacres in a year, it is time that the Finns looked hard and close at their children." (It is time the Finns looked hard and close at their kids, The Times, 24 September 2008; a Finnish citizen sent this comment to Boyes's article: "I see you are at it again. You have some very good points there, but could you please lay off the leering at a grieving nation?")

Later in the article Boyes revealed a result of his earlier "investigative" reporting in Finland. Writing about non-achieving, problematic school kids, who had low motivation to study and had been put into a separate part of their school, Boyes had this to say: "But they had been set aside by a society still striving for a kind of perfection, a social democratic utopia."

Now let's look at the bit about "a social democratic utopia". Boyes might be glad to learn that this "utopia" has been seriously eroded by preferences which derive from the Anglo-American social and economic culture, often applauded by Boyes's newspaper. Neoliberalism has crept into Finnish public life ever since the country's right-wing parties fell in love with Margaret Thatcher's hallucinations. Unfortunately, Finland's Social Democratic party also participated in the downsizing of the Nordic welfare state. (See Dismantling the Finnish welfare state)

Yes, Mr. Boyes, something disturbing has been happening in our "proud, self-regulating Nordic culture" (whatever this means). Risto Rinne, a professor of education at Turku University, says in an interview published after the Kauhajoki tragedy that neoliberal principles have had a devastating effect on Finnish education. From the 1980s on, neoliberal values began to inform decisions about education. The market-orientated philosophy led to a culture of competition and emphasis on success. (Hannu Hurme: "Kaltoin kohteleva yhteiskunta sysää nuoren näköalattomuuteen", Kansan Uutiset, 25 September 2008; the headline says: "A hard society pushes a young person into a state of meaninglessness".)

In the same article Kansan Uutiset quotes from a book by another professor of education, Juha Suoranta from Tampere University. Suoranta complains that the new culture of learning emphasises individual achievement and competition between students. Students are being prepared for a society where people use their elbows in the competitive economy.

Suoranta adds that public funding in education has diminished. There is less social welfare and the number of school psychologists has fallen. There are fewer common activities for pupils. The whole planning of education gets its philosophy from business-type preferences. The planning culture derives from visions of future education hatched in international organisations like the OECD and the EU. "Choice" is now the slogan, inspired by "free market" ideologies.

Other experts have pointed out that school units in Finland have become too big. Youngsters don't have strong social ties to their learning institutions or fellow pupils. Simultaneously society has become too atomised and pushes many young people into artificial communities like those on the internet. Alarmingly, every sixth young person suffers from mental problems.

So, rather than complain about "a social democratic utopia", reasons for tragedies like the shootings in Jokela and Kauhajoki might be sought in the current culture of individual achievement and hard social attitudes. The money-worshipping, shallow international culture is bad for everyone. Those left outside this culture of individual success feel deprived of a meaningful life.

Of course some peculiarities of Finnish culture must have contributed to these tragedies but that is another story. (See e.g. Break the silence by Hanna Backman, The Guardian, 25 September 2008; for more related articles go to Finland Watch.)

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